The spectacular search of former president’s home starkly exposes his contempt for institutions two months before elections.
FBI agents showed up with a search warrant at Donald Trump’s mansion in Palm Beach on Aug. 8. They left with 33 boxes containing more than 100 official documents. Some of them were classified top secret; others were even more highly restricted. According to the Justice Department, the documents not only contained state secrets, but also endangered U.S. intelligence sources. The Justice Department investigation suggests there are criminal offenses involving misappropriation of official documents, obstruction, and possible violations of the Espionage Act. These offenses are punishable by imprisonment and disqualification from holding public office for life.
The search itself marked an extraordinarily aggressive judicial initiative in the case of a former president of the United States. Prosecutors would only have dared to undertake such an action if it had solid evidence it considers to be extremely serious. That evidence is now coming to light. During his departure from the White House in January 2021, Trump took dozens of documents from the White House, (any paper, message, or email produced in the White House is federal property and must be turned over to the National Archives), flouting all protocols for an orderly transition of power. In May of that year, the government informed Trump that he must return the documents. Last January, Trump turned over 15 boxes, including classified material, and on June 3, FBI agents visited his residence. The former president’s lawyers assured the FBI that all sensitive material had already been returned, and the rest was well guarded. The search a month later indicates that the FBI did not find the June representations to be credible. The published image of the documents on the floor is devastating. As with the other scandals that haunt him judicially — the assault on the Capitol, the attempted manipulation of the elections in Georgia, and tax evasion — there is evidence that can only be explained by Trump’s pathological contempt for institutions.
This new scandal once again tests the Republicans’ ability to contort themselves in defending Trump, being forced to choose between Trump and the FBI. Unfortunately, Trump has established himself as the go-to person who decides who gets to keep their seat. There are a few signs of hope that he will continue to do so, although Sarah Palin’s defeat this week in Alaska, despite Trump’s support, suggests that the chain around the Republicans’ neck could be starting to break. Developments in the case of the Trump papers may turn the election, which is usually a referendum on the incumbent president, into a new plebiscite on Trump’s character. And he may lose again.