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Opinion The FBI goes after Trump again, and this time, it has really blundered

A supporter outside Donald Trump's club in Bedminster, N.J., on Aug. 9 protests the FBI search a day earlier of the former president's Mar-a-Lago residence in Palm Beach, Fla. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

The unprecedented FBI search of former president Donald Trump’s Palm Beach, Fla., home might go down as one of the most catastrophic mistakes in law enforcement history — one already widely seen by Republicans as an act of political retribution by a bureau whose relentless pursuit of Trump has destroyed its credibility. It also makes it far more likely that Trump will win the GOP nomination and take back the White House in 2024.

Let’s be clear: The mishandling of classified material is a serious matter. After Sandy Berger, a former national security adviser to President Bill Clinton, was caught removing classified documents from a secure reading room at the National Archives, he pleaded guilty in 2005 to a misdemeanor charge of unauthorized removal and retention of classified material and was sentenced to two years’ probation and 100 hours of community service, fined $50,000, and stripped of his security clearance for three years. He also relinquished his license to practice law to avoid disbarment.

Many — this columnist included — have cited Berger’s punishment in arguing that the same standard should apply to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton for keeping classified information on her private email servers. According to former FBI director James B. Comey, those servers held 110 messages containing classified information, including “seven e-mail chains [concerning] matters that were classified at the Top Secret/Special Access Program level” — the highest level of classification. Worse still, the Justice Department inspector general reported that the FBI’s Inspection Division found that classified intelligence improperly stored and transmitted on Clinton’s server “was compromised by unauthorized individuals, to include foreign governments or intelligence services, via cyber intrusion or other means.”

Hugh Hewitt: Trump should make the search warrant public

But the FBI did not raid Clinton’s home in Chappaqua, N.Y. And despite the fact that what Comey publicly called Clinton’s “careless … handling of very sensitive, highly classified information” allowed foreign adversaries to obtain U.S. secrets, the FBI director determined that “no charges are appropriate in this case.”

Many who argued then that Clinton’s mishandling of highly classified information was no big deal are cheering Monday’s search of Trump’s home for the same alleged crime. Clinton lawyer Marc Elias had the audacity to tweet that one of the penalties for Trump’s alleged misconduct could include being “disqualified from holding any office under the United States” (though Elias conceded that the law might not apply to a president).

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While many facts are not yet known, we can know this much: The hypocrisy is rank. If Trump is now prosecuted for what might be a far less serious violation (there is no evidence that any intelligence he may have had in his possession was compromised by foreign intelligence services), his supporters will be right to cry foul.

The decision to search Trump’s residence comes at a time when the FBI’s credibility lies in tatters. Americans know that Comey misled them when he said that the Democrat-funded Steele dossier was merely “part of a broader mosaic” of information presented in the FBI’s applications to wiretap former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page — because the Justice Department’s inspector general found that it was in fact “central and essential” to the applications. We then learned that FBI officials had falsified or withheld evidence presented to the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in four surveillance applications, which led to a stinging rebuke from the court’s presiding judge, Rosemary Collyer, who said the bureau’s misconduct called into question “whether information contained in other FBI applications is reliable.”

Dana Milbank: GOP hysteria over the Mar-a-Lago search is an invitation to violence

Then, after spending two years and tens of millions of dollars investigating Trump, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III cleared Trump of engaging in a criminal conspiracy with Russia. The whole Trump-Russia collusion narrative was nothing more than a conspiracy theory — and it decimated public trust in the FBI. A Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll following the 2019 release of the Mueller report found that 53 percent of Americans said that “bias against President Trump in the FBI played a role in launching investigations against him,” and 62 percent supported appointing a special counsel to investigate possible abuses by the FBI.

That’s not all. Last month, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) reported that multiple FBI whistleblowers had come to him with allegations that senior FBI officials had engaged in a scheme to falsely portray credible evidence related to Hunter Biden’s financial and foreign business activities as foreign disinformation to stop further investigation from going forward. “If these allegations are true and accurate,” Grassley wrote in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, “the Justice Department and FBI are ... institutionally corrupted to their very core.” (Wray has called the allegations “deeply troubling.”)

Now, an agency that has shattered public trust in its fairness and objectivity has decided to conduct the first search in U.S. history of the home of a former U.S. president. If the Justice Department now tries to prosecute Trump for the same crimes for which it declined to prosecute Hillary Clinton, it will cause Republicans to rally around him. And if Democrats think he can’t win back the presidency, they should recall their shock when he won the first time.