Today, the FBI conducted a search of the Mar-a-Lago resort owned by former President Donald Trump, who has been embroiled in both state and federal investigations. His administration has been accused of possible mishandling of classified documents, which may have been taken to Trump’s Florida resort when he was not present.
The news that President Trump had launched a search for a new Attorney General was one of the most staggering twists yet in the story of Trump, who was impeached twice, incited a mob riot to try to overturn his 2020 election loss, and constantly tore at the guardrails of his office and democracy during his single term, and afterward. The news threatened to inject new toxins into the political life of a nation that is hopelessly divided—with millions of Trump supporters already believing his lies that the 2020 election was stolen—and that on many issues no longer has a common understanding of truth itself. It also comes with the ex-President itching to launch a 2024 campaign rooted in his false claims of electoral fraud, which his authoritarian rhetoric suggests would present a profound challenge to democracy. That looming campaign will likely feed on the political rocket fuel of a perception among Trump supporters—which he himself created in his statement announcing the search Monday—that he is being unfairly persecuted.
Trump seizes on the search to fire up supporters
Trump claimed that his “beautiful home” was “under siege, raided and occupied” while complaining that he was a victim of the “weaponization of the Justice system” by Democrats who wanted to stop him from becoming president after the 2024 election. He also used the same explosive language and sense of grievance that motivated some of his supporters to violence in Washington on January 6, 2021.
On April 4, 2018, President Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, had his home and office raided by federal agents on the basis of a search warrant issued by a federal judge. The agents were seeking evidence related to Cohen’s $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels, to keep her silent about an alleged affair with President Trump. Cohen was not arrested or charged with any crime at that time.
Republicans have reacted furiously to the news of the investigation into Trump, claiming it is politically motivated and demanding that the Justice Department explain itself. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, whose hopes of becoming speaker rely on Trump’s patronage, immediately vowed to investigate Attorney General Merrick Garland if Republicans win the House of Representatives in November’s midterm elections. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who’s facing voters this fall, tweeted: “Using government power to persecute political opponents is something we have seen many times from 3rd world Marxist dictatorships But never before in America.” Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who chairs the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, wrote on Twitter: “We need answers NOW. The FBI must explain what they were doing today & why.”
The instant reaction of many Republicans to the indictment of the President was to support him, and this support may be an early sign how the investigation will be affected by political pressure. This reaction could also indicate that the ex-President’s potential 2024 campaign will benefit from the rallying effect of a government investigation that he can portray as politicized and unfair.
But the magnitude of Monday’s events should not be underestimated, even if it was not immediately clear whether former President Trump was in real danger of being charged with a crime. The exact parameters of the search warrant were also not available. Presidents have the capacity to declassify sensitive information and it was not clear whether Trump might have taken such steps with the material involved. Former Presidents do not have such powers, however. CNN reported that boxes of items were taken by the FBI after the search on Monday. And Trump’s attorney, Christina Bobb, said the bureau seized “paper” after what she said was “an unannounced raid.”