A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
Reporters who cover sensitive beats sometimes have a sense when big news is about to break. But not this time. The FBI’s Monday morning search of Mar-a-Lago – a thunderclap in American political history – happened so quietly, so secretly, that it wasn’t caught on camera at all. For the most part reporters didn’t catch wind of the FBI action until after it was over. By the time local TV news cameras showed up outside the club, there was almost nothing to see. Websites used file photos of the Florida resort since there were no dramatic shots of the search.
What everyone wants to see is the search warrant. As Elie Honig pointed out right away on CNN, “in order to get a search warrant in the federal system, prosecutors have to establish probable cause that a crime was committed,” and a judge has to sign off.
The warrant may become public later. But for the time being we’re only seeing leaks from anonymous sources; interpretations from analysts; and incendiary responses from Trump family members, friends and supporters. Mark Levin said on Fox that “this is the worst attack on this republic in modern history, period.” The hyperbolic, man-the-battle-stations reactions are a big part of the story because they showcase where GOP leaders and stars stand – solidly right next to Trump regardless of potential wrongdoing.
First four hours of coverage
This feels like a “where were you when?” moment of the Trump era – an era that is very much overlapping with the Biden era. But its ultimate level of import is impossible to judge right now. So here are some notes about the first four hours of media coverage:
– Trump tried to manage the news by announcing it himself in a lengthy screed. Trump and some of his allies “have a long-standing habit of conflating legal problems with PR problems,” Maggie Haberman said on CNN. “At the moment, they are treating this like it’s a PR problem,” she added, “but it’s a legal problem…”
– Within an hour, sources told reporters that the search warrant was related to an investigation into the handling of presidential documents that may have been brought to Mar-a-Lago. In other words: Not the 1/6 investigation.
– CNN’s Gabby Orr reported that Trump attorney Christina Bobb, a former host on One America News, was present for the Mar-a-Lago search.
– Trump’s statement supplied many of the talking points that were immediately used on Fox, Newsmax, and across the right-wing web. The MAGA media message is: The government is corrupt, the FBI is a threat to real Americans, the Democrats are to blame, and the Republicans are going to correct it.
– “Republicans — formerly the party of ‘law and order’ — are absolutely panicking and calling for the defunding/dismantling of the entire FBI,” Jezebel’s Laura Bassett wrote, citing tweets from Marjorie Taylor Greene and numerous GOP media stars.
– Trump was “purposely painting himself as a martyr to undermine the FBI & DOJ — all while signaling a call to arms to his supporters,” former VP Pence adviser Olivia Troye tweeted. “Fox News & many in the GOP are emboldening it. Far-right social media is buzzing with violence…”
– When Trump left Trump Tower in NYC on Monday evening, he did not respond to shouted questions from reporters about the FBI.
– All of this is happening “on the 48th anniversary of Richard Nixon announcing his resignation,” Stephanie Ruhle said on MSNBC.
Silence from DOJ
“Justice Department officials are declining to comment on any aspect of the search warrant executed at Mar-a-Lago and have declined to say if Attorney General Merrick B. Garland approved of the warrant — or even if he had been briefed on the situation,” the NYT’s Glenn Thrush noted on the news outlet’s live blog. The agency will have to say something on Tuesday morning, right?
Bad timing for Biden?
“A White House official said it was not notified about the search,” CNN’s story says. President Biden, “a senior administration official said, was unaware of the search of Mar-a-Lago until after it was reported on the news.” MAGA media is full of speculation to the contrary, but Sam Stein made this point on Twitter: “The idea that they’d want this seems….suspect. The rare time they’re in a great news cycle seems like an odd time to trample over it…”
Trump’s “disinfo supply”
While government entities are staying quiet about the investigation, Trump allies are being loud. Eric Trump went on Sean Hannity’s show; reiterated his father’s victimhood narrative; and confirmed that the search warrant related to the handling of presidential documents, including classified documents.
Some of the initial news alerts about the FBI action were untrue because, true to form, some parts of Trump’s statement were untrue. He said his home was “currently under siege, raided, and occupied by a large group of FBI agents,” but all the reliable reporting indicated that the FBI action had concluded by the time he spoke out.
Trump’s statement also contained “a fun instance of Trump getting high on his own disinfo supply,” NBC’s Ben Collins pointed out. “He mentions Hillary Clinton ‘acid washing 33,000 E-mails.’ In reality, an IT guy used an app called BleachBit. In Trumpworld, she poured literal acid on the emails.”
This Florida reporter was the first to know
Via Slate: “The news of the raid was first reported by Peter Schorsch, the publisher of Florida Politics, a news organization that closely covers congressional and down ballot races in the state.” He tweeted about it at 6:36pm, citing two sources. I immediately texted it to Oliver Darcy and said “wonder if this is real.” Darcy said he figured “Trump will rant about it online” – and he was right. Trump’s statement followed within minutes.
>> More: “In a phone call with Slate, Schorsch said that he had heard about the FBI raid of Mar-a-Lago from a ‘longtime source in Republican politics who has a law enforcement background’ and knew a lot about ‘south Florida law enforcement…’”
Earlier in the day…
The day began with reminders that the Trump era is far from over. Susan Glasser and Peter Baker came out with the excerpt from their September book “The Divider” that we previewed in Sunday night’s newsletter. And Maggie Haberman, ahead of her October launch of “Confidence Man,” shared photos of documents that Trump was said to have flushed down toilets. Both books surged on Amazon’s new releases list on Monday thanks to preorders.