Thinking Through the Trump Search
What we don’t know so far is more important that what we do.
I want to start with a warning. This is going to be a thoroughly unsatisfactory newsletter. I’m going to talk about the FBI search of Trump documents at Mar-a-Lago, and I’m not going to have any answers at all. I’m barely going to speculate. But I’ve seen enough sheer nonsense online that I think it’s necessary to weigh in with a few thoughts to make sense of what occurred and what happened next.
Let’s do this in question-and-answer format.
Why did the FBI search Mar-a-Lago?
We don’t really know. As of the time of writing, neither the search warrant nor the application for the warrant have been released into the public domain. All we have is reporting from anonymous sources that the raid was apparently related to documents Trump removed from the White House as he left office. For example, here’s how the Washington Post began its coverage this morning:
Former president Donald Trump’s residence at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., was searched Monday by the FBI in what appeared to be part of a long-running investigation of whether documents—some of them top-secret—were taken there instead of being sent to the National Archives when Trump left office.
As Maggie Haberman reports in the New York Times, the search came after Trump had “delayed returning 15 boxes of materials” requested by the National Archives and after federal agents (including a counterintelligence official) visited him earlier this spring “to discuss materials that Mr. Trump had improperly taken with him when he left the White House.”
But consider me skeptical that we have the full explanation for the search. I just finished recording an emergency Advisory Opinions podcast with Sarah Isgur—who just so happens to be a former senior Department of Justice official—and she rightly observed that there are a number of ways of securing classified information without executing a search warrant against a former president and seizing the documents.
There is technically no problem with such an action, but practically, if you’re going to take law enforcement actions that get “civil war” trending on Twitter, then the alleged underlying offense should rise to a certain level of seriousness.
Wait a minute—if this is about classified documents, don’t presidents have the final say?