The Lawless G.O.P. Response to the Raid at Mar-a-Lago
With the disclosure that the F.B.I. searched his winter palace at Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump has doubled down on his attacks on law enforcement and on law itself. And many in the G.O.P. establishment are backing him up — not necessarily because they truly believe him to be innocent but because being seen to be persecuted by federal officers is now a badge of honor in the Republican Party.
On Monday, F.B.I. agents searched Mr. Trump’s residence at least in part to determine whether classified documents were being stored in the former president’s private club and residence rather than dispatched to the National Archives at the end of his term. If true, Mr. Trump could be in violation of the Presidential Records Act, the 1978 law enacted after Watergate to prevent presidents from destroying or refusing to share their documents and records once they leave office.
There is little doubt that the most senior Justice Department officials, in addition to the federal judge who granted the search warrant, sanctioned the search, weighing the obvious sensitivity of raiding a former president’s property — and the inevitable political blowback they would face — against the possibility that whatever they ended up seizing would contain evidence of a crime. One can only imagine that failure to enforce an egregious violation of the Presidential Records Act would mean that the law is no longer enforceable.
The National Archives had already retrieved boxes Mr. Trump was storing at Mar-a-Lago and confirmed that they contained classified information, which could have caused damage to national security had it ended up in the wrong hands. (Mr. Trump was known to have such little concern for safeguarding files that he routinely ripped up documents that should have been preserved, even flushing his shreddings down White House toilets.)
Rather than express concern about a possible violation of the Presidential Records Act or even simply withhold judgment until more information becomes available, Mr. Trump’s defenders instead attacked law enforcement officials.
Immediately after the raid became publicly known, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader, promised that Republicans would go after Department of Justice officials if the party takes back the House, tweeting, “Attorney General Garland: preserve your documents and clear your calendar.” He also accused the department of reaching “an intolerable state of weaponized politicization.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida called the raid “another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the Regime’s political opponents” and connected it to a bill that recently passed the Senate that would fund thousands of new I.R.S. agents in addition to supporting health care expansion and fighting climate change. He tweeted that “the Regime” is getting more I.R.S. agents to “wield against its adversaries? Banana Republic.”
Mr. Trump, unsurprisingly, led the complaints about law enforcement, stating, “My beautiful home, Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, is currently under siege, raided, and occupied by a large group of F.B.I. agents.”
Of course, this particular investigation is far from the extent of his legal troubles. Mr. Trump is under scrutiny as members of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection try to determine whether he explicitly encouraged the coup attempt. And officials in Georgia and New York continue to pursue criminal and civil investigations.
Throughout, Mr. Trump has not just seemed undaunted; he has held up the investigations as a point of pride — a sign that he and his followers are waging a righteous battle against a biased, corrupt law enforcement regime. Mr. Trump has already capitalized, sending a text to his supporters, linking to his donation page: “The Radical Left is corrupt. Return the power to the people! Will you fight with me? Donate.”
This attitude doesn’t stop with Mr. Trump: In Colorado, Tina Peters, who served as a county clerk and thus the top local election official, has been charged with felonies and misdemeanors related to tampering with election equipment, and in multiple other states, officials have been investigated for similar possible offenses as investigators try to get to the bottom of efforts to allow partisan G.O.P. operatives to tamper with voting systems in 2020.
None of these investigations seem to give pause to the Republican leadership or its committed base. To the contrary, brazen lawbreaking is now a political asset for G.O.P. candidates and operatives. Several people involved in Jan. 6 are running for office and winning G.O.P. primaries — with Mr. Trump’s blessing — flaunting their participation in the violent putsch.
As of last January, at least 57 people who went to the rally, gathered on the Capitol steps or violently invaded that building were campaigning for office around the country, according to Politico. And at least three of them have been charged with crimes relating to the riot. Does this hinder their campaigns? Not in the least. For example, Ryan Kelley, a Republican who unsuccessfully ran for governor of Michigan, told Politico, “As I travel around the state, I’m an insurrectionist to some people.” But, he went on, “you know, to other people, it’s like, ‘That’s why I’m voting for you. Because you walk the walk and you were out there fighting for us.’”
Last week election deniers prevailed in several G.O.P. primaries. In Arizona a former news anchor, Kari Lake, won the Republican nomination for governor, told reporters that there was fraud even in that race and told her supporters that they “rose up and voted like their lives depended on it.”
And in Michigan, a Republican activist suspected of involvement in a scheme to undermine the results of the 2020 election, Matthew DePerno, is on track to clinch the Republican nomination for state attorney general. (In early 2021 election officials reportedly handed over voting machines to him and other Republican activists trying to substantiate claims of fraud in the election.) Mr. DePerno’s candidacy, like Ms. Lake’s, has been endorsed by Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump may well be indicted on charges relating to purloined documents, financial fraud or election obstruction. And the prosecutors must follow the evidence where it leads. But as much as we who value rule of law might find such a development comforting in such unsettled times, we need to prepare for what is to come: Mr. Trump will embrace the charges, run for president on them and for that reason gain votes in the Republican primary.
This is the inevitable result of the Republican Party being under the control of a man who prides himself on his impunity. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue,” boasted the then-candidate Trump in 2016, well before he won the Republican nomination for president, “and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Unfortunately, that may now be the truth.
Caroline Fredrickson (@crfredrickson) is a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and a visiting professor of law at Georgetown University.
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