Merrick Garland had been silent for three days about the search warrant executed Monday by two dozen FBI agents at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. But on Thursday, when the 69-year-old attorney general appeared before the cameras to break his silence on the unprecedented ruling against a former president, he defended the FBI’s actions, suggesting legality and democracy were at stake.
“Faithful respect for the rule of law is the fundamental principle of the Department of Justice and of our democracy. Upholding the rule of law means applying the law without fear or favour,” he said. “Under my leadership, that is precisely what the Department of Justice is doing.”
The Florida property swoop, approved by a federal judge and personally endorsed by Garland, was part of a multi-year US Justice Department investigation into Trump’s handling of classified documents from his time in the White House. months, according to people familiar with the probe.
A search warrant unsealed on Friday revealed the FBI had removed a trove of top-secret documents from Mar-a-Lago as part of an investigation into possible national security crimes under the spying. The Washington Post reported that some of the materials recovered were related to nuclear weapons, although the DoJ and FBI declined to comment on this.
The research unearthed long-simmering legal issues that Trump faces on multiple fronts – as the campaign begins for November’s midterms and he weighs another bid for the White House in 2024.
For some Americans, the events of this week have been reminiscent of the strife and scandal that has accompanied the Trump presidency, including his failed attempt to cling to power in the aftermath of the 2020 election. For his staunchest supporters, they are further evidence of the “deep state” conspiracy against him, with many of his allies calling the research a politically motivated attack. Trump has indignantly demanded that the documents related to the “un-American, unwarranted and unnecessary raid” be made public – even though he himself could make their contents public at any time.
Now, as Trump is investigated by prosecutors in Washington D.C., Georgia and New York, which could lead to charges against him, many Republicans have joined in criticism from the FBI and DoJ. , redoubled efforts to attach their own future to the twice indicted. and former president legally exposed.
Analysts say that bodes ill for the U.S. political environment heading into November’s midterm elections and the upcoming presidential race. “The fact that a former president is the subject of multiple investigations indicates the turmoil that exists at the moment, in part because of [Trump’s] presidency,” says Julian Zelizer, professor of United States political history at Princeton University. “It’s not just that he was in power, but that he’s potentially the 2024 candidate for the Republican Party.”
“If there’s distrust of some of the checks and balances, and some of the normal processes don’t seem to be working properly and are constantly being attacked or politicized, that’s a concern. It’s just a perpetual state of fragility or chaos, where there’s no clear path to improving anything,” he adds.
This week’s furor is the latest event to cloud American politics in the past two months, following the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the constitutional right to abortion and an unexpected string of legislative achievements for President Joe Biden , including the passage of its flagship $700 billion Economic Package on Friday.
Both bolstered Democratic hopes of avoiding a landslide defeat in November’s midterm elections, which until a few weeks ago seemed certain. Encouraging economic news, including an acceleration in job growth and a slight slowdown in inflation, added to this optimism.
The political impact of Trump’s showdown with the DoJ is still too difficult to assess, political analysts say, but it has certainly overshadowed what was expected to be a week of political celebration for Biden and the Democrats. White House officials sought to distance themselves from the raid, saying Biden was not told about it, the Justice Department was operating without interference from them, and they were focusing on other priorities that , they said, resonated more with voters.
“We’ve been very clear that the Justice Department is independent, and we’re not going to add anything more,” an official said Thursday. “We’re going to be relentlessly focused on the impact the president and congressional Democrats have on people’s lives.”
The investigation behind the search is being led by prosecutors from the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section of the DoJ’s National Security Division, alongside the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida.
So far, Americans seem to be giving Garland the benefit of the doubt: Among those who responded to a Politico/Morning Consult survey conducted after the FBI raid but before Garland’s announcement on Thursday, 49% believe the raid has was conducted based on evidence that Trump had committed a crime, while 38% believed it was done to harm him politically.
But Republican voters appear to be rallying behind Trump in the absence of any revelation about the nature of the seized documents. The Politico poll found that 69% of Republicans believed the search was politically motivated, while only 16% believed it was based on suspicion of a crime. Trump also won over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a putative matchup for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. His edge had waned in recent months.
“President Trump clearly thinks this is actually good for his political prospects,” says Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. “He got everyone in the Republican Party at this point to declare their anger at Merrick Garland and Joe Biden.”
Kelly Dittmar, associate professor of political science at Rutgers-Camden, agrees: “We are already seeing Trump and those who support him. . . leverage this as a way to poke fun at the current administration and Democratic leaders more broadly,” she says. “They hope this will not only make Democrats look bad, but more importantly, mobilize and activate a voter base that Donald Trump has, in the past, been successful with.”
But Doug Jones, a former Democratic senator from Alabama and former federal prosecutor now at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, says the case for the search was clear and he was executed legally.
“At some point, if you have classified and potentially sensitive, top secret documents that are just behind a locked door in a Palm Beach resort, you have to go get them. . . and be damned with the political fallout,” he says. “Our national security is far more important than what a bunch of political opponents of the administration are going to say.”
judge for work
Ultimately, the political ramifications of the research will depend on the strength of the case that Garland and DoJ prosecutors may or may not present.
Garland is perhaps the ideal attorney general to decide how far to go and whether or not to prosecute. The former federal judge, who was nominated to the Supreme Court by Barack Obama in 2016 but declined a confirmation hearing by Senate Republicans, is widely seen as an institutionalist who would set the bar high for any charges against a former President. He came into office with a mission to depoliticize the agency after it suffered brutal interference under Trump.
On the contrary, Garland has come under pressure from the other end of the political spectrum in recent months. Some Democrats have criticized him for being too slow to press charges against Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 attacks, particularly following searing testimony in June from former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson. which revealed how Trump not only fueled the failed insurgency but wanted to join it.
Yet since the raid became public knowledge, Garland has become a punching bag for Republicans nationwide.
“All this speculation about motives and motives behind motives etc. is not good for trust in government in general and law enforcement in particular,” says Michael Mukasey, the former attorney general American under George W Bush. “There were always people on the internet, coming up with all kinds of theories, right and left. But I don’t remember anything of that level of intensity.
In recent days, Garland and Christopher Wray, the FBI director appointed by Trump in 2017, have been forced to issue statements defending their prosecutors, officials and agents, to quell the growing threat of violence against them in response to the search. . . “Violence against law enforcement is not the answer, no matter who you’re mad at,” Wray said during a visit to Nebraska.
Jones says he too is concerned about politically motivated bloodshed, pointing to an attempt Thursday by a gunman who tried to break into an FBI office in Cincinnati and was later killed by police.
“The only way it happened was because there were people talking about civil war, taking up arms and saying things that fueled this violence,” he says. “We are in a difficult situation at the moment. And we haven’t seen the end of this violence, I’m afraid.
Still Jones thinks Trump and those who have rushed to his side in recent days “will likely come to regret it.” “I think the Attorney General. . . quite clearly shown that they respect the law and the rule of law. And that’s what you want any Department of Justice to do.