Until Federal Bureau of Investigation agents executed a search warrant on Donald Trump’s Florida residence this week, you might have been able to argue that the former president was slowly but surely losing his grip on the Republican Party.
Leading figures within the GOP had been reluctant to do or say anything that might encourage Mr. Trump to try to get his old job back in 2024. Most had been secretly hoping he would just go away. A few intrepid rivals were not so secretly preparing their own bids for the 2024 Republican nomination, led by ex-vice-president Mike Pence and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Even media baron Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox News network had stood by Mr. Trump throughout his chaotic and destructive presidency, appeared to have decided enough is enough. As a House of Representatives committee last month held hearings into Mr. Trump’s role in fomenting the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal and New York Post published scathing editorials deeming him unfit for office.
“It’s up to the Justice Department to decide if this is a crime,” the Post editorial said of Mr. Trump’s behaviour on Jan. 6. “But as a matter of principle, as a matter of character, Trump has proven himself unworthy to be this country’s chief executive again.”
Everything changed on Monday night as the FBI searched Mr. Trump’s palatial Palm Beach compound – reportedly to seize classified documents he had been hoarding at Mar-a-Lago in violation of the 1978 Presidential Records Act – after a federal judge authorized an unprecedented warrant sought by the Department of Justice against a former president.
One by one, Republicans circled the wagons around Mr. Trump, accusing Attorney-General Merrick Garland of “weaponizing” the DOJ to undermine President Joe Biden’s 2020 election rival. No matter that Mr. Garland, a straight-arrow former prosecutor and judge known for his unimpeachable integrity, must have had a compelling reason to seek and receive the warrant. Gutless GOP leaders lined up to cast aspersions on him and the institutions of justice.
On Twitter, Mr. DeSantis called the “raid” on Mar-a-Lago “another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the Regime’s political opponents.” House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy vowed to hold hearings into the Justice Department’s conduct if Republicans win control of the House in November’s midterm elections, tweeting: “Attorney-General Garland, preserve your documents and clear your calendar.”
Even Mr. Pence, who has been conducting what many see as a proxy war against his former boss by endorsing rival candidates in state GOP primaries, weighed in. “After years where FBI agents were found to be acting on political motivation during our administration, the appearance of continued partisanship by the Justice Department must be addressed,” he tweeted, an apparent reference to a 2017-2019 investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
It is not hard to imagine where all this could lead. If Mr. Trump’s most ardent supporters still cling to his fabrications about a stolen 2020 election, what are the chances they are ever going to see the several criminal and civil investigations of the former president as anything other than harassment by “deep state” agents to prevent him from running again?
Alas, the events of this week – including Mr. Trump’s Wednesday move to invoke the Fifth Amendment, refusing to answer questions during a deposition by New York’s attorney-general in a civil investigation into potential wrongdoings in his real-estate business – will enable Mr. Trump to continue to portray himself as the target of endless “witch hunts.”
Mr. Garland has been under intense pressure to publicly disclose the contents of the warrant FBI agents used to execute their search at Mar-a-Lago. It was Mr. Trump himself who revealed his residence had been “raided.” The Justice Department moved late Thursday to ask a court to release the warrant, in effect daring Mr. Trump to challenge efforts to make the information public.
A criminal indictment of Mr. Trump by the Justice Department in either the presidential records or Jan. 6 case (or both) would inflame political tensions and, more worrisome, could unleash a wave of political violence across the United States. Mr. Garland cannot be indifferent to that possibility, no matter how much he insists that “no person is above the law in this country.”
“The Justice Department is unleashing political furies it can’t control and may not understand,” a Wall Street Journal editorial said this week, “and the risks for the department and the country are as great as they are for Mr. Trump.”
In other words, is prosecuting the former president for any crimes he committed worth the toll it would take on an already fractured country, especially if it risks enhancing Mr. Trump’s stature among his supporters?
Just be glad you are not the person who must answer that question. Mr. Garland is.
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