Donald Trump’s presidency at times threatened to tear America apart, and the country’s democracy, institutions and equilibrium staggered away from his four-year term barely intact.
A day after the FBI search of his Florida resort, it was as if Trump had never been away, as he reapplied his grip on the national psyche by orchestrating a fierce backlash against the bureau, the Justice Department and the Biden White House, which has said it had no advance warning of the FBI activity.
Trump’s fury on his Truth Social platform, warnings of retaliation by congressional Republicans and threats of violence in pro-Trump posts on social media were enabled by a vacuum of concrete details about the FBI operation.
The former President’s supporters, whose distrust of government institutions he’s cultivated for years, were free to conjure a damning narrative of political persecution, seeking to discredit the probe, while the facts and the nature of any Trump offenses remained hidden in line with the FBI’s investigative protocols.
Those who know what federal agents were looking for, what they found, and the extent of the former President’s criminal exposure are not talking. That includes FBI Director Christopher Wray (a Trump appointee), Attorney General Merrick Garland and the former President himself, who has not said what was written in the search warrant.
The most the public knows is that the search was in relation to presidential records, including some classified material, that Trump is alleged to have taken from the White House. The search came after the ex-President or his team failed to return documents that were property of the government and that authorities believed had national security implications, a person familiar with the matter told CNN on Tuesday. There were also suspicions over whether Trump’s representatives were being truthful about his haul, this source said.
But a strong sense of the unknown hangs over the entire case, which is fueling the conservative counter-attack and is also leading to a torrent of speculation about the motives for the search and the material that was taken away by FBI teams. And because government prosecutors don’t typically talk about ongoing investigations unless they reach a decision to charge someone – to ensure the integrity of the probe and the privacy of those under investigation – it is unlikely there will be clarity on the situation anytime soon.
“The department can’t say much about it now; it’s inappropriate to talk about it now, but it’s unclear, and it’s a big deal,” said Preet Bharara, a CNN senior legal analyst and a former US attorney for the Southern District of New York, on CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.”
Given the extraordinary circumstances of a search at a former president’s home, it seems unlikely that such a politically volcanic step would have been precipitated by clerical disputes over documents or minor infringements of the Presidential Records Act. This is especially the case since an operation of this significance would have required sign-offs at the top of the FBI and the Justice Department. But given how little is known about the search, it’s hard to properly evaluate claims by Trump’s camp that it was an extreme, unwarranted step.
While the furious reaction from Trump world builds, his defenders are ignoring one key fact: The FBI didn’t just turn up at his Palm Beach residence on a whim. They had to obtain a warrant from an independent judge who had to be convinced there was probable cause that a criminal offense had taken place and that there was evidence on site to prove that was the case. Such procedures are how it’s supposed to work in the justice system, which rests on the principle that no one – not even former presidents – are above the law.
Trump’s attack dogs ignore one key fact
But that didn’t halt full frontal attacks by Trump’s political allies and media mouthpieces over the unprecedented search of an ex-President’s home, a stunning escalation as the DOJ pursues two probes related to Trump.
“We are no better than a third world country, a banana republic,” Trump wrote on Truth Social, characteristically accusing his foes of weaponizing the Justice Department, a transgression of which he was frequently guilty of attempting as President. Trump’s credibility on these issues is also undermined by his record, including two impeachments – one for trying to get a foreign power, Ukraine, to meddle in a US election and the second for inciting an insurrection in a bid to stay in power despite losing a free and fair election.
Trump seized on the FBI search to inject momentum into a 2024 presidential campaign he’s been keen to launch for weeks – and there is new speculation the rush to his side by many Republicans could prompt him to announce sooner rather than later. The former President met 12 of his closest House allies at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club on Tuesday and got nothing but support for a bid to get his old job back.
It’s just a matter of “when” he announces, Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana told CNN. “My sense is he is fired up and ready to go.”
The FBI search on Monday represented a remarkable development in just one of the legal fronts bearing down on Trump. It recently emerged that his lawyers are in discussions with Justice Department prosecutors conducting a probe into the circumstances surrounding the January 6, 2021, insurrection. Trump may also be drawn into a criminal probe in Georgia into efforts by him and his allies to steal President Joe Biden’s 2020 win in the state. And he is set to be deposed on Wednesday in a civil investigation in New York into the Trump Organization’s finances.
But if any proceeding against Trump is automatically considered by his fans to be political and tainted, there is little hope for the integrity of US judicial institutions.
Trump’s counter-attack portends a period of angst for America
The uproar Trump quickly stoked was an ill omen for a period of vicious polarization in the months ahead. This new national nightmare is sure to color yet another election since Trump is already a front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination and millions of supporters will buy into his storylines.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy – despite giving no sign he had inside knowledge of the intricacies of the investigation related to Trump – issued a threat to enlist a potential new Republican majority after the midterms to go after Garland.
“I’ve seen enough. The Department of Justice has reached an intolerable state of weaponized politicization,” the California Republican said in a statement posted on Twitter.
Another key member of House GOP leadership also weighed in.
“There must be an immediate investigation and accountability into Joe Biden and his Administration’s weaponizing this department against their political opponents – the likely 2024 Republican candidate for President of the United States,” said New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, the third-ranking House Republican.
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who raised a fist in encouragement to Trump’s mob before it stormed the Capitol on January 6 said that, at a minimum, Garland should be impeached or resign. Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who chairs the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, compared the actions of the federal government to the Gestapo in Nazi Germany in an appearance on Fox Business.
The unhinged rhetoric was, if anything, more extreme on conservative media outlets that supported and enabled Trump while he was president. And the vitriol was pouring out on social media, recalling the violent speech that led up to the Capitol attack. On one online forum dedicated to Trump, a poster commented: “Lock and load,” while another said Garland “needs to be assassinated,” CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan reported.
Trump shows his command over the GOP’s grassroots
The vehemence of the response to the FBI search simultaneously demonstrated Trump’s hold over his party and the strength of his authoritarian personality cult among the GOP grassroots as he contemplates a 2024 campaign launch.
The conservative backlash again exposed the undercurrent of violence in American political life. And it demonstrated how many Republicans with aspirations of winning elections know they must show total loyalty to the former President, whatever his alleged transgressions.
A strong streak of hypocrisy was also evident among Republicans who had demanded 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton be disqualified from running for president over her mishandling of classified information but who are now accusing the FBI of pursuing a vendetta against Trump. Some GOP figures are, however, accusing Democrats of double standards since they faulted the FBI for its investigation into Clinton’s emails but appear happy for the bureau to go after Trump.
The fury the ex-President was able to stoke on Monday evening was partly enabled by his own years of false claims of harassment by the “Deep State.”
Alberto Gonzales, who served as attorney general under Republican President George W. Bush, issued a plea on Tuesday for calm.
“People need to just hold their horses. They need to understand and be reminded of the fact that this was done with standard practices, a federal judge was involved, the department made the requisite showing, they got a search warrant, they collected the information,” Gonzales said on CNN’s “Newsroom.”
“This doesn’t mean Donald Trump is going to be charged, doesn’t mean there is going to be a trial – this is all part of the process of getting the information.”
But such respect for judicial process, the rule of law and facts seems almost quaint in what is still clearly the Trump era of American politics.
Given the immediate claims by Trump allies that the search showed the Biden administration was weaponizing the law to persecute him, it is inevitable that the integrity of the country’s instruments of justice will be further damaged – even if the department takes criminal steps against him.
Not all Republicans jumped on Trump’s bandwagon after the search. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who would prefer to train the focus on Biden’s record ahead of the midterm elections, was noticeably reticent, saying he was preoccupied by floods in his home state of Kentucky. But as the political pressure mounted, he issued a statement Tuesday evening saying that Garland needed to provide answers to the American people “immediately.”
Trump’s power was shown when two of his potential GOP presidential primary foes – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence – defended the former President and demanded answers.
The furor of the last few days also showed that any remaining hopes that Biden might have of making good on his inaugural promise to bring the country together probably fizzled as soon as FBI agents went through the gates at Mar-a-Lago.
And that’s just a preview of the eruption that would test the fabric of American democracy if Trump were to be indicted in either of the Justice Department’s probes.
This story has been updated with additional developments.
CNN’s Melanie Zanona, Katelyn Polantz, Kaitlan Collins and Pamela Brown contributed to this story.