Perhaps the central question about the F.B.I.’s search of Donald Trump’s Florida home is whether it is a relatively narrow attempt to recover classified documents — or much more than that.
Either scenario is plausible at this point. The Justice Department has long been aggressive about investigating former officials whom it suspects of improperly handling classified material, including Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus. If the F.B.I. search merely leads to a legalistic debate about what’s classified, it probably will not damage Trump’s political future.
But it also seems possible that the search is a sign of a major new legal problem for him. People familiar with the search told The Times that it was not related to the Justice Department’s investigation into the Jan. 6 attack and Trump’s role in it. And it’s unlikely that Merrick Garland, the attorney general, would have allowed the search-warrant request — or that a federal judge would have approved it, as was required — unless it involved something important.
“I don’t think you get a judge to sign off on a search warrant for an ex-president’s house lightly,” Charlie Savage, a Times reporter who has been covering legal issues since the George W. Bush administration, said. “I think the world looks pretty different today than it did 48 hours ago.” (It’s even possible that Trump could be prosecuted over classified documents alone, although that might not keep him from holding office again.)
As Charlie emphasizes, there is still much more that’s unknown about the search than known. That probably won’t change until the Justice Department gets much closer to making a decision about how to conclude its investigation. “A central tenet of the way in which the Justice Department investigates and a central tenet of the rule of law is that we do not do our investigations in public,” Garland recently said.
But at least two big points seem clear. First, even though Garland has said that nobody is above the law, the Justice Department will not treat Trump like any other citizen. The bar for filing criminal charges against him will be higher, given that he is a former president who may run again — against the current president.
“The considerations when you’re talking about a political leader are certainly different and harder,” Andrew Goldstein, a former federal prosecutor who investigated Trump’s ties to Russia, recently told The Times. “You have the very clear and important rule that the Department of Justice should try in every way possible not to interfere with elections, to not take steps using the criminal process that could end up affecting the political process.”
Still, some legal experts who previously criticized Garland for moving too timidly in investigating Trump said they were encouraged by the Justice Department’s recent signs of boldness, including the Mar-a-Lago search. Andrew Weissmann, another former prosecutor who previously investigated Trump, is one of those experts (as he explained in this New Yorker interview). Quinta Jurecic, a senior editor at Lawfare, is another. “At what point does not investigating and not prosecuting a former president itself indicate that the rule of law is being undermined because it sends a signal that this person is above the law?” Jurecic told us.
She added: “That doesn’t mean that this is going to translate to an indictment of the president.”
The second point is that Trump appears to be a subject of multiple criminal investigations — and prosecutors may decide that his violations of the law were so significant as to deserve prosecution. One of those investigations is by state prosecutors in Georgia, who may not be as cautious about charging a former president as Garland seems likely to be.
Either way, the answer will probably become clear well before November 2024. Prosecutors — especially at the Justice Department — generally try to avoid making announcements about investigations into political candidates during a campaign. (James Comey’s decision to ignore that tradition and announce he had reopened an investigation into Clinton late in the 2016 campaign was a notable exception, and many experts believe he erred in doing so.)
The rest of today’s newsletter summarizes the latest Times reporting about the F.B.I. search of Mar-a-Lago — and also gives you a quick overview of the multiple investigations Trump is facing.
Before the raid, Justice Department officials had grown concerned that Trump had kept some documents, despite returning others.
If convicted, could Trump be barred from holding office? A relevant law is untested.
The Justice Department did not give the White House advance notice of the search, President Biden’s press secretary said.
Representative Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican who pushed to overturn Trump’s loss, said the F.B.I. had seized his cellphone.
The Trump investigations
Prosecutors in Georgia are investigating efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn his 2020 election loss there, including a phone call in which Trump asked an election official to “find” additional votes. The Times’s Annie Karni explains the possible charges.
The Justice Department is also questioning witnesses before a grand jury about Trump’s efforts to reverse his election loss. And federal prosecutors are examining his allies’ plan to submit fake electors from key states to disrupt certification of Biden’s win.
Trump faces a few other investigations, some of which could result in civil but not criminal penalties. The main exception is a criminal inquiry into his business by the Manhattan district attorney, but that seems to have unraveled.
Trump will face questioning under oath today by the New York attorney general’s office, which is investigating his business practices.
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PLAY, WATCH, EAT
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