FBI, DOJ must be transparent about search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate

·3 min read

The FBI’s search Monday of former President Donald Trump’s home is being construed as confirming two opposing views.

For those opposed to Trump, the FBI’s historic action marks the beginning of a long-awaited reckoning for a man whose ability to escape consequences for his actions has earned him the nickname “Teflon Don.” Taking strong action in probing a former president also affirms that in the U.S. no one is above the law.

For Trump’s supporters, the news of federal agents swarming Trump’s Palm Beach residence at his private Mar-a-Lago club and breaking into a safe confirms that powerful individuals and groups are threatened by Trump’s challenge to the so-called “Deep State.” For them, the search is evidence of entrenched powers trying to derail Trump’s possible effort to return to the Oval Office in 2024 after losing a 2020 election they believe was rigged against him.

The truth beyond these reflexive interpretations is that the public simply doesn’t know what the FBI action means. Given the heat on both sides, it’s crucial that the Department of Justice, the FBI and Attorney General Merrick Garland be as transparent as possible about what justified the search and what it may have uncovered.

That senior Department of Justice officials sought the search and that a federal magistrate judge approved a search warrant for it suggests that the government had good cause to take such dramatic and politically explosive action. The New York Times, quoting anonymous sources, said the investigation appears to be focused on 15 boxes of material – some containing classified documents – that Trump removed from the White House when his presidency ended and brought with him to Mar-a-Lago.

By law, the material is federal property that should have been turned over when Trump left office. After a delay, he did return the boxes to the National Archives in February. The search may be focused on classified materials that were copied or not returned, but the actual reason has not yet been disclosed.

Trump’s opponents should not rush to judgment. The FBI’s action may have turned up nothing. And Trump’s supporters should likewise wait before asserting that the investigation is a baseless political persecution.

Of course, what should happen and what is happening are much different. Trump is fanning the persecution theme. Trump said in a statement: “After working and cooperating with the relevant Government agencies, this unannounced raid on my home was not necessary or appropriate.”

The New York Times reported that Trump’s political operation is already using the event to solicit contributions from his supporters.

Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) threatened to investigate Garland and the FBI if Republicans gain control of the House in November. And Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop of North Carolina is among many who are stoking outrage with unsubstantiated speculation that the raid was political.

Trump-wary Republicans, however, are notably quiet. They know there’s plenty of smoke around Trump and they don’t want to defend him should a fire be found.

President Biden is also taking a cautious approach. The White House said the president was unaware of the FBI search and White House officials said they learned of it through Twitter.

The aggressive move by the FBI comes as Trump is facing multiple investigations that include looking into his role in the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, his effort to change election results in Georgia and his business practices in New York.

For Trump’s opponents, these probes have been too slow to produce results. For his supporters, the scrutiny is nothing more than political harassment.

But impatience on one side and protests on the other will not resolve questions about whether Trump has broken the law. The U.S. has a system for answering those questions. The process must run its course, but investigators should be especially aware of the need to be transparent about what they’re looking for – and what they’re finding, if anything.