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Maybe This Time

Trump Is Drowning in the Mar-a-Lago Scandal

His run-in with the DOJ may not land him in prison, but it has the potential to sap his political power when he needs it the most.

Brandon Bell/Getty Images

No other figure in the history of American politics has enjoyed the invincibility of Donald Trump. His presidency survived two impeachments and a long list of scandals, offering a dizzying variety of peccadilloes, from the horrific to the ridiculous. There are inhuman scandals like the Trump administration’s separation of hundreds of families at the southern border. There are ethics scandals like Trump firing James Comey after the FBI director denied Trump’s request to stop the investigation of Michael Flynn. There are shameful scandals like Trump equating the neo-Nazis and counterprotesters at Charlottesville. There are stupid scandals like Trump displaying a Sharpie-doctored weather map because he refused to admit he sent out a tweet mispredicting the trajectory of Hurricane Dorian. Despite this litany of wrongs, or perhaps because of it, Trump has retained the cultish devotion of a sizable bloc of the American electorate and the Republican Party.

But the FBI’s August 8 search of Mar-a-Lago registers on a different level from previous scandals. It doesn’t quite fit into any of Trump’s typical categories of impropriety. After each previous Trump misadventure, Republican politicians and operatives appearing before the press stuck to uniform talking points: Trump was justified in firing Comey because the FBI director lost the confidence of the country. In the full context, Trump actually condemned the neo-Nazis at Charlottesville. Or if all else failed, they could fall back on claims of ignorance: I didn’t see the tweet.

Republicans were briefly united in the immediate aftermath of the Mar-a-Lago search, rallying behind the notion that the Justice Department—or Attorney General Merrick Garland himself—had overplayed its hand. But their defenses, even from the start, lacked order and consistency. A large segment of the GOP immediately attacked the FBI; a Trump supporter was subsequently inspired to open fire on the bureau’s Cincinnati field office. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who appeared grinning side by side with Trump only a week before the Mar-a-Lago search, began selling DEFUND THE FBI T-shirts, while Representative Dan Crenshaw appeared on CNN and denounced calls to defund federal law enforcement as “crazy” and claimed that “99 percent of Republicans aren’t on that train.”

Lately, the main Republican talking head running damage control in the wake of the Mar-a-Lago search has been Representative Mike Turner—the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee. Turner led the House Republicans’ press conference following the Mar-a-Lago raid, but his comments lacked the cohesiveness necessary to establish a counternarrative at the outset. Since then, as new facts have emerged, Turner has been left to slalom along, haplessly revising and extending his previous remarks. He has at times suggested that the classified materials at Mar-a-Lago may not have been “truly classified” and noted that the FBI retrieved papers from Mar-a-Lago and that “papers are static.” At other moments, Turner has proposed that Trump may have held onto classified documents to assist him in writing his memoirs.

In an appearance on Fox News immediately after the Mar-a-Lago search, Turner said, “If this turns out to be merely a clerical issue, that [Trump] in effect checked out books too long from the archivist, then this clearly is a political attack.” It was a profoundly shortsighted hypothesis, one that Turner—who has been in Congress since 2003—should have known would become laughable as more facts began to emerge.

Trump and his inner circle also got badly caught out on a foolhardy bluff. At first, the former president’s legal team demanded the Justice Department release the warrant, apparently believing it could scandalize the operation by insinuating a lack of transparency. Its plan backfired when Garland agreed. The warrant (unsealed only three days after the raid) was eye-popping in its seriousness. Agents retrieved 11 sets of classified documents, some of which were marked as containing the highest levels of government secrets. The warrant also revealed that Trump is being investigated for possible violations of the Espionage Act.

The Mar-a-Lago search warrant is only seven pages long, but the gravity of those seven pages sets the incident apart from any other scandal in Trump’s history. Former Trump confidant Michael Cohen (recently out of prison for his role in the Stormy Daniels scandal) told The New Republic, “The raid on Mar-a-Lago differs from any other scandal Donald has been involved with over the years, in that this particular matter involves the national security of the United States of America.”

In the days following the release of the warrant, Republicans finally wised up and fell silent in their defenses of Trump, turning instead to evergreen issues such as immigration and inflation, which they believe will bring success in the midterms.

Their withdrawal has left the defense of Trump in the hands of bottom-of-the-barrel surrogates like Kash Patel, the former Devin Nunes aide who recently claimed on Fox News that Trump can “literally stand over a set of documents and say, ‘These are now declassified,’ and that is done with definitive action immediately.” (As you might expect, this is not exactly true; documents are not declassified the moment a sitting president declares them as such. Declassification is a process that involves many more people than Donald Trump.)

The Espionage Act also predates the classification system and instead relates to information “connected to the national defense.” National security lawyer Bradley Moss told The New Republic, “It is, in my view, very unlikely that the Justice Department would bring an Espionage Act claim for unclassified information, if in fact it was truly declassified.”

In his semi-regular stream of typical shouting-at-clouds statements, Trump himself has insisted that all the documents retrieved at Mar-a-Lago were declassified. Sprinkled between those statements on his website’s newsfeed are a series of stories from right-wing outlets pushing the notion that the FBI raid will boost Republican candidates in the midterms and Trump in 2024.

But the polls (and late-August election results) aren’t as rosy for Republicans as Trump’s newsfeed suggests: Democrats picked up a swing seat in New York’s 19th congressional district, and the slight Republican polling bump in the generic congressional ballot has since been erased.

The Mar-a-Lago search does seem to have shored up Trump’s support among Republican voters at an ideal moment for the former president. In the weeks before the search, Trump was finally fading from the news cycle as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis began to wrestle the party’s torch away from him. But the 2024 election—and Trump’s ultimate interest is in winning the 2024 election—will require the former president to convince voters outside his cult that he should be sent back to the White House. Even if the Mar-a-Lago search improves Trump’s standing in the GOP primary field, the typical American voter tends to prefer candidates who aren’t under criminal investigation by the FBI. Trump’s viability as a general election candidate was already significantly wounded by the proceedings of the January 6 committee, and despite his delusions, there’s no evidence that the FBI executing a search warrant on his home has improved his image in the eyes of the broad American electorate.

Every day since the Mar-a-Lago search has yielded new reporting and developments in the case—including the fact that Trump might have avoided this mess entirely had he just complied with polite requests to return the materials that were being sought. The former president’s legal team has requested a “special master” to sift through the files taken from Mar-a-Lago. There is also a possibility we may soon see the affidavit: The New York Times reported on Thursday that a federal judge has “ordered that a redacted version of the affidavit used to obtain” the Mar-A-Lago search warrant “be unsealed by noon on Friday.” But the immediate flurry of news has mostly abated. Now we are all staring into the long horizon that is the FBI’s criminal investigation into Trump.

That horizon is likely to stretch into 2024—Trump hasn’t yet been indicted, and it’s improbable that an indictment comes before the midterms. Recent federal cases related to classified information have stretched on for years. NSA employee Nghia H. Pho was charged with willful retention of classified information in 2015 and sentenced three years later. The FBI’s 2019 search of the home of former Air Force contractor Izaak Vincent Kemp yielded 2,500 pages of classified material—but he wasn’t sentenced until 2021. Rather famously, the federal investigation into General Dave Petraeus began in 2012—the former general wasn’t sentenced for mishandling classified materials until 2015.

Though the aforementioned cases all related to classified information, none of them involved a former president. And Trump is not a typical former president: Former presidents play golf with each other; they take up painting. Even Nixon settled for attempting to rehab his image. Trump has shown no interest in any such pastimes. He is interested only in returning to the power he enjoyed and the invincibility on which he once relied. He has, however, now fallen into a new sort of scandal: one that has driven away key allies, left his remaining defenders in arrears, and threatens to sap and diminish his political potency as the investigation drags on interminably into the near future—and as Trumpian alternatives like DeSantis wait in the wings.