Mar-a-Lago: Eight Questions and Answers

Scales of justice with question mark.
Scales of justice with question mark. Image by Esquivalience, used under Creative Commons license.

Question #1: Did the FBI “raid” Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence?

Answer: No. The FBI executed a search warrant. A search warrant is issued by a judge. In order to get a search warrant, the prosecutor must demonstrate probable cause to believe two things: that a crime has been committed and that evidence of the crime will be found on the premises to be searched. 

Trump said there was no difference between Watergate and the FBI actions. That is arrant nonsense. Watergate was a burglary committed by criminals who clandestinely broke into offices in the dead of night. At Mar-a-Lago, the FBI executed a search warrant openly and in the full light of day, pursuant to a legal court order. 

Question #2: Why don’t we know what the search warrant says? 

Answer: The search warrants is not public, and the Justice Department is not supposed to make public statements about it. Attorney General Merrick Garland explained: “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.” 

BUT—Trump knows what the search warrant says, and what the FBI agents were searching for. He knows because, as a matter of law, the subject of the search warrant is given a copy of it. Unlike the Justice Department, Trump is completely free to disclose the search warrant to the press. He could post a copy on social media or send it to every news outlet there is. He has not done so. He is not revealing what the search warrant says. 

Question #3: What did the FBI find at Mar-a-Lago?

Answer: We know they took away boxes of something. We don’t know what was in the boxes. That is not public information. One of the president’s lawyers said that the FBI took about 12 boxes, but she refused to say what was in those boxes. 

BUT—again, Trump knows. He was given a list of what the FBI removed from his basement storage room, his office, his safe, and his home. He is free to make that list public at any time. Instead, he has kept it secret. 

Question #4: Do we know anything about what the FBI was looking for?

Answer: We have informed guesses about this. 

We know that Trump illegally removed official records from the White House when he left. We know that these records are the property of the United States, and should be in the National Archives. Taking and keeping these documents is against the law.

We know that he has been repeatedly asked to return these records. We know that he has returned some, but not all, of the documents. We also know that some of the documents were classified information that should never have left the White House. 

News reports say that the FBI was looking for more of these documents. That may well be true, but at this point, only the Justice Department and Trump and the judge who issued the search warrant know for sure.

Question #5: Is there anything else that the FBI could have been looking for?

Answer: Sure. They could be looking for evidence of other crimes. Trump is the subject on multiple criminal investigations, from the unlawful possession of classified government documents to problems with his tax returns and his businesses’ tax returns and fraudulent practices to his attempts to overturn the 2020 election.

On August 10, the former president appeared for a long-delayed deposition with the New York attorney general. Rather than answer any questions, he “took the Fifth” 400 times, invoking is Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination as the reason for refusing to answer questions. That’s a reversal of his long-standing criticism of anyone who takes the Fifth. Speaking at a campaign rally in Iowa in 2016, he said “You see the mob takes the Fifth. If you’re innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?”

So far, I haven’t heard of any criminal investigation focused on the mysteriously missing gifts that he (and his family members and cabinet officers) received from foreign governments. Any gifts valued at more than $415 are supposed to be the property of the U.S. government, not the president or other officials. Trump failed to make the (legally required) accounting of gifts received, and at least some are known to be missing

Question #6: Is the FBI controlled by Democratic politicians?

No. The director of the FBI is Christopher Wray, who was appointed by Trump in 2017.

Question #7: What happens now? 

Under the law, the evidence seized by the FBI may be used in the grand jury investigation and possibly as evidence in a future criminal prosecution. 

Outside the law, FBI agents received threats. ABC reported

“The President of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA) called the recent threats against FBI agents in the wake of the raid on Mar-a-Lago “politically motivated threats of violence” and “unprecedented,” in a statement Wednesday.”

Trump supporters rallied to his side, calling on him to announce his candidacy for president in 2024. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy threatened future investigations and prosecutions of Attorney General Merrick Garland. 

The most virulent and violent Trump supporters threatened more than investigations. Vox reported

“The posters on Patriots.win, a radical pro-Trump web forum, are thinking along these lines. ‘They’re treating it as a hot civil war,’ one poster writes in the thread on the Mar-a-Lago raid. ‘When this is all said and done, the people responsible for these tyrannical actions need to be hanged, and memorialized with statues of loafers and high heels cast in bronze in their home towns.’

“The most popular response in the thread is much shorter, just three words long: ‘lock and load.’”

Question #8: Is there any precedent for searching an ex-president’s home? 

Answer: Nope. There’s also no precedent for a president bragging that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any supporters. Or that the way to approach women is “just grab them by the pussy.” As Jonathan Chait wrote in New York

“If Republicans don’t want the humiliation of a former president their base adores facing potential prosecution, they should have chosen a president who wasn’t a lifelong crook.”

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