The FBI’s search for former President Donald Trump’s cherished Mar-a-Lago retreat represents one of the most politically sensitive — and possibly explosive — law enforcement actions the department has ever taken. of the United States Justice.
For Mr Trump’s opponents, the sweep indicates that the Justice Department appears determined to subject even former US business leaders to the rule of law. Attorney General Merrick Garland himself almost certainly had to approve Mar-a-Lago’s search warrant request, legal experts say.
Trump supporters erupted after the raid, expressing outrage at what they said was an unfair political persecution of President Joe Biden’s eventual opponent in 2024.
Why we wrote this
The FBI has taken an unprecedented step by raiding the residence of a former president. For Trump supporters, it smelt of political retribution. For opponents, the search – which a judge approved – shows that no one is above the law.
Revelations about what the search was aimed at, what it found, and the background to the FBI’s investigation could affect these relative positions. News reports said agents wanted documents Mr. Trump had brought to Mar-a-Lago from the White House.
But by the time agents stepped through the gates of the Florida retreat, the once-unthinkable prospect of a lawsuit against someone who sat in the Oval Office seemed, if not likely, no longer possible. Given the tensions in today’s politically polarized nation, the consequences of such a move remain unpredictable.
Richard Davis, who served as assistant United States attorney on the Watergate prosecution, recalls the last time the nation faced a similar situation.
The current situation is more dangerous than Watergate, he says. There was then also partisanship. But the January 6 uprising showed that passionate words can lead to action.
“We risk crossing a gap,” says Mr. Davis, now a New York-based attorney.
Serve a former president
Few details of the FBI investigation that led to the Mar-a-Lago raid are clear. But law enforcement experts believe it has increased Mr Trump’s legal danger.
“The majority of research of this type [result] in federal criminal charges,” says Harry Litman, a former U.S. attorney and assistant deputy attorney general.
What we do know at this point is that the Justice Department is investigating a possible illegal withholding of official documents by Mr. Trump. Almost all presidential and federal records belong to the US government, not the president or the officials themselves, and there are several federal laws outlining what documents are illegal for officials to take with them.
Last night, to authorize the search, the FBI would have had to convince a federal judge that it was likely that the former president had committed a crime, and that evidence of that crime would be found at Mar-a-Lago. And among the possible laws the government could investigate Mr. Trump’s violation, one stands out: 18 US Code §2071, which prohibits the “concealment, removal, or mutilation” of US government records.
According to Chuck Rosenberg, a former US attorney and senior FBI official, formal charges are likely still a long way off, if they arise.
“This [search] does not mean that he will ultimately be charged with a crime,” he wrote in an email to the Monitor. “If charges are laid, it’s almost certain that prosecutors and agents still have work to do.”
But the timing of the research raises questions. Mr Trump said he was cooperating with authorities seeking to recover government documents, raising the possibility that the Justice Department feared documents might be destroyed or deleted. (The National Archives said in February that it was communicating with the DOJ about the recovery of Mr. Trump’s records.)
Executing a search warrant would help prevent such destruction, Rosenberg said, which could have been a concern.
But “we don’t know yet, and we have to be careful with guesswork here,” he added.
This type of police action against a former president is unprecedented, and Justice Department officials would have been aware of it before authorizing the search, according to Litman, who also teaches constitutional law on US campuses. University of California at San Diego and Los Angeles. . They would have been aware that they were serving a term against a former president for the very first time.
“It couldn’t have been lower than #2” at the DOJ that approved the research, he adds, “and I think it would have been [Attorney General] Garland.”
Mr. Trump and his allies immediately criticized the search as a politically motivated abuse of power by the Justice Department. But what happened to Mr. Trump in the past 24 hours is what normally happens to any criminal suspect in such an investigation, experts say.
“A ‘neutral and detached’ judge authorized the warrant once prosecutors reached the legal threshold required by the Fourth Amendment,” Mr. Rosenberg wrote.
“This [criticism] that’s to be expected…but it’s law enforcement, without fear or favour,” says Mr. Litman.
A politicized Ministry of Justice?
News of the FBI raid prompted an immediate and fierce reaction from many Republicans.
Mr. Trump himself released a statement which began: “These are dark times for our nation, as my beautiful home…is currently besieged, raided and occupied by a large group of FBI agents”.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California said the Justice Department “has reached an intolerable state of militarized politicization” and promised an investigation into Attorney General Garland and the department if the GOP resumes the House in the upcoming midterm elections.
The mere fact that such a search took place, many Republicans said, was meant to sway the November vote while damaging Mr Biden’s most likely rival in 2024.
“What is it, 100 hot days before the congressional elections?” says Frank Buckley, a former speechwriter for the Trump campaign and a professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia School of Law in Arlington, Virginia. “My first reaction is that we have moved from a concrete rule of law to a state where justice is influenced by political considerations.”
Professor Buckley volunteered early on to help Mr Trump win the presidency, and since then he has been a leading thinker in the transformation of American conservatism, championing the ‘America of America’ type of nationalism. First” that so appealed to the movement that swept Mr. Trump into power.
He has since become a critic of the former president, however, believing Mr Trump ultimately lacked the character necessary to hold the nation’s highest office – even if his policy goals overlapped with his.
Yet the search for Mar-a-Lago seems to him to be part of a larger political calculation.
“If you’re a Democrat, all you have is Trump, Trump, Trump, and they won’t give up,” says Professor Buckley, who describes the new brand of conservative ideas in his latest book, ” Progressive Conservatism: How Republicans will become America’s natural governing party.
“The Democrats’ worst nightmare would be [Mr.] Trump saying, I’m not going to introduce myself. Well, now he’s much more likely to run, unfortunately,” he says.
“This is serious”
The FBI investigation into Mr. Trump’s retention of presidential records, including classified documents, is just one of many law enforcement investigations the former president faces.
In New York, Attorney General Letitia James is conducting a civil investigation into whether the Trump Organization committed fraud by improperly inflating asset values.
In Georgia, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is considering bringing criminal charges alongside efforts by the former president and his allies to overturn the results of the state’s 2020 election.
In Washington, the Justice Department is leading a wide-ranging investigation into broader efforts by Trump allies to keep the former president in power despite his election defeat.
There is no indication that Monday’s FBI search was related to questions about Mr. Trump’s efforts to pressure state officials or questions about the events leading up to the Jan. 6 insurrection. at the Capitol.
So why did the FBI take the big step of launching a search of Mr. Trump’s residence? It is possible that the FBI believes they were misled about the documents kept at Mar-a-Lago and obtained a search warrant on these grounds. It is also possible that officials feared that the retained documents were or were about to be destroyed.
Mr. Trump returned 15 boxes of material in January, but only after several months of delay and in the face of the threat of new measures from the National Archives.
Preserving presidential records is no small feat, says Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University and editor of “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.”
“All the commitment to the preservation [of presidential records] really solidifies after Watergate, after the tapes and the battle around the tapes,” says Professor Zelizer. “We realize that this material has consequences and sometimes presidents and other politicians don’t want to let people see what happened because it has a big effect.
Documents help with accountability, he says. They provide insight into what presidents have done and what officials in their administration were saying and doing.
“It’s a serious thing,” says Professor Zelizer.
The most important point is to make sure no one is above the law, says presidential historian Lindsay Chervinsky, author of “The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.”
Mr. Trump has been out of office for more than 18 months and has kept the records throughout that time, suggesting the former president was given a lot of leeway, Dr. Chervinsky says. Justice officials may have decided to force the exit.
Mr Trump has a strong core of supporters who will support him no matter what, she adds, “so I think the focus should be on what is right, even if it is unpopular at the moment. – knowing that it would be more detrimental to the future of the nation not to do what is right.