Merrick Garland had remained silent for three days about the search warrant executed Monday by two dozen FBI agents at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home. But on Thursday, as the 69-year-old attorney general stepped in front of cameras to break his silence on the unprecedented crackdown on a former president, he defended the FBI’s actions, implying that both legality and democracy are at stake stood.
“Faithful observance of the rule of law is the fundamental principle of the judiciary and of our democracy. Upholding the rule of law means applying the law without fear or favor,” he said. “Under my supervision, the Justice Department is doing just that.”
The swoop on the Florida property, approved by a federal judge and personally sanctioned by Garland, was part of a several-month-long investigation by the US Department of Justice into Trump’s handling of classified information from his time in the White House to people familiar with the probe.
A search warrant unsealed Friday revealed the FBI had removed a treasure trove top secret documents of Mar-a-Lago as part of an investigation into possible national security crimes under the Espionage Act. The Washington Post reported that some of the materials found related to nuclear weapons, although the Justice Department and FBI have declined to comment.
The search has brought to light long-simmering legal issues Trump card Faces on multiple fronts – as campaigning for the November midterm elections begins and he weighs another bid for the White House in 2024.
For some Americans, this week’s events were a reminder of the rows and scandals that have accompanied the Trump presidency, including his failed attempt to hold on to power after the 2020 election. To his most loyal supporters, they are further evidence of the Deep State conspiracy against him, with many of his allies characterizing the search as a politically motivated attack. Trump has indignantly demanded that the papers related to the “un-American, unjustified and unnecessary crackdown” be released — although he himself could make their contents public at any time.
Now that Trump is being investigated by prosecutors in Washington DC, Georgia and New York, which could lead to indictments against him, many Republicans have joined in criticizing the FBI and DoJ and have focused on blaming their own futures on the twice indictees bind and legally exposed former president.
Analysts say this does not bode well for America’s political environment ahead of November’s midterm elections and the next presidential campaign. “The fact that multiple investigations are being conducted into a former President points to the turmoil that is currently in place, in part due to [Trump’s] Presidency,” says Julian Zelizer, professor of US political history at Princeton University. “It’s not just that he’s been in office, it’s that he may be the 2024 nominee for the Republican Party.”
“When there is distrust of some of the checks and balances and some of the normal processes do not seem to be working smoothly and are constantly being attacked or politicised, that is worrying. It’s just a perpetual state of fragility or chaos with no clear way to improve any of it,” he adds.
This week’s excitement is the latest event to crawl American politics in the past two months after the Supreme Court struck down constitutional abortion rights and an unexpected string of legislative gains for President Joe Biden, including passage of his flagship $700 billion stimulus package on Friday.
Both have boosted Democrats’ hopes that they can avoid a whopping defeat in November’s midterm elections that seemed certain until just a few weeks ago. Encouraging economic news, including an acceleration in job growth and a slight easing in inflation, has fueled this optimism.
The political ramifications of Trump’s showdown with the Justice Department are still too hard to gauge, political analysts say, but it has certainly overshadowed what should have been a week of political celebrations for Biden and the Democrats. White House officials tried to distance themselves from the search, saying Biden was not briefed that the Justice Department was operating without interference from them and that they were focusing on other priorities they believe were important to them resonate more with voters.
“We have made it very clear that the Justice Department is independent and we will not add anything further,” an official said Thursday. “We will remain relentlessly focused on the impact that the President and Congressional Democrats are making on people’s lives.”
The investigation leading to the search is being conducted by prosecutors from the Counterintelligence and Export Control Division of the Department of National Security of the US Department of Justice, along with the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida.
So far, Americans seem to trust Garland when in doubt: Of those who responded to a Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted after the FBI search but before Garland’s announcement on Thursday, 49 percent believe the search was based on was conducted on the basis of evidence Trump had committed a crime, while 38 percent thought it was done to harm him politically.
But Republican voters appear to be rallying around Trump as there are no revelations about the nature of the documents seized. The Politico poll found that 69 percent of Republicans believed the search had political motives, while just 16 percent believed it was based on suspicion of a crime. Trump has also won against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a putative matchup for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. His lead had shrunk in recent months.
“President Trump clearly believes this is actually good for his political prospects,” said Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. “He got everyone in the Republican party at this point to vent their anger at Merrick Garland and Joe Biden.”
Kelly Dittmar, associate professor of political science at Rutgers-Camden, agrees: “We’re already seeing Trump and those who support him. . . to use this to mock the current administration and the Democratic leadership more broadly,” she says. “They hope that it will not only make the Democrats look bad, but almost more importantly, mobilize and activate a voter base that Donald Trump has been successful at in the past.”
But Doug Jones, a former Democratic senator from Alabama and former federal prosecutor now with the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, says the case for the search is clear and it was lawfully conducted.
“At some point, if you have classified and potentially sensitive and top-secret documents that are just behind a locked door at a Palm Beach resort, you need to get them. . . and be damned with the political consequences,” he says. “Our national security is far more important than what a bunch of political opponents of the government will say.”
judge for the job
Ultimately, the political implications of the search will depend on the strength of the case, which prosecutors from Garland and the Justice Department do or do not present.
Garland could be the ideal Attorney General to decide how far to go and whether or not to press charges. The former federal judge, who was nominated for the Supreme Court by Barack Obama in 2016 but declined a confirmation hearing by Senate Republicans, is widely regarded as an institutionalist who would set the bar very high for indictments against a former president. He took office with a mission to depoliticize the agency after it suffered massive interference under Trump.
If anything, Garland has faced 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 over his role in the Jan. 6 attacks, particularly after a searing testimony in June by a former White House aide, Cassidy Hutchinson, revealed , the extent to which Trump not only fueled the failed uprising, but wanted to join him.
But since the crackdown became public, Garland has become a punching bag for Republicans across the country.
“All this speculation about motives and motives behind motives and so forth is not good for confidence in government in general and in law enforcement in particular,” said Michael Mukasey, the former US attorney general under George W. Bush. “There were always people on the internet coming up with all sorts of theories, both right and left. But I can’t remember anything of that intensity.”
In recent days, both Garland and Christopher Wray, Trump-appointed director of the FBI in 2017, have been forced to issue statements in defense of their prosecutors, officials and agents to quell the increasing threat of violence against them in response to the search. “Violence against law enforcement is not the answer, no matter who you get angry at,” Wray said during a visit to Nebraska.
Jones says he too is concerned about politically motivated bloodshed, citing an attempt Thursday by a gunman who tried to break into an FBI office in Cincinnati and was later killed by police.
“It only happened because people talked about civil war, took up arms and said things that fueled that violence,” he says. “We are in a difficult situation right now. And I’m afraid we haven’t seen the last of that violence.”
Still, Jones believes Trump and those who have rushed to his side over the past few days “are likely to regret it.” “I think the Attorney General . . . shown quite clearly that they follow the law and the rule of law. And that’s what you expect from any Department of Justice.”
https://www.ft.com/content/40884741-4295-48af-a380-8b16a87309cb Trump vs. FBI: “It’s just eternal chaos”