AUGUST 9, 2022
Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo
Donald Trump’s team and allies are moving swiftly to draw political benefit from an unannounced search by FBI agents at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago home on Monday. And they’re keeping tabs of Republicans who aren’t, in their view, sufficiently rushing to his defense.
For hours, word of the search was kept to a close group of aides, lawyers, and Trump family members as it was taking place in real time. Then, Trump confirmed the news in a lengthy statement, only after it leaked out late in the afternoon that agents had left Mar-a-Lago. The bombshell set off frantic, hasty-arranged calls among Trump allies to discuss how to calibrate a response. And, soon enough, a clear narrative emerged from them: The search represented a deliberate political targeting, one that underscored the Democrat’s perception of Trump as a political threat.
“They’re going to drastically use this to rally their allies, GOP leaders on Capitol Hill and juice for his political agenda and run for 2024,” said a person close to the Trump operation. “If there was a 99 percent chance it’s 100 percent now. He makes it part of his platform – going after the FBI.”
Trump called it not “necessary or appropriate.” His allies called it the weaponization of law enforcement and an escalatory move by a federal government they conspiratorially say is out to destroy Trump ahead of any presidential run. The FBI and DOJ have declined to comment on the search. Biden administration officials said they had no advance notice of it.
Alongside the anger towards the FBI, the sense among Trump allies was that the search could be a potential political boon for the ex-president.
Both the person close to Trump and another individual who is in touch with the former president speculated that he would now expedite his decision to announce a presidential bid. Dan Scavino, Trump’s longtime aide and social media guru, tweeted “DO IT — 45! #TRUMP2024.”
While Trump’s team was bullish about the political benefits of being targeted by the FBI, the situation comes with clear and obvious downsides. Legal experts said that it would be highly unlikely that the agency would have taken such action without clear evidence of wrongdoing — noting the rarity of a former president being targeted so aggressively. The search would require the signoff of a federal judge or magistrate, who would issue the warrant based upon evidence of a potential crime.
On top of that, Trump is embroiled in a number of legal dramas and headaches, in addition to being the focus and target of the House January 6 committee. Focus groups of Trump 2020 voters have shown that even they have grown wary of the drama that accompanies his political ventures and are ready to move on.
Trump, who spends his summer in Bedminster, N.J., was working at Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan when he was told of the search as it unfolded by his son, Eric Trump. Christina Bobb, an attorney for Trump and former One America News Network host, was present at Mar-a-Lago as the FBI searched through Trump’s items, according to a person familiar with the day’s events. The person noted papers were seized from the home, where Trump has kept his primary residence and set up his post-presidential office.
In the hours after Trump issued his statement, a slew of prominent Republicans and allies ranging from RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel to Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) sent out statements of outrage and support. By the end of the night, the RNC had dashed off a fundraising text: “THIS IS NOT A DRILL: UNPRECEDENTED move Biden’s FBI RAIDS Pres. Trump’s home. Time to take back Congress.”
The statements from GOP officials became a litmus test for Trump aides and allies, who kept stock of which party members were condemning the FBI — and how strongly they’d done so. Aides said they were pleased with a statement by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who vowed to take action against the Department of Justice over the FBI’s search.
“I’ve seen enough,” McCarthy said in a statement. “The Department of Justice has reached an intolerable state of weaponized politicization. When Republicans take back the House we will conduct immediate oversight of this department, follow the facts, and leave no stone unturned. Attorney General [Merrick] Garland, preserve your documents and clear your calendar.”
Others, like Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), took a more measured approach. “President Trump is likely going to run again in 2024,” Graham wrote. “No one is above the law. The law must be above politics.”
Trump has, so far, stayed largely out of the limelight in the wake of the search. He eschewed making a media appearance even as Eric Trump took to Fox News, and his daughter-in-law, Lara, did the same. The former president was seen departing Trump Tower for Bedminster wearing a suit and tie, ignoring shouted questions about the search. He later called into two tele-town halls for Senate candidate Leora Levy in Connecticut and congressional candidate Sarah Palin in Alaska. He made only light reference to the day’s events.
“Another day in paradise. This was a strange day,” Trump cheerfully said in the town hall for Palin.
The search is the latest development in a months-long investigation into whether the Trump administration mishandled presidential records. The National Archives and Records Administration removed boxes from Trump’s resort in January, and there have been questions about whether the ex-president violated the Presidential Records Act by improperly handling classified documents, notes and mementos from the White House.
Trump and his attorneys have maintained that they have been cooperative with authorities. CNN reported that earlier this summer, that the ex-president and his legal team met with investigators briefly while they were at Mar-a-Lago to see where the documents were being held. They have raised questions about the declassification process as well. One Trump aide pointed to a Breitbart interview with Kash Patel, a former national security official, who claimed documents at Mar-a-Lago marked as “classified” had already been declassified but their markings had not yet been updated.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his office also weren’t given a heads up about the search. In a tweet, the Republican governor called it “another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the Regime’s political opponents, while people like Hunter Biden get treated with kid gloves.”
One former adviser to Trump, noting DeSantis’ tweet and referencing the possibility that the governor could mount a presidential bid of his own, said they thought this moment amounted to “the one thing that could unite different factions in the party.”