U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is escalating his attacks on Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and a far-left anti-fascist group that has been repeatedly involved in violent demonstrations.

The Texas Republican this week wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr and FBI director Christopher Wray urging a federal racketeering investigation into Antifa. The letter also calls for a federal probe into Wheeler, whom Cruz accused of having “refused to quell Antifa intimidation and riots based on his apparent sympathy with these left-wing aims.”

Wheeler has refused to comment on Cruz’s letter. But the mayor flatly denied similar charges leveled by Cruz following a June 29 demonstration in Portland that turned violent and attracted national attention.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler listens to public testimony on April 4, 2019.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler listens to public testimony on April 4, 2019.

Kaylee Domzalski/OPB

Wheeler said in a tweet that he didn’t order police to stand down, and he fired back at Cruz: “Could you divert some of those investigation dollars to something that would actually benefit American cities? Infrastructure, affordable housing, mental health services come to mind.”

Wheeler, his aides and Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw have repeatedly said they have been trying to find an approach to handling protests that minimizes violence by demonstrators while still preserving their free speech rights.

That’s often been hard to do as masked activists associated with Antifa have been involved in violent street fights, typically against far-right demonstrators often associated with white supremacists.

Cruz, who ran for president in 2016 with the support of social conservatives, focused heavily on the June 29 demonstration in Portland in his letter. At that protest, conservative journalist Andy Ngo was beaten and hospitalized overnight with a head injury. Ngo has been critical of Antifa and tweeted the day before the demonstration that the group had singled him out as a target for attack.

In his letter, Cruz charged that Wheeler has failed to protect peaceful demonstrators in his city. He likened it to when local officials decades ago failed to protect civil rights demonstrators against violence from the Ku Klux Klan.

Cruz said the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act – which has typically been used to prosecute organizations ranging from the mafia to crooked labor unions – should be deployed against Antifa. And he said that Wheeler should be investigated for “his official policies violating Oregonians’ civil rights.”

John Parry, a law professor at Lewis & Clark University who specializes in federal law, scoffed at Cruz’s charges against Wheeler.

“This is pretty much political theater,” said Parry, noting that Wheeler has tried a number of different approaches toward minimizing violence while allowing demonstrators to express their free speech rights.

Parry also questioned whether Antifa activists could face charges under federal racketeering statutes, which cover a limited number of crimes. In contrast, crimes of assault are generally left to local and state prosecutions, he said.

And he noted that, much of the time, Antifa has been embroiled in violence with such far-right groups as the Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys, both of which have also been seeking physical confrontation.

“Civil rights protestors who are marching and singing hymns and being set upon by the Klan are not the same thing as the Proud Boys,” Parry said. “But the Proud Boys are allowed to march, as long as they’re being peaceful. Antifa is not allowed to go attacking them.”

Cruz pressed his case at a Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday when Wray, the FBI director, testified.

Under questioning from Cruz, Wray said the FBI “doesn’t investigate ideology, we investigate violent criminal activity.” He added that he would “look forward” to reviewing Cruz’s letter.