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Time to Admit: The Mar-a-Lago Raid was Good
As Trump faces criminal charges, a look back at the last law enforcement action against him that was supposedly going to cause terrible things, but didn't
On August 8, 2022 the FBI executed a search warrant at Donald Trump’s Florida club/residence Mar-a-Lago. Trump and his supporters cried foul, much as they’re doing now in response to him getting indicted in New York, decrying the unprecedented law enforcement action against a former president (and ignoring or downplaying his unprecedentedly criminal actions).
Last year, Trump was holding sensitive national security material he improperly, possibly illegally took when leaving office. The government tried various quiet avenues to recover it, Trump wouldn’t comply, and repeatedly lied about it. All that obstruction makes this different from other classified document cases, and raises the possibility of felony charges that require proving intent.
Then as now, Trump lied a lot, cast himself as a persecuted victim, denounced federal law enforcement, called for protests, and unsubtly hinted at violence. His hardcore supporters agreed—there was a noticeable increase in online threats—and most Republicans at minimum went along with Trump’s narrative. Some more centrist voices worried that the unprecedented FBI raid of a former president’s home would undermine public confidence in rule of law.
Then virtually none of that happened. Despite the heated rhetoric, there were no mass protests, certainly nothing close to the chaos of January 6th. There was only one act of violence in response—a 42-year old man tried attacking an FBI office in Cincinnati—which ended with the shooter dead and no one else hurt. That episode indicates a threat of political violence we should take seriously, but also should keep in perspective. A national uprising that would make the Department of Justice rue the day it enforced the law against Donald Trump it was not.
Public confidence in rule of law wasn’t harmed either. A Politico/Morning Consult poll found that 49 percent of Americans approved of the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago raid, and 37 percent disapproved. This week, Morning Consult found that 51 percent approve of Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg indicting Trump, and 38 percent disapprove. A Marris poll found 56 percent say that indicting Trump is “fair” (41 percent disagree), and a Quinnipiac poll found 57 percent say the charges should disqualify Trump from running for president again (38 percent disagree).
Republicans who always defend Trump defended him after the Mar-a-Lago raid, Americans who already believe the “deep state” is persecuting him worked the new events into their conspiracy theories, and the public at large barely budged. If anything, Americans grew a little more confident in their institutions. Which makes sense, since elite impunity is worse for public confidence in the legal system than officials enforcing the law against rich, well-connected criminals.
The one noticeable shift in public opinion is Republican primary voters expressing more support for Trump relative to rivals for the 2024 nomination, such as Florida governor Ron DeSantis. But that’s different from confidence in the legal system.
I don’t think Republicans should pick a politician under indictment as their standard bearer, but if that’s what they want, it’s up to them. It would be absurd for law enforcement officials to make prosecutorial decisions based on guessing how Republican primary voters will react, and trying to manipulate them into picking or rejecting any given candidate.
While none of the threatened negatives materialized, the positive effects of the Mar-a-Lago raid are clear. Most importantly, the government recovered classified documents from an unsecured location, one that suspected Chinese spies have infiltrated before. DOJ apparently did it by the book, showing considerable deference to Trump’s status as a former president, using clear video evidence to convince a judge to sign a warrant, and their actions have held up in court.
The Mar-a-Lago search also prompted current president Joe Biden and former vice president Mike Pence to search their homes and offices for classified material. They found some, and in sharp contrast to Trump, returned it in cooperation with the government. That material was likely less sensitive than some of the stuff Trump was hoarding, but it’s still good to get it back where it belongs.
While pundits fretted that Biden and Pence finding classified documents would kill the case against Trump, the American public seems to get the difference between obstruction and cooperation. A special counsel, Jack Smith, is investigating Trump and his attorneys’ potentially criminal conduct.
It’s been eight months since the Mar-a-Lago raid, enough to conclude that it worked out well. Keep that in mind as people argue that law enforcement should let Donald Trump’s crimes slide because acting like no one is above the law is too dangerous.