Merrick Garland had been quiet for three days about the search warrant executed on Monday by two dozen FBI agents at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. But on Thursday, when the 69-year-old attorney-general stepped in front of the cameras to break his silence on the unprecedented move against a former president, he defended the FBI’s actions, suggesting that both legality and democracy were at stake.
“Faithful adherence to the rule of law is the bedrock principle of the justice department and of our democracy. Upholding the rule of law means applying the law without fear or favour,” he said. “Under my watch, that is precisely what the justice department is doing.”
The swoop on the Florida property, endorsed by a federal judge and personally approved by Garland, was part of an investigation by the US justice department into Trump’s handling of classified materials from his time in the White House that had been running for several months, according to people familiar with the probe.
A search warrant unsealed on Friday revealed that the FBI had removed a trove of top secret documents from Mar-a-Lago as part of a probe into possible national security-related crimes under the Espionage Act. The Washington Post reported that some of the materials retrieved related to nuclear weapons, although the DoJ and FBI have declined to comment on this.
The search has brought into the open the long-simmering legal problems that Trump faces on several fronts — as campaigning starts for the November midterms and he weighs another bid for the White House in 2024.
For some Americans, the events of this week have been a reminder of the strife and scandal that accompanied the Trump presidency, including his failed attempt to cling to power in the aftermath of the 2020 election. For his most loyal supporters, they are further evidence of the ‘deep state’ conspiracy against him, with many of his allies characterising the search as a politically motivated attack. Trump has called indignantly for the papers related to the “un-American, unwarranted, and unnecessary raid” to be made public — even though he could himself make their content public at any point.
Now, with Trump under investigation by prosecutors in Washington DC, Georgia and New York, which could lead to charges against him, many Republicans have joined in the criticism of the FBI and DoJ, doubling down on hitching their own future to the twice-impeached and legally exposed former president.
Analysts say this bodes poorly for America’s political environment heading into the November midterm elections and the next presidential race. “To have a former president under multiple investigations points to the turbulence that exists in this moment, partially as a result of [Trump’s] presidency,” says Julian Zelizer, a professor of US political history at Princeton University. “It’s not simply that he was in office but that he’s potentially the nominee for 2024 for the Republican party.”
“If there is distrust with some of the checks and balances, and some of the normal processes don’t seem to be smoothly functioning and are constantly under attack or politicised, that’s a concern. It is just a perpetual state of fragility or chaos, where there’s no clear path toward making any of this better,” he adds.
This week’s furore is the latest event to scramble American politics in the past two months, coming after the Supreme Court’s move to strike down the constitutional right to an abortion and an unexpected string of legislative accomplishments for President Joe Biden, including the passage of his flagship $700bn economic package on Friday.
Both have boosted Democratic hopes that they can avoid a whopping defeat in the November midterm elections, which until a few weeks ago seemed certain. Encouraging economic news, including an acceleration of job growth and a slight easing of inflation, has added to that optimism.
The political impact of Trump’s showdown with the DoJ is still too hard to assess, political analysts say, but it has certainly overshadowed what was meant to be a week of political celebration for Biden and the Democrats. White House officials sought to distance themselves from the search, saying that Biden was not briefed on it, that the justice department operated without interference from them and that they were focused on other priorities they feel resonate more with voters.
“We’ve been very clear that the Department of Justice is independent, and there’s nothing further that we’re going to add,” one official said on Thursday. “We’re going to be relentlessly focused on the impact that the president and congressional Democrats have on people’s lives.”
The investigation that prompted the search is being led by prosecutors in the counter-intelligence and export control section of the DoJ’s national security division, alongside the US attorney’s office for Florida’s southern district.
So far, Americans seem to be giving Garland the benefit of the doubt: of those responding to a Politico/Morning Consult survey taken after the FBI search but before Garland’s announcement on Thursday, 49 per cent believe the search was conducted based on evidence Trump had committed a crime, while 38 per cent thought it was done to damage him politically.
But Republican voters appear to be rallying around Trump in the absence of any revelations about the nature of the documents seized. The Politico poll found 69 per cent of Republicans thought the search had political motivations, while just 16 per cent thought it was based on the suspicion of a crime. Trump has also gained on Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, in a putative matchup for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. His edge had been dwindling 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’s gotten everybody 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’re already seeing Trump and those who back him . . . leveraging this as a way to deride the current administration and Democratic leadership more broadly,” she says. “They hope it will not only make the Democrats look bad, but almost more importantly, mobilise and activate a voter base that Donald Trump has, in the past, had success 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 it was executed lawfully.
“At some point, if you’ve got classified and potentially sensitive and top secret documents that are just behind a locked door at a Palm Beach resort, you’ve got to go get them . . . and be damned with the political fallout,” he says. “Our national security is a hell of a lot more important than what a bunch of political opponents to the administration are going to say.”
Judge for the job
Ultimately, the political ramifications of the search will depend on the strength of the case that Garland and DoJ prosecutors may or may not bring.
Garland may be 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 denied a confirmation hearing by Senate Republicans, is widely considered an institutionalist who would set a very high bar for any charges against a former president. He came into office with a mission to depoliticise the agency after it suffered heavy-handed interference under Trump.
If anything, Garland has faced pressure from the opposite end of the political spectrum in recent months. Some Democrats have criticised him for being too slow to bring charges against Trump for his role in the January 6 attacks, particularly following searing testimony in June by a former White House aide, Cassidy Hutchinson, who revealed the extent to which Trump not only fuelled the failed insurrection but wanted to join it.
Yet since the raid was made public, Garland has become a punch bag for Republicans around the country.
“All of this speculation about motives, and motives behind motives, and so on, isn’t good for confidence in government generally and in law enforcement specifically,” says Michael Mukasey, the former US attorney-general under George W Bush. “There were always people out on the internet, lofting all sorts of theories, both right and left. But I don’t remember anything of this level of intensity.”
In recent days both Garland and Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI appointed by Trump in 2017, have been forced to issue statements defending their prosecutors, officials and agents, in order to quell the rising threat of violence against them in response to the search. “Violence against law enforcement is not the answer, no matter who you’re upset with,” Wray said, on a visit to Nebraska.
Jones says he too is worried about politically-motivated bloodshed, pointing to an attempt on Thursday by an armed man who tried to breach an FBI office in Cincinnati and was later killed by police.
“The only way that happened is because there were people talking about civil war and taking up arms and saying things that were stoking that violence,” he says. “We’re in a tough place right now. And we’ve not seen the last of that violence I’m afraid”.
Still Jones believes Trump and those who have rushed to his side in recent days will “probably come to regret it”. “I think the attorney-general . . . pretty clearly showed that they follow the law and the rule of law. And that’s what you want any Department of Justice to do.”