As sheriff of Milwaukee County, David Clarke converted a penchant for towering Stetsons, scorched-earth sound bites, and unbounded support for gun rights into a side career as a conservative personality. On Wednesday, he used one of his frequent media appearances to announce his new job, revealing that President Donald Trump had appointed him as an assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security, with responsibility for working with state and local governments.
Clarke’s resume as a public safety official is riddled with scandals and accusations of serious abuse. In May, a grand jury recommended that Clarke face criminal charges for his role in the death of a mentally ill inmate at the county jail after guards withheld water from the man for a week. In 2013, a woman falsely accused of drunken driving by one of Clarke’s deputies — the officer had crashed into her while watching a movie in his car — sued Clarke for civil rights violations. The outspoken sheriff, an avid Dallas Cowboys fan, also drew criticism after he had deputies detain a man who asked why he didn’t support Wisconsin’s own Green Bay Packers. After 15 years in office, he was headed toward a possible 2018 re-election campaign with two-thirds of local voters disapproving of his performance.
But as a right-wing firebrand, Clarke’s star has been steadily rising. He owes that in no small part to the National Rifle Association. Clarke, a regular Fox News contributor and public speaker, is part of a stable of public figures tapped by the NRA as the group has expanded its purview beyond gun rights and claimed for itself a role as a conservative vanguard that eagerly jumps into many of the nation’s most divisive cultural and ideological fights.
The NRA has heartily embraced Clarke since 2011, when he testified in favor of loosening Wisconsin’s concealed-weapons law. He described armed civilians as the first line of defense against criminals. Clarke doubled down in 2013, when he said in a radio ad that for Milwaukee residents “simply calling 911 and waiting is no longer your best option.” The spot continued: “You could beg for mercy from a violent criminal, hide under the bed, or you can fight back.”
The NRA approvingly pointed to Clarke again in March 2013, when the gun group was on the defensive in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut, which left six educators and 20 children dead. The group circulated a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article in which Clarke was quoted applauding defensive gun use. Weeks later he was featured in an NRA roundup of pro-gun sheriffs.
The following spring, the NRA invited Clarke to speak at its annual meeting for the first time. In a particularly well-received portion of his address, Clarke told the crowd he would add the words “Keep your hands off our guns, dammit” to the Second Amendment, if given the opportunity. Four months later, Clarke won re-election in Milwaukee County, a victory later applauded by the NRA in a year-in-review post on its website.
Clarke’s stature within the group grew in 2015 when he spoke at the NRA-ILA leadership forum alongside some of the country’s most prominent conservative politicians, including Trump. Clarke would soon emerge as one of the presidential candidate’s loudest surrogates, saying that he would “do everything I can” to help Trump win the election. The NRA brought Clarke back to its annual gathering in 2016 and 2017.
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Riding the NRA’s platform to national prominence, Clarke has used his turn in the spotlight to compare Black Lives Matter to ISIS (he called people protesting police shootings, “subhuman creeps”) and echo the NRA in dubiously linking immigration to violent crime. At a mid-October 2016 campaign rally, when Trump’s poll numbers were sinking, Clarke warned that the election would be rigged. “It’s pitchfork and torches times,” he said.
In the wake of Trump’s victory, reports emerged that Clarke had travelled to Russia and Israel in late 2015 with a delegation of gun-rights A-listers, including the former NRA president David Keene. In Russia, the group met with representatives of the much smaller Russian gun-rights community, including Dmitry Rogozin, a Russian deputy prime minister who supervises the defense industry and is under sanctions from the United States for his role in the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Clarke’s expenses for the trip, estimated at nearly $40,000, were paid for with funds from the NRA’s top tier of donors, the Ring of Freedom, and the Right to Bear Arms, a Russian gun-rights organization.
The sheriff’s 2016 public financial disclosure forms show that he served on the NRA’s legal affairs, law enforcement assistance, and outreach committees. He also serves on the board of directors for the Crime Prevention Research Center, the pro-gun research organization founded by the discredited economist John Lott.
Clarke’s appointment to national office has outraged Trump critics who accuse the administration of favoring loyalty over expertise. It has also angered the man he will replace at the Department of Homeland Security. On Wednesday afternoon, Philip McNamara, who was been appointed by former President Barack Obama, let fly a series of outraged tweets about his successor.
“The job is massive, the issues are complex and nuanced, and requires political tact and ability to build relationships,” McNamara wrote. “He can’t do that.”