Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
When news broke this week that the FBI had executed a search warrant at former President Donald Trump’s Florida residence, Mar-a-Lago, a wave of ominous warnings exploded across right-wing media, fueled by the former president and his acolytes.
Trump called it “the weaponization of the Justice system,” arguing that a criminal case against him threatened to unravel American democracy. It was a curious claim for a man who launched his 2016 presidential campaign on the chant of “Lock her up!”– calling for the imprisonment of his then-political rival Hillary Clinton.
The claim that enforcing the laws against a former president was a modern crossing of the Rubicon, a turning point in history that would inflict an unhealable wound on US democracy, was one of two warnings unsettling the country since Monday.
The second one is more of a threat: Trump’s most militant followers are openly calling for vengeance, even violence, while his suit-and-tie backers stoke their anger – much as they did before January 6 – claiming the republic is under the gravest of authoritarian threats. They warn, in their coda, that the GOP will retaliate against Democrats if and/or when Republicans take power again.
Should Americans be worried? Yes and no.
While we shouldn’t play into Trump’s false claims of the weaponization of law enforcement, we should be fearful of how his supporters are responding to the FBI search. In fact, the threats of violence in response to an FBI investigation serve as proof – as if more were needed – that the ecosystem surrounding Trump is a danger to the nation.
Trump is in hot water, in part, because he has a well-established track record of pushing the bounds of the law. Former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe said on CNN, “The first thing I thought of when I heard of the search warrant was, which investigation might this be a part of? There are so many options here, it is literally head-spinning.”
And, to be frank, it’s been a terrible week for the former president. First, he had to deal with the FBI search of his Florida home, in connection with government documents, including some allegedly classified, that he took from the White House. Then an appeals court ruled against him, saying his tax returns must be turned over to Congress. And, on Wednesday, as part of a civil investigation led by the New York attorney general, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, refusing to testify in a deposition. Friendly reminder: Trump once said, “If you’re innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?”
The White House says Biden had no idea about the unannounced FBI search, which is as it should be. The Justice Department is meant to be independent of politics. Trump’s son Eric said he knows the White House, and he doesn’t buy it. In the White House he knows (Trump’s), the president would be involved in such a decision.
The claim that enforcing the law against Trump turns the US into a “Third-World” nation, as Trump opined, is rather the opposite of the truth. In strong democracies, no one is above the law. That’s why other countries – from France to Israel to South Korea – have indicted, convicted and, in some cases, even imprisoned, former presidents and prime ministers. Their democracies were stronger for it, sending a message to those who obtain enormous power that they are not beyond the reach of the law.
Mishandling government materials is a crime. A former top official in Bill Clinton’s presidency was prosecuted in 2005 for destroying three copies of one document. At the time, that was a misdemeanor. But, in 2018, Trump signed a law making it a felony. He notably did this in the wake of his attacks on Hillary Clinton and her “careless” handling of government emails.
The argument that it’s all part of a nefarious plot to go after Trump is absurd. Obtaining a search warrant is no easy task. Prosecutors have to convince a judge that they have probable cause that a crime was committed and that the evidence of that crime is on the premises.
The fact Trump is hinting that the FBI may have planted evidence in Mar-a-Lago, suggests he may be worried that damning material was found.
Despite no evidence that the FBI did anything outside the strict bounds of the law, right-wing media and Republican Trumpists have rushed to ignite a firestorm of conspiracy theories and hyperbolic accusations about a country supposedly careening into tyranny.
Preposterous and unconscionable analogies to Nazi Germany became the order of the day. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, among others, compared the federal government to Hitler’s Gestapo. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas warned, “they’re coming for YOU.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who could become Speaker of the House after the November elections, seemed to threaten retaliation, telling Attorney General Merrick Garland to “preserve your documents and clear your calendar,” ahead of a possible probe. And Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri called on Garland to resign or be impeached.
The sparks threatened to catch fire on far-right social media, where there was open talk of civil war. A right-wing podcaster with almost 2 million Twitter followers posted,”Today is war.” Others wrote, “Summertime was made for killing fields,” and “lock and load.”
Online searches for “civil war” seemed to decline rapidly after a Tuesday peak, but the risks cannot be discounted. A January poll found 40% of Republicans believe violence against the government is sometimes justified. (Some 23% of Democrats agree.) Many of these are the same people that are passionate about their firearms.
Trump’s legal troubles are only getting worse. He has already shown his ability to mobilize his most dangerous backers, but no country should allow such a threat to curtail enforcement of its laws. Simply put, that level of intimidation does not belong in a democracy.
Prosecuting Trump is risky, but not doing it – if the evidence proves that he is guilty of a crime – is an even greater danger to the United States.