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The Mar-a-Lago Brouhaha
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A couple of weeks back, I mentioned how the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, writing in the third book of The Peloponnesian War some 2,400 years ago, warned that it’s dangerous for the rulers of a democracy to prosecute an opponent after defeating him in a political election. Specifically, taking revenge in a show trial intensifies polarization, increases sympathy for the prosecuted among his own supporters, and opens the door to not just bitterness but outright violence. The takeaway is very simple: To politically defeat an opponent is punishment enough.
I’d say that the FBI, under the auspices of the Biden administration, raiding the home of the previous president and (according to the polls, at least) likeliest potential nominee for the GOP come 2024, definitely falls under “shit Thucydides said you shouldn’t do.”
Full disclosure: I don’t like the FBI. I think it’s a corrupt institution. I’ve expounded on the reasons why before. But though I might be predisposed to think ill of the FBI, here’s the thing: If history is any guide, how can one possibly assume that the Bureau is operating with only the highest ethical standards? Of all the agencies and institutions that have earned the presumption of good faith in recent years, it’s definitely federal "counterintelligence" operatives with an obsessive long-term fixation on Trump, right?
What the FBI did this week requires extraordinary institutional trust, but confidence and trust in American institutions is at historic lows across the board. According to one poll, a staggering 47% of the public distrusted the FBI—and that was before the raid.
Their credibility reserves are barren, and rightfully so. Americans know that Comey misled them when he said that the Democrat-funded Steele dossier was merely “part of a broader mosaic” of information presented in the FBI’s applications to wiretap former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page; the Justice Department’s inspector general found that it was in fact “central and essential” to the applications. We then learned that FBI officials had falsified or withheld evidence presented to the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in four surveillance applications. Then, after spending two years and tens of millions of dollars investigating Trump, Mueller cleared him, exposing the collusion narrative as little more than a Clinton fabrication intended to undermine her opponent. Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, it should bother you that FBI agents knowingly served the interests of the Clinton campaign by labeling her adversary as a Russian colluder, and that this hoax was then elaborately drawn out during Trump’s tenure with help from a mainstream media chock full of former security state operatives.
But the FBI didn’t stop there. In July, Chuck Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced that “numerous highly credible whistleblowers have come forward about a scheme in place among certain FBI officials” to stifle the Hunter Biden laptop inquiry. They knew if the information got out “it would kill Joe Biden’s chances of ousting Trump.” According to Grassley, “some of the FBI agents who interfered in the 2016 election did it again in 2020.”
And that’s not even mentioning the truly shameful history the agency has put together over the past two decades, dozens of incidents that paint a picture of an agency run amok by prevaricating partisans.1
Hell, just based on the Whitmer plot it’s absurd to be anything but extremely skeptical of the Mar-a-Lago raid.2 I implore you to read this and this and this—three different pieces I’ve written in this newsletter on the dishonorable conduct of the FBI, which includes setting up innocent individuals with palpably false accusations of criminal violations and also overlooking the acts of the certifiably guilty.
According to Peter Baker of the New York Times, to obtain the warrant that it used to search Donald Trump’s home at his Palm Beach resort on Monday, the FBI would have been “required to meet a high level of proof of possible crimes.” This is a decidedly slanted characterization of probable cause, an ill-defined standard that falls far short of the evidence needed to convict someone of a crime, and it’s emblematic of the undue deference to the FBI that Trump’s opponents and detractors tend to display anytime the former president is involved.
I love how the same activist journalists who’ve criticized police overreach are now suddenly demanding we put total faith in the rectitude of the FBI. Such a demand indicates you think local police are for some reason more prone to abuse of power than the FBI is, which seems selective indeed. Of course, these scribes are the same people who ignored, denied, and even outright cheered the security state machinations against Trump during his presidency. I believe this collective myopia explains why they’re not treating the Mar-a-Lago raid with the huge degree of skepticism that it warrants—that, and the reality that the mainstream media has abdicated its responsibility to interrogate power and ask basic questions that might otherwise serve as a check against corruption.
The search warrant unsealed Friday afternoon cited 18 U.S. Code 793, which is related to “gathering, transmitting, or losing defense information.” Meaning that Trump is being investigated for a potential Espionage Act3 violation and possible obstruction of justice. Pretty rich, considering that Hillary Clinton was also investigated under 18 U.S.C. 793, whose statute cites “gross negligence.” Since-fired FBI Director James Comey said in July 2016 that “although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.” In other words, gross negligence.
Whataboutism though it may be, it’s worth remembering that Hillary Clinton4 flagrantly broke the law by keeping classified information on her private email servers. According to Comey, those servers held 110 messages containing classified information, including “seven e-mail chains [concerning] matters that were classified at the Top Secret/Special Access Program level” — the highest level of classification. The Justice Department inspector general reported that the FBI’s Inspection Division found that classified intelligence improperly stored and transmitted on Clinton’s server “was compromised by unauthorized individuals, to include foreign governments or intelligence services, via cyber intrusion or other means.”
And yet, the FBI never raided Clinton’s home or charged her with a crime. Nor was Team Hillary ever charged with destroying over 30,000 classified emails and devices with hammers, BleachBit, and other methods.5
Trump, by contrast, was president—which means he had plenary authority to declassify any documents he wanted to.
Making the MAL raid even more absurd: CNN reports that the FBI had previously recovered “sensitive national security documents” from Mar-a-Lago based on a grand jury subpoena. If the main goal of this week’s search was securing additional classified material, the American people should question the propriety and necessity of such a provocative way of doing so.
Per the Washington Post, “documents relating to nuclear weapons” were "sought” at Mar-a-Lago. So, you’re telling me that the DOJ decided to wait 18 months before tracking down America’s closely guarded nuclear secrets? And that the FBI needed 9.5 hours to retrieve boxes of records for the National Archives? No former President of the United States has ever been subject to a raid of their personal residence, and it sounds like the basis for the Mar-a-Lago brouhaha is questionable, to put it mildly.
Agents purportedly hauled off some 20 boxes, including four sets of top secret documents, three of secret docs, and three “confidential” sets. Frankly, unless this raid was pre-textual and the DOJ is fishing for information that’ll help build some other, larger case, there’s no reason why the FBI had to raid Trump’s private residence. The more appropriate action would’ve been for a grand jury to issue a subpoena — just as they’d done before — for any boxes of material that were seized. Searches and seizures should only be used when subpoenas are inappropriate due to a high risk of evidence being destroyed. Given that Trump was 1,000 miles away when the raid occurred, it would’ve been impossible for him to destroy subpoenaed evidence, especially if the subpoena demanded immediate production.
So, did a dispute over some documents really require an unprecedented and politically polarizing search of a former President’s residence? Charging Trump under the Espionage Act merely for keeping at his residence classified documents that he claims were declassified would be a gross prosecutorial overreach.
Prior to the raid, there was some talk about Trump being a weaker nominee than other Republicans. I’m not sure why anyone would think this, even if you’re accounting for the 1/6 hearings and the supposed “hit” he took from some seriously lackluster testimony.6 Support for Trump increased considerably in the 2020 election relative to that of 2016, and it was among demographics that everyone said he was a unique “danger” to—namely, women and minorities. He also narrowly lost the three key states of AZ, WI, and GA, and is the only Republican in decades who’s actually managed to win key Midwestern states. All of this is strong evidence for his electoral viability.
Strategically speaking, we all know that Democrats are going to harp endlessly about the 1/6 fracas, going out of their way to associate whoever the Republican nominee ends up being with the “insurrection” and demanding that he or she atone for such and such. Which is to say that doubtless the nominee will be saddled with the same Trump-related accusations as Trump himself. So, if choosing between the Bad Orange Man and someone else, would it not make more sense to get behind the candidate with a proven track record of mobilizing voters who were never mobilized by any other Republican?
All of this was true before the Mar-a-Lago raid, which could very well end up being one of the greatest political miscalculations of all time.7 David Brooks recently pointed out something I’ve mentioned before as well, and that’s Trump’s ability to capitalize on narratives, foremost among them the idea that America is being divided by corrupt, condescending, immoral coastal elites, a “Regime” made up of Big Tech, the mainstream media, academia, Hollywood, the security state, and woke corporations—basically, people who share the same ideology and are abusing their posts to impose that ideology on everyone else in various little ways. I’m inclined to believe this is mostly true. Honestly, I struggle to understand how anyone could live through the past six years and still argue otherwise. But the point is that this narrative has served Trump very well. His base thrives on elite scorn; the more it looks like the Regime is out to get the Bad Orange Man w/Mean Tweets, the more it energizes his supporters.
Several weeks ago, about half of Republican voters were ready to move on from Trump, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll. This week it seemed like the entire party rallied behind him. According to a Trafalgar Group/Convention of States Action survey, 83% of likely Republican voters said the FBI search made them more motivated to vote in the 2022 elections. Over 75% of likely Republican voters believe Trump’s political enemies were behind the search rather than the impartial justice system, as did 48% of likely general election voters overall.
John Thomas, a Republican political strategist who had been organizing a PAC to support DeSantis in the event he runs in 2024, said on Tuesday, “We can hang it up. It couldn’t be clearer. If Trump wants [the Republican nomination] at this point, I don’t see how it’s not his … It’ll be a coronation at this point, not a primary.” Other Republican strategists advising Trump’s potential primary opponents were similarly despondent. “Completely handed him a lifeline,” one told Politico. “Unbelievable … It put everybody in the wagon for Trump again. It’s just taken the wind out of everybody’s sails.”
“I had gotten calls from people last night that were getting kind of tired of Trump, not so much they wanted to move on from him, but more that they were sick of the drama. Well, that’s over,” Shiree Verdone, co-chair of both of Trump’s Arizona campaigns, said. “Just talking to people now, they are irate, and they are ready to support Trump. Even some people who were not full Trumpers, but are so upset with what happened. It seems this is really going to elevate Trump.”
Regardless of how this incident may end up helping or hurting Trump, the bottom line is that it never should’ve happened. I imagine a significant swath of the public will view this as an aggressive escalation of Democrats’ efforts to silence political opponents, examples of which are becoming increasingly common. Trump’s voters will mobilize, and he will earn new ones because sensible independents will think this is a bridge too far, and his ‘24 campaign will capitalize on a narrative of returning to power as a triumphant victim of the Regime.
More importantly, this episode will only serve to polarize an already deeply divided polity. You can waive around the “no one is above the law” cliche all you want, but raiding the home of a former President and perhaps future presidential candidate is an inherently political decision that better damn well have rock solid justification. So far, we haven’t seen it.
According to an exhaustive 2012 study conducted by the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, every single one of the 138 terrorist incidents recorded in the U.S. between 2001-2012 involved FBI informants who played leading roles in planning, supplying weapons, and even recruiting people to carry out terrorist acts.
Some people are quibbling over use of the terms “raided” and “ransacked.” Look folks, if dozens of FBI agents spent nearly 10 hours scouring your house with no apparent limitation, raided/ransacked would be how you’d describe it, too.
Despite its name, many of the law’s provisions don’t relate specifically to espionage.
I recall a not insignificant number of people spazzing out about the “Lock Her Up” chants that would often break out at Trump rallies. According to these people, this was a disturbing, authoritarian mantra because it signaled Trump’s intention to deploy the federal law enforcement apparatus against his political enemies. It sure looks like the inverse is happening.
Clinton lawyer Marc Elias had the gall to tweet that one of the penalties for Trump’s alleged misconduct could include being “disqualified from holding any office under the United States.”
Yes, it’s possible that the raid was meant to trigger the response that it did, and that it was a purely political move on the part of Democrats, desperate as they are to fight off what seems like an imminent Red Wave. Presumably, the raid would essentially be a gambit that emboldening Trump’s base and making a Trump ‘24 run more likely will motivate people to vote Blue come midterms.