There’s never been a presidential campaign like it.
Donald Trump is taking every step of his bid for a third consecutive Republican nomination amid a darkening storm of legal uncertainty.
The twice-impeached former president, who tried to steal an election and is accused of fomenting an insurrection, launched his first two-state campaign swing on Saturday as he seeks a stunning political comeback.
Then on Monday, Trump’s potential exposure – in two of his multiple strands of legal peril – appeared to grow, foreshadowing a campaign likely to be repeatedly punctuated by distractions from criminal investigations.
In a new twist to his classified material saga, CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and Katelyn Polantz reported that two people who found two classified documents in a Trump storage facility in Florida testified before a federal grand jury. Federal prosecutors are also pushing to look at files on a laptop of at least one staff member around Trump at Mar-a-Lago, CNN reported. The former president has not been charged with a crime, but these developments are the latest sign of an aggressive approach by special counsel Jack Smith in probing the matter. And it shows how a regular drumbeat of legal problems could detract from the former president’s attempts to inject energy into a so-far tepid campaign – especially given the multiple criminal threats he may face.
On another front, The New York Times reported that a district attorney in Manhattan is presenting evidence to another grand jury probing Trump’s alleged role in paying hush money to adult film star Stormy Daniels. Last week, a district attorney in Georgia said decisions are imminent on charges related to Trump’s effort to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state. It is not known whether the ex-president is directly targeted by the investigation. This all comes as Smith is also probing Trump’s role in the US Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021.
The unique and extraordinary legal tangle surrounding Trump means that a third straight US election will be tainted by controversies that will drag the FBI and the Justice Department further into a political morass. (President Joe Biden is also facing a special counsel investigation over his handling of documents from his time as vice president, and former Vice President Mike Pence, who’s eying a 2024 bid, is under DOJ review for similar issues.) This follows the Hillary Clinton email flap in 2016 and investigations into the Trump campaign’s links with Russia during that White House bid, as well as Trump’s false claims of voter fraud in 2020.
The fact that Trump is seeking the presidency again, under an extraordinary legal cloud, could have significant consequences for the wider 2024 campaign. Some of his potential Republican rivals, wary of trying to take him down, might hope that his legal troubles will do the job for them. Perceptions that Trump is caught in a web of criminal investigation might also further tarnish his personal political brand, which has already contributed to some Republican loses in national elections in 2018, 2020 and 2022.
Still, Trump is a master of leveraging attempts to call him to account, legally and politically. He’s already built a central foundation of his new presidential quest around the idea that he’s being political persecuted by Justice Department investigations and what he claims are rogue Democratic prosecutors.
“We’re going to stop the appalling weaponization of our justice system. There’s never been a justice system like this. It’s all investigation, investigation,” the ex-president said on the trail over the weekend.
This is a message that may be attractive to some of Trump’s base voters who themselves feel alienated from the federal government and previously bought into his claims about a “deep state” conspiracy against him. It’s also a technique, in which a strongman leader argues that he is taking the heat so his followers don’t have to, that is a familiar page in the authority playbooks of demagogues throughout history.
Signs of an advanced investigation
As is normal, it is not known what the people who found the classified documents at the Florida storage facility may have said to the grand jury. But the ex-president is being investigated not just for possible violations of the Espionage Act, but also for potential obstruction of justice related to the documents.
The two individuals, who were hired to search four of Trump’s properties last fall months after the FBI executed a search warrant at his Mar-a-Lago resort over the summer, were each interviewed for about three hours in separate appearances last week. The extent of information they offered the grand jury remains unclear, though they didn’t decline to answer any questions, one of the sources familiar with the investigation said.
Ryan Goodman, a former special counsel at the Department of Defense, told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Monday that the latest development was a sign of an advanced special counsel investigation and could indicate that Smith was leaning toward indictments.
“It sounds like he is trying to lock in their testimony, to understand how they would testify at trial, whether it is incriminating evidence against Trump or exculpatory evidence that the prosecutors would then have that and have it solidified.”
How political factors could blur legal distinctions
The simple, politically charged act of investigating an ex-president was always bound to create a political furor. The fact that Trump is running for the White House again multiplies the stakes and means profound decisions are ahead for Attorney General Merrick Garland if evidence suggests Trump should be charged.
On a more granular level, the report about the grand jury underscores that for all the political noise, the investigation into Trump’s haul of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago is taking place inside its own legal bubble.
This remains the case, despite the political gift handed to Trump with the discovery of classified documents at Biden’s Wilmington, Delaware, home and at a Washington office he once used that should have been handed back when he left the vice presidency. Some classified material was also found at Pence’s Indiana home.
Those discoveries allowed Trump to claim that he was being unfairly singled out, even if the cases have significant differences. Any Trump attempt to argue that he, like Biden and Pence, inadvertently took documents to his home will be undermined by the fact that he claimed the material belonged to him, and not the government, and what appears to be repeated refusals to give it back.
Fresh indications of the momentum in the Trump documents special counsel probe followed the latest sign of a lopsided approach to the controversy over classified material by House Republicans, who are hammering Biden over documents but giving Trump a free pass.
House Oversight Chairman James Comer was, for example, asked by CNN’s Pamela Brown this weekend why he had no interest in the more than 325 documents found at Trump’s home but was fixated upon the approximately 20 classified documents uncovered in Biden’s premises by lawyers and an unknown number also found during an FBI search of the president’s home this month.
“If someone can show me evidence that there was influence peddling with those classified documents that were in the possession of President Trump, then we would certainly expand it,” the Kentucky Republican said. He went on to accuse Biden and his family of being “very cozy” with people from the Chinese Communist party but offered no evidence of such links or that they had anything to do with classified documents. His remarks left the impression that his committee is seeking to find evidence to condemn Biden but is treating Trump differently – exactly the kind of double standard the GOP has claimed the DOJ is employing toward Trump.
The two special counsel investigations probing Trump and Biden’s retention of secret documents are unfolding independently. In a legal sense, there is no overlap between them. But they will both be subject to the same political inferno if findings are made public.
Were Trump, for instance, to be prosecuted – over what so far appears to be a larger haul of documents and conduct that may add up to obstruction – and Biden is not, the ex-president would incite a firestorm of protest among his supporters. Even though the sitting president enjoys protections from prosecution because of historic Justice Department guidance, it’s hard to see how the political ground for prosecuting just one of them could hold firm – especially if Biden and Trump are rival presidential candidates in 2024.
From the outside, it appears as if Biden and Pence were far more cooperative with the DOJ and the FBI after some classified documents were found at their properties than Trump has been. It took a search warrant for FBI agents to get into Mar-a-Lago, and the ex-president claimed that presidential documents that belonged to the federal government when he left office belonged to him. But voters might find it hard to understand nuanced legal differences between the two cases – a factor the House Republican counter-attack based on Biden’s documents made more likely.
As the political fallout from the classified documents furor deepened on Monday, the country got a reminder of the treatment that can await lower-ranking members of the federal workforce when secret material is taken home.
CNN’s Holmes Lybrand reported that court documents show that a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, who stored files with classified information at his Florida home, will plead guilty in February to one count of unlawful retention of national defense information.
Robert Birchum served in the Air Force for more than 30 years and previously held top secret clearance. According to his plea agreement, he stored hundreds of files that contained information marked as top secret, secret or confidential classified outside of authorized locations. A plea agreement stated that “the defendant’s residence was not a location authorized to store classified information, and the defendant knew as much.”