I don’t remember the last time I fully agreed with New York Times columnist David Brooks, but I think he hit the nail on the head this time: “Did the F.B.I Just Re-Elect Donald Trump?” Perhaps it’s a bit early to ask that, but I’m sure thinking it.
If the purpose of the FBI’s search warrant for Mar-a-Lago was to keep the retrieval of potentially highly classified documents “low key,” then President Biden should fire Merrick Garland and Christopher Wray immediately. I wrote the other day that “third-world groupthink” may have been responsible for the breathtaking bungle that brought between 30 and 40 agents to spend 10 hours, only to haul off around 12 boxes of stuff from an ex-president’s personal residence. I also believe it’s possible that Trump, or someone in his orbit, baited that hook, because that’s how Trump rolls.
Now we’re hearing that the “material” agents were seeking could have been “classified documents relating to nuclear weapons,” among other things. Garland also stood up in front of microphones and announced the DOJ was seeking to have a judge unseal the warrant. I called for this, so I’m glad somebody is listening (though I’m not the only one who called for it, and my ego isn’t yet enormous enough to assume the Attorney General reads The Racket News). Axios reported that Trump is urging (“ENCOURAGING” in all caps) the “immediate release of those documents.” Of course, Trump has a copy of them, and once they are released, he’s free to claim they’ve been altered, or various other themes on his conspiracy schtick, because that’s how Trump rolls (and I’m being repetitive).
Dan McLaughlin at National Review painted three possible scenarios, starting with, for the sake of argument, that the government’s “anonymous” sources and Garland’s remarks represent the truth: that the government was pursuing a narrow document retrieval case related to the Presidential Records Act. McLaughlin and I agree that it’s implausible that President Biden knew nothing about sending three dozen FBI agents to Mar-a-Lago armed with a search warrant. And if Biden didn’t know, then Garland was acting with the president’s implicit authority, as a senior cabinet member and political appointee.
Second, there’s the possibility (as I noted) that the Trump camp baited the hook. “If the search was really the result of a tip from inside Mar-a-Lago that offered the FBI a detailed and irresistible bread-crumb trail to specific boxes in specific rooms,” McLaughlin wrote, “was it a set-up?” Given Trump’s reaction, and his calls for the warrant to be made public (but not his copy), this is to me a distinct possibility, even probable in some way.
The third scenario is that the government is lying, and the so-called “raid” was a fishing expedition—a ruse to find January 6th evidence. That would be a giant gamble, and unless the government had ironclad sources and intelligence (spying on Mar-a-Lago, maybe some more FISA warrants?), it would be foolhardy to act on a hunch with such a flimsy cover.
So, where does all this go from here, and why is it so dangerous? First, as David Brooks wrote, it’s because it plays right into Trump’s core narrative.
This narrative has a core of truth to it. Highly educated metropolitan elites have become something of a self-enclosed Brahmin class. But the Trumpian propaganda turns what is an unfortunate social chasm into venomous conspiracy theory. It simply assumes, against a lot of evidence, that the leading institutions of society are inherently corrupt, malevolent and partisan and are acting in bad faith.
The FBI has a history of acting in bad faith when it comes to Trump. It’s almost their modus operandi. And Trump, in turn, though not in any sense reactionary, because—yep—that’s how Trump rolls—acts in bad faith, demands personal loyalty oaths, and is inherently corrupt, malevolent and partisan (for himself). The two sides have developed such a deep mistrust that the New York Times calls the relationship “poisoned.” The denizens of the Intelligence Community despise, mistrust, and oppose Trump and all who follow him, including some of their own like Mike Flynn.
Of course, this argument plays against the spooky “he has nuclear stuff!” reasoning behind the Mar-a-Lago search (it wasn’t a “raid”). If the CIA and the DIA and all those three-letter super-secret elements of the Intelligence Community don’t trust Trump and never trusted him in office, they’d keep a really short leash on what might be lying around the White House for him to pilfer in the last days of his presidency. Add to that the fact that January 6th happened, and I’m certain all the spooks were, well, spooked, at the time. I have a hard time swallowing that Trump or his staff just walked out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with boxes of nuclear secrets stamped “TS-SCI,” loaded them into Air Force One, or into a box truck, and took them into a basement in Mar-a-Lago.
Plus, the government had been dealing with Trump for months on PRA issues. They had subpoenaed materials, and the Trump team responded with cooperation. The FBI visited Mar-a-Lago in June, inspected the rooms where the boxes were kept, and asked the Trump people to place a higher security lock on the room, which the Trump team did. If this giant operation was to retrieve those documents, or others they believed were being hidden from them, why not come with another subpoena? There has to be something here that could lead to criminal charges to come with a search warrant (that’s the purpose of a search warrant, no?).
This leads to an even bigger danger.
Merrick Garland might be preparing charges against Trump for violating the PRA, which would be tried in federal court, in Washington D.C., where a jury would almost certainly convict the former president. Yay! Everyone would get to see Trump go out in handcuffs, or doing the perp walk. It would be a massive—almost sexual—feeling of conquest for the left, the IC, and Democrats.
But what, exactly, are they going to “get” him on? A cocktail napkin? A birthday dinner menu? Some sources reported that the feds left with a lot of empty envelopes, meaning that they didn’t find everything they expected to find and haul off. The spectacle of convicting a president under an obscure law that has rarely been prosecuted, and never against a former president. Under President Reagan, Oliver North and John Poindexter were charged and convicted under similar laws, though Poindexter’s conviction was overturned. Under Clinton, Sandy Berger was convicted of mishandling classified information and documents. And of course, the FBI did not pursue charges against Hillary Clinton for violating the same laws.
So, let’s say Trump is convicted. The narrative is he can’t run for office if he’s in jail. But wow. Every single genuine Trumpist will claim this is a political show trial, and threaten violence. There have already been threats of violenceagainst the federal magistrate who signed the warrant, and some of them are anti-semitic in nature. One man attacked an FBI office in Cincinnati and was killed by police; the AP did its best to tie him to January 6th, but it’s not clear at this time.
A group that represents 31,000 federal law enforcement officers denounced “the extreme threats of violence levied against agents at the Federal Bureau of Investigation this week” in a statement Wednesday. Trump is turning his cadre of followers into a potentially violent army. The great majority of them won’t turn to actual violence, but they’ll cheer, justify it, or turn their backs when someone does. Having Trump in jail, or home confinement after he announces his candidacy would increase the level of violence a thousand-fold. Plus, it smacks of Vladimir Putin-level earth scorching.
And the entire thing could backfire. Trump could wiggle out of a conviction, get endless appeals (because, that’s how Trump rolls), and find himself free to run for president, protected by the U.S. Constitution’s Article II, unless Congress declares him guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” They didn’t do that in his first or second impeachment trials in the Senate, and I’m not sure if there’s even a scintilla of a legal process for Congress to do it for someone who used to be president and is running again.
Trump convicted, but winning on appeal would do more for him in 2024 than anything he could ever do for himself. We’re looking at Napoleon-level stuff. The key to stopping Trump is to let him become irrelevant. The FBI did the complete opposite. Brooks calls this time we’re in “a crisis of legitimacy.” The FBI did nothing to improve its own, and did little to damage Donald Trump’s.
There better be something earth-shattering in those 12 boxes the FBI took from Mar-a-Lago. If not, the FBI, and by extension, the Biden administration, has put the country into substantial jeopardy, and increased the odds that Trump will make a triumphant return, accompanied by blood, threats, and violence.
Follow Steve on Twitter @stevengberman.
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