The stunning search of former US president Donald Trump’s Florida home by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) a week ago has triggered a legal and political earthquake in the US that has provided a much-welcome booster to Trump’s anticipated bid to run for the White House again in 2024.
In the aftermath of what was seen as an unprecedented move against a former president, Trump incited a backlash that rallied his supporters and deepened the dangerous divisions that have marked US politics over the past decade.
Moreover, the wave of Republican outrage convinced possible rivals aiming to win the party’s nomination for the upcoming presidential elections to stand by him and to criticise the FBI search.
For Trump loyalists, claims by the FBI that it has a serious case against the former president and the announcement that it has seized more than a dozen sets of classified documents from his Florida Mar-a-Lago home, illegally taken with him after leaving the White House, are false and part of a political witch-hunt by the “deep state” and the current Democratic administration to prevent him from running again in 2024.
No other former president has had his home searched by the FBI, and the Republicans charge that the case against Trump is exaggerated and politically motivated. His lawyers and supporters also point out that many of the documents seized had already been declassified by the former president and posed no threat to US national security.
The FBI and the department of justice (DOJ) have previously not been immune to charges that they are political tools to be used by the sitting president, whether Democrat or Republican.
When the FBI announced its investigations in 2015 into charges that former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had abused her private email to send official messages while serving as secretary of state under former US president Barack Obama, her supporters accused the security agency of seeking to provide help to her Republican rival.
The slogan “lock her up” was commonly heard chanted by Trump supporters during Trump’s presidential campaign, accusing the FBI of being “soft” on Clinton by refusing to press charges against her.
Similarly, when former FBI director Robert Mueller investigated charges that Trump’s 2016 campaign had received help from Russian intelligence, it was former attorney general William Barr, appointed by Trump, who blocked the release of the full report, leading to charges from Democrats that the decision had been politically motivated.
But the recent FBI search of Trump’s home has pushed the situation to the max for the first time since the 45th president slunk out of Washington after refusing to attend the inauguration of his successor Joe Biden.
Trump and conservative lawmakers and media pundits claim that the FBI is nothing but a weaponised political-enforcement arm for Biden, who is now operating a “police state.” They say that the bureau may even have planted documents during the search to discredit Trump.
The White House has said that Biden learned of the search from media reports and had not been briefed on the investigation by the DOJ until one day later. No credible reporting has surfaced to contradict those claims.
Biden and US Attorney General Merrick Garland have in repeated separate interviews said that the DOJ operates independently. Indeed, some on the left have accused Garland of failing to act with sufficient muscle to prosecute Trump.
The Republican counter-attack has also failed to take into account the fact that a federal judge had to agree there was reason to believe a crime had been committed before he authorised the warrant to search Trump’s home.
Previously sealed court documents released on Friday indicated that prosecutors were probing possible violations of the US Espionage Act, obstruction of justice, and the criminal handling of government records.
However, such official statements have done little to convince the conservative media machine, now in meltdown mode. By using terminology like “raid” and “siege” to describe the legally sanctioned search, Trump and his allies are again painting him as a victim of political persecution, a technique that bonds him tighter to his base and will underpin his likely 2024 White House campaign.
“They have turned the machinery of government and law enforcement into a weapon to attack their political enemies,” Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said on the Fox News TV channel. Fox’s Sean Hannity, one of Trump’s closest advisers, said Biden was wielding the DOJ against his most formidable election foe.
Loyalty to Trump, at least for now, has once more emerged as the paramount concern in the right-wing media in the US. From Fox News to Newsmax to PJ Media to the Blaze to the wilds of right-wing talk radio, YouTube, blogs and social media, the line is consistent.
“It almost feels like a preemptive coup,” conservative talk-show host Buck Sexton told Fox’s Jesse Watters this week.
“This is so wrong, so tyrannical,” said right-wing YouTube and Blaze commentator Steven Crowder on a video call for “war” that had more than 600,000 views in eight hours. “There needs to be a hill you’re willing to die on. This is it,” Crowder added, saying he was not calling for actual violence, but then calling on his viewers to “fight fire with fire.”
“What the Biden administration did today was a shot between the eyes of this Republic,” Fox News host Mark Levin told listeners of his Westwood One radio programme. Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union and the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), wrote that the incident had showed that the US had become a “Third World country.”
Former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik told Newsmax he believed the Democrats “would try to assassinate” the former president.
Except for those few pockets of the conservative media that are wary or even hostile towards Trump, the coverage has blotted out almost all question of what was actually being investigated in favour of outrage over the investigation itself.
As one caption on Fox News memorably put it, “BIDEN’S FBI RANSACKS HOME OF POTENTIAL 2024 OPPONENT.”
The way the FBI search has been depicted on these outlets has played directly into Trump’s rhetoric against the so-called “deep state” stretching back to his earliest campaign days in 2015, in other words his attacks on government officials and professionals as ideologues entrenched in the federal bureaucracy.
Trump remains one of the most polarising characters in US politics, and any further action could have an impact on the midterm elections scheduled for November. His sense of victimisation is one of the key ingredients of his hold over the Republican Party and is sure to become central to his widening showdown with the DOJ.
The conservative counterattack after the FBI’s search of Trump’s home has led to threats against the judge in the case and FBI agents, suggesting that violence still simmers below the surface of a country that is deeply and dangerously divided.
The backlash by Trump and his loyalists is also being seen as a preemptive strike ahead of more investigations into the conduct of the former president, whether politically or financially.
They include several investigations linked to his attempt to overthrow the 2020 elections and interrupt the peaceful transfer of power based on falsehoods about voter fraud that were thrown out by multiple courts.
It remains unclear whether the DOJ will press charges against Trump or any of his associates or if a crime has been committed, even though the officers took away batches of highly classified documents.
There are three fronts on which federal criminal investigations are likely to proceed, quietly before November’s midterm elections but perhaps more loudly afterward: alleged document crimes; conspiracy to defraud the US by seeking to overturn the 2020 elections; and the obstruction of Congress on 6 January 2021.
The controversy over Trump has also had another political effect: it has overshadowed Biden’s best week as president so far, crowned by the passage of his landmark climate and healthcare package.
Given Trump’s power over his supporters and the right-wing media furor, the DOJ’s investigation has already been tainted in the eyes of millions, however it turns out.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.