(The Hill) — The FBI raid on former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida on Monday stunned a political world that thought it had become inured to the chaos and controversy surrounding the 45th president. This time around, multiple reports indicate that the search was related to classified material Trump may have removed from the White House at the end of his presidency.
Parts of the case are shrouded in doubt, not least because the legal documentation justifying the search is non-public by its nature. Here are some of the biggest takeaways so far.
Trump upends the political landscape again
The news from Mar-A-Lago has placed Trump once again at the center of the political stage. To Democrats and other critics, the search is a sign that the former president might finally get what they see as his just desserts.
The critics have been frustrated in the past by the equivocal outcome of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into allegations of Russian collusion, Trump being acquitted by the Senate after both of his impeachments by the House, and the perception that a criminal probe into his business dealings by Manhattan prosecutors is petering out. For the anti-Trump segment of the public, it would be a delicious irony if he were to be brought low by charges of mishandling classified information—the same accusation he repeatedly leveled against his 2016 Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s defenders have reacted with fury to the raid, seeing it as evidence of a politicized justice system and prosecutorial overreach. On social media, allegations abound that a deep state is working to undermine Trump and prevent him from seeking the presidency again.
It’s worth underlining that investigators could only have gotten a search warrant by proving to a judge’s satisfaction that there are reasonable grounds to believe a crime has taken place—and that there were no less invasive ways of gathering germane evidence. But the bottom line is that President Joe Biden—who had been enjoying a much-needed streak of success capped by the near-certain passage of the Inflation Reduction Act—once again finds himself sidelined as his divisive predecessor is thrust back into the spotlight.
GOP rallies around Trump but doubts linger about 2024
Republicans rallied adamantly to Trump’s defense after the former president confirmed the first reports of a raid. Even for a party that the former president has remolded in his own image, the red-hot rhetoric was striking.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) taunted Attorney General Merrick Garland with the threat of investigation if, as widely expected, the GOP retakes the House majority in November. “Preserve your documents and clear your calendar,” McCarthy warned.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel in a statement said the raid was “outrageous” and an “abuse of power.” Conservative Political Action Conference Chairman Matt Schlapp urged Americans to “rid this nation of this socialist reign of terror.”
Several of Trump’s potential rivals for the 2024 GOP nomination were supportive of him, too. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis accused the Biden administration of a “weaponization of federal agencies” against its opponents. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said the move against Trump was “un-American.” Former Vice President Mike Pence tweeted that he shared the “deep concern” others felt about the “unprecedented search.”
But for all that, there are at least some in the party who question the merits of potentially nominating Trump yet again in 2024. He is the most divisive president of modern times, the only president to be twice impeached, and lost the popular vote in both 2016 and 2020.
The doubts would surely grow deeper if he faced criminal charges, and that’s a peril he faces beyond the current raid. A federal grand jury is examining his actions and other matters pertaining to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, while prosecutors in Georgia are looking at whether he and his aides committed crimes in their efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in the state.
Schisms in divided nation grow deeper
The massively polarized response to the raid on Trump’s property wasn’t surprising. But the episode still feels like another lurch toward national destabilization. To be sure, many millions of Americans see the search as welcome evidence that no American is above the law—a generation after former President Nixon famously told interviewer David Frost, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
But those who see a nefarious action against Trump by an imagined deep state are signaling they have lost any faith in the instruments of the law. The loss of faith is dangerous in itself, however ill-founded it may be. Another peril is the threat to wield the apparatus of justice in the future to help friends and punish enemies.
Some of the rhetoric coming from conservative leaders—McCarthy’s gleeful promises of investigations to come, for example—would have been barely conceivable 20 years ago. But such threats are now par for the course—something that reveals a dangerous hollowing out of common ground.
Investigators under pressure to show they have the goods
Right now, just about everyone is flying blind on two related and crucial questions—what exactly the FBI was looking for at Mar-a-Lago, and whether the bureau’s agents found it. The broad theme has been widely reported. Earlier this year, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) said it had found classified material among 15 boxes retrieved from the Florida property.
NARA made no secret of the fact that it contacted the Department of Justice about the matter—a move that appears to be the genesis of the current probe. But that information does not really answer the question of why the FBI should be raiding Mar-a-Lago and breaking into Trump’s safe at this point.
Until the evidence is produced or charges are pressed, the whole episode is sure to be mired in wild speculation and accusations. It seems unlikely that the attorney general or a federal judge would have signed off on the search—the first of its kind in any former president’s home—without compelling evidence. But right now, we have no idea what it is.
Biden keeps his distance
While turmoil swirls around Trump, Biden and his aides have been at pains to affirm a wall of separation between the White House and the current investigation. Biden—who’s been more willing to frontally criticize Trump recently but will most certainly keep his distance from this explosive case—is sure to be asked more about the probe. And by its nature, it brings up other questions, including the status of an investigation into the business dealings of his son, Hunter Biden.
Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters at Tuesday’s media briefing that the White House had learned about the FBI search from media coverage “just like the American public did.” She added that Biden has long been adamant that “the Justice Department conducts its investigations independently.” Jean-Pierre directed any further inquiries to the DOJ.