September 28, 2023


It wasn’t until the fourth sentence of Donald Trump’s lengthy statement revealing an FBI search of his Florida estate Mar-a-Lago that the former president suggested that politics were at play. From that sentence on, however, politics was inextricably entwined with the law enforcement action — precisely as Trump would probably have hoped.

Trump’s effort to paint the search as political covered multiple dimensions at once.

“It is prosecutorial misconduct, the weaponization of the Justice System, and an attack by Radical Left Democrats,” Trump wrote, “who desperately don’t want me to run for President in 2024, especially based on recent polls, and who will likewise do anything to stop Republicans and Conservatives in the upcoming Midterm Elections.”

That’s three things: The FBI’s search is an attack by Democrats (1) because they fear Trump in 2024 because of polling (2) and they want to damage Republicans in the midterms (3). And that’s just the first politics-focused sentence of several in the statement he published on his social-messaging platform.

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It’s important to note that there is no reason to think the FBI’s action was triggered by politics. On the contrary, the default assumption should more reasonably be that the decision to search Mar-a-Lago received unusual consideration given the significance of searching the property of a former president and demi-presidential candidate.

The Washington Post reported that “agents were conducting a court-authorized search as they probe the potential mishandling of classified documents that were shipped to Mar-a-Lago,” according to someone familiar with the investigation. “Court-authorized” means a federal judge signed off on a warrant. So not only did the FBI — and probably Attorney General Merrick Garland — have to decide to move forward with the politically volatile search. They had to convince a judge that it was justified. In other words, a third party reviewed and approved the request to seize potential evidence — evidence that investigators were confident existed.

(As mentioned, the search appears to relate to Trump’s retention of federal documents, including some that were classified, after leaving office. His habit of destroying documents is also well-established.)

Even setting aside the unlikelihood that the FBI — and Trump-appointed Director Christopher A. Wray — are simply effecting the will of “radical-left Democrats,” Trump’s claims about the 2024 election are similarly easy to dismiss. President Biden’s approval rating is lower now than Trump’s was at the same point in his presidency, yet Trump still trails Biden by three points nationally in recent Yahoo News-YouGov polling of registered voters. The former president likes to inflate his standing in political contests, but there’s little indication that Democrats are worried about his candidacy. If anything, Democrats and Biden seem largely to think Trump is the best possible Republican nominee for the current president’s reelection chances.

The idea that this search would somehow negatively affect Republican chances in November also seems misplaced. For one thing, it drowns out the relatively good week Biden is having, with the passage of a hefty reconciliation bill by the Senate on party lines. For another, it risks mobilizing Republicans against the government in much the same way (if not to the same extent) that the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade energized Democrats. If Trump’s narrative about the search being politically motivated takes hold, the ramifications in terms of motivating Republican voters will be negative for Biden, not positive.

There are already good reasons to think that narrative will take hold. Consider the immediate reaction by Fox News contributor (and former CIA officer) Buck Sexton.

Well, no. The message sent — particularly at the time that Sexton was speaking — was that federal criminal investigators had sufficient evidence to convince a judge that evidence of a crime existed at Mar-a-Lago. If Fox News viewers are worried their own estates will be occupied in a search for government documents they’d purloined from the White House, then perhaps Sexton’s alarmism is warranted.

For many on the right, of course, the immediate reaction was to amplify Trump’s claims and jockey for attention in the conservative media’s angry universe. Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) pledged to dismantle the FBI, for example — conveniently tagging all the conservative voices he hoped might retweet him.

“Such an assault could only take place in broken, Third-World Countries,” Trump wrote in his statement. “Sadly, America has now become one of those Countries, corrupt at a level not seen before.”

Conservative commentator David French dismissed this idea succinctly.

“Yes, corrupt regimes politicize prosecutions,” he wrote on Twitter. “But corrupt regimes also permit powerful people to break the law with impunity. If the legal and evidentiary grounds for a search exist, then even a former president should be searched.”

Monday’s search makes very real the possibility that Trump might face criminal prosecution. It may also shift the timeline for Trump’s expected announcement of his candidacy for the GOP’s 2024 presidential nomination. After all, his complaint that he was being targeted as a potential 2024 opponent of Biden’s carries less weight than if he is actually an potential Biden opponent.

In July, Rolling Stone reported that Trump had spoken with confidantes about the benefits of running for and then being president in terms of federal prosecution. Trump, an individual told the magazine, had spoken of “how when you are the president of the United States, it’s tough for politically motivated prosecutors to ‘get to you.’ ” That prosecuting presidents is considered verboten according to Justice Department guidelines was, of course, a central theme of Trump’s actual presidency.

All of this is why the Justice Department was treading carefully as details about Trump’s post-election actions mounted. Garland has been a target of criticism by the left for not actively prosecuting Trump, the former president having proved his guilt beyond reasonable doubt to his political opponents. But it was inevitable that any serious law enforcement action targeting Trump would trigger precisely the sort of politics-laden response that emerged nearly simultaneously with the news itself.

This is precisely why the American legal system has so many checks aimed at minimizing any political interference. It is also why Trump spent so much time and energy insisting (including in his statement on Monday) that, despite objective evidence, the FBI and the Justice Department were hopelessly biased. That works much better for him than treating the search of Mar-a-Lago as serious and, if you’ll pardon the pun, warranted.

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