WASHINGTON — In approving the unprecedented search of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, Justice Department leaders have bet the house on their handling of an investigation that will have profound implications for the future of both federal law enforcement and American democracy.
Monday’s hour-long search for Trump’s Florida resort in connection with an investigation into classified documents Trump allegedly kept on the property is set to resonate in American politics in the near future.
In addition to threats from Trump supporters calling for “civil war,” the Justice Department and the FBI are facing an avalanche of calls from lawmakers and even some in the media to violate long-standing protocols and release information about the investigation, which could be derogatory to Trump, a suspected 2024 presidential candidate who has not been charged with a crime.
In all respects, Justice Department leaders handled the search by the book, a prudence that could be helpful in an extraordinary case like this. Yet they have given the former president far more leeway than any search warrant item in a more mundane investigation. The search was done quietly without any media frenzy, and according to a Secret Service official, special FBI agents involved in the search didn’t even wear the standard identification gear that would be used in typical searches.
Given the stakes, the Justice Department and the FBI were even quieter than usual, even refusing to confirm law enforcement activities in Mar-a-Lago. That has led to most of the information on the search coming from Trump’s team and even directly from Trump, a notoriously unreliable narrator who has an incentive to portray himself as the innocent victim of overreach by a “deep state” to to get him.
A Trump-appointed former US attorney described he was “torn” over whether or not to break protocol in this “historic, almost breathtaking situation.” However, that person noted, there is no law or congressional mandate for the department to adhere to protocol.
“You don’t want to question someone if the media isn’t doing it right, or just right,” said the former US attorney. “But what I would also say is that if you’re dealing with the former president of the United States and a search warrant is being executed on his house, it’s definitely a situation where the policy doesn’t apply.
“If the DOJ is unwilling to release more information about the predication behind the search warrant, then it would only be helpful to know that both the Director of the FBI and the United States Attorney General’s action, execution of have approved the search warrant. .”
But another former U.S. attorney, Joyce White Vance, an NBC News legal analyst, said violating standard practice in this case would backfire, as the Justice Department should not release derogatory information about people it doesn’t formally have. sued.
“Play that out a little bit: what do these people want?” said Vance, an Obama appointee. “Do they want Merrick Garland to come out and say, ‘Here’s all our evidence against Donald Trump’? Do they really think the DOJ should try its business in the press? That’s not what we want in a functioning, rule of law country of ours Department of Justice.”
Vance said the Justice Department’s handling of the case shows that Garland, the attorney general, is doing things by the book.
“Merrick Garland’s goal is to restore the department to a place where that’s the normal course of action: in a court of law, with the rules,” Vance said.
“I think Merrick Garland understands that DOJ is putting his future on every case, and his role has been to restore DOJ’s integrity so that in the tough cases like this where he can’t talk about the contents of a search warrant, the public know they can rely on the leadership at DOJ to follow the rules and do things the right way,” said Vance.
Garland, a former judge, has repeatedly spoken of the importance of following Department of Justice protocols. The alleged justification for Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey, according to a 2017 letter Written by former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Comey’s decision to hold a press conference during the 2016 campaign was about how former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handled classified emails.
“Different information is sometimes revealed in the course of criminal investigations and prosecutions, but we never release it for free,” wrote Rosenstein, calling Comey’s actions a “textbook example” of what federal prosecutors and special agents are warned against.
“When federal agents and prosecutors quietly open a criminal investigation, we’re not hiding anything; we’re simply following a long-standing policy of refraining from publishing non-public information,” Rosenstein wrote. “In that context, silence is not concealment.”
Garland is a supporter of that longstanding Justice Department policy.
Justice Department policy makes it clear that derogatory comments about subjects, targets, and even people who have been charged — other than what is in the charges — are inappropriate,” Garland said during his confirmation hearing.
FBI Director Christopher Wray, the lifelong Republican who Trump himself appointed to a 10-year term after he fired Comey, has said he has instilled in agency leaders to make sure they don’t give ammunition to critics who want to. paint their motives as political. Within the FBI, officials have seen the fallout for former agency officials whose personal comments, even internally, have subjected them to intense scrutiny.
“I feel very strongly, and I have communicated consistently since I started as a director, that our people need to make sure that they are not just doing the right thing, that they are doing it the right way and that they avoid … even the appearance of bias or lack of objectivity,” Wray said in recent congressional testimony.
Wray said the FBI he sees is full of “patriots who run off with tremendous integrity and objectivity.”
The Department of Justice and the FBI are already quite swamped by the investigation into the Capitol bombing. Both the department and the office are still coming out of the years of attacks on the FBI of a Republican Party that had historically aligned itself with law enforcement.
Those who have worked for and with the FBI still struggle to adjust to the idea that millions of Trump supporters believe the agency, a generally conservative-oriented law enforcement organization, is some sort of left-wing bastion. A right-wing former FBI official described the agency as a “pretty conservative, right-wing organization trying to separate itself from politics.”
The Trump-appointed former US attorney said he “implicitly” trusted the FBI and that calls by some far-right members of Congress to “define” the FBI were exactly what Republicans should avoid if they want “law and order.” campaigns against the Democrats.
Vance said the portrayal of the FBI by Republicans and in conservative media is out of touch with reality.
“I’m sure the people who are most shocked to hear that they are radical liberals are the FBI’s leadership,” Vance said. “The idea that the FBI is essentially not a conservative-oriented organization is really silly, and it shows how far the Trump people are willing to go to justify the unwarranted.”
A Justice Department official declined to comment on this article, of course.