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FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago lands Merrick Garland in a political firestorm

The partisan outcry was the opposite of what Garland, a former federal judge, has sought in his 17 months on the job

President Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland arrive in the East Room of the White House in Washington on May 16. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)

When President Biden tapped Merrick Garland to lead the Justice Department last year, he selected a cautious appeals court judge known as a political moderate who could build consensus.

Garland, a former federal prosecutor, would attempt to rebuild trust in the sprawling and powerful law enforcement agency after the tumultuous Trump presidency, his supporters said. He would try to convince the public and lawmakers that he was an apolitical attorney general, even as he tackled some of the nation’s most contentious political issues.

But the FBI’s highly unusual court-approved search Monday of former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club put Garland square in the middle of a huge political firestorm. The search, part of a long-running probe into the possible mishandling of presidential documents, drew praise from Democrats who have been hoping the Justice Department would seriously investigate Trump and the ire of conservatives who decried the search as an abuse of power.

Trump called the court-authorized search “prosecutorial misconduct” and the “weaponization of the Justice System.” Some of his supporters say the FBI’s action could galvanize Trump’s base if he runs for president in 2024.

The FBI searched former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club on Aug. 8 as part of an investigation into whether presidential documents were mishandled. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Republican allies on Capitol Hill denounced Garland and pledged to turn the tables and investigate the Justice Department. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said the attorney general should resign or be impeached.

Merrick Garland’s goal is to restore the integrity of the Justice Department. His legacy will still be defined by Trump.

The partisan outcry was the opposite of what Garland has sought in his 17 months on the job, during which he has launched multiple high-profile civil rights investigations and efforts to fight gun trafficking and hate crimes, while also overseeing the sprawling investigation of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol and the unprecedented efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Time and again, Garland has refused to discuss that probe or any other investigation in progress, whether or not it involves the former president. He has repeatedly pledged to follow the facts where they lead, and to hold anyone who breaks the law accountable, regardless of who that person may be.

At news conferences, he dodges reporters’ queries about Trump, which come up inevitably. Two of the four reporters permitted to ask questions at a news conference last week on charges filed against police officers in connection with the killing of Breonna Taylor chose to ask about investigations into Trump. Both times, Garland declined to answer.

For months, Trump’s critics — especially, but not limited to, the left — pummeled Garland for not moving quickly to investigate Trump on multiple fronts. In recent weeks and months, without fanfare, the Justice Department and U.S. attorney’s office in Washington began obtaining communications from people in Trump’s inner circle and subpoenaing witnesses to appear before a grand jury, clearly indicating that Trump’s actions and conversations had become part of the scope of the Jan. 6-related probe.

“You are undoubtedly going to have people saying that this is the ultimate political act,” said Donald B. Ayer, a deputy attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, said of the raid. “But that’s just nonsense. ... He has a job to do.”

The Justice Department would not comment on whether Garland signed off on the FBI raid, and Garland has not discussed it. He made just one public comment on Monday, about the sentencing of three men convicted on federal charges in connection with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a young Black man killed while jogging in his Georgia neighborhood.

“The Justice Department’s prosecution of this case and the court’s sentences today make clear that hate crimes have no place in our country,” Garland said in a statement. “Protecting civil rights and combatting white supremacist violence was a founding purpose of the Justice Department, and one that we will continue to pursue with the urgency it demands.”

What might the Mar-a-Lago search mean for Trump legally?

Kristy Parker, a former federal prosecutor and counsel at the advocacy group Protect Democracy, said that while it’s inevitable the reaction to the search would be politicized, Garland’s silence before and after the search of Trump’s property was critical to him building trust in the process. She said it showed the attorney general wasn’t trying to appeal to any group during the investigation and has been letting the probe run its course.

“It is important to look at the manner of what is being done, and not just the substance of what is being done,” Parker said. “And it’s just as important to depoliticizing the department to ensure that no one is above the law as it is to try to avoid prosecuting the president or someone from the opposite political party.”

But some lawyers questioned why the Justice Department and FBI would execute such a high-profile search on a former president’s residence over missing documents, even if some of them are classified (sitting presidents have broad powers to declassify documents, further complicating the situation).

Stanley Brand, a former House counsel who represents some of the Jan. 6 defendants and witnesses, said that search warrants don’t always yield any blockbuster or useful information. He called the FBI search of Trump’s property a huge escalation in the investigation of documents improperly taken to Mar-a-Lago. If investigators don’t recoup materials that showed that there were serious national consequences for the materials he potentially kept, Brand said, it could tarnish the Justice Department’s reputation.

“If they are trying to rebound from the perception that their decision-making was skewed from the Trump era, this is not going to help that,” Brand said. “Part of it depends on what happens hereafter.”

The Jan. 6 insurrection

The report: The Jan. 6 committee released its final report, marking the culmination of an 18-month investigation into the violent insurrection. Read The Post’s analysis about the committee’s new findings and conclusions.

The final hearing: The House committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol held its final public meeting where members referred four criminal charges against former president Donald Trump and others to the Justice Department. Here’s what the criminal referrals mean.

The riot: On Jan. 6, 2021, a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election results. Five people died on that day or in the immediate aftermath, and 140 police officers were assaulted.

Inside the siege: During the rampage, rioters came perilously close to penetrating the inner sanctums of the building while lawmakers were still there, including former vice president Mike Pence. The Washington Post examined text messages, photos and videos to create a video timeline of what happened on Jan. 6. Here’s what we know about what Trump did on Jan. 6.