Less than a day after the FBI executed a search warrant at former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, bureau investigators have seized the cellphone of Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.). That tells us a few things.
According to hearing testimony, Perry acted as a bridge between then-assistant attorney general Jeffrey Clark and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, pushing Clark forward as a possible replacement for acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen, who was resisting Trump’s fake-elector scheme. Without Perry’s intervention, it’s not clear Clark could have made a move to take Rosen’s job.
Perry also pushed to Meadows the nutty conspiracy that Italian satellites were used to change Trump votes to votes for Joe Biden. And Perry allegedly attended a Dec. 21, 2020, meeting at the White House with other MAGA hard-liners to discuss Trump retaining power. To top it all off, he later asked for a pardon, according to testimony from Cassidy Hutchinson. (Perry has denied this allegation.)
The seizure is an unusual step, given long-standing concerns about congressional protection under the Constitution’s “speech and debate” clause, which shields members for things they say during the course of their legislative duties (although in criminal cases, this has not slowed down law enforcement).
“To anyone who in past 24 hours indicated the Department of Justice was principally interested in document removal,” impeachment co-counsel Norman Eisen told me, this should be a wake-up call. “[Trump’s] documents are one strand, but this is a reminder there is another important strand.” The phony-elector scheme and the events of Jan. 6 remain squarely in the department’s view.
Eisen noted that given concerns about the speech and debate clause, seizing a phone “from a sitting member of Congress indicates the level of probable cause [the DOJ possesses] as to the false-elector scheme.” In short, investigators must have had powerful evidence to obtain a search warrant.
Following the utter meltdown from the GOP after the Mar-a-Lago document retrieval, “seizing a phone is a poke in the eye with a sharp stick,” Eisen said. In other words, Attorney General Merrick Garland will not be intimidated or deterred by Republican caterwauling. If he has probable cause of a crime and finds individuals in possession of materials relating to the crime, he’s going to court to get a search warrant; of that we can now be sure.
The Perry phone warrant also comes just weeks after the phone of former Trump lawyer John Eastman was seized and a warrant was executed at Clark’s house. All appearances suggest it did not take long to cull information and to find a critical link to Perry from there; the available testimony indicates it certainly would be logical for investigators to pursue Perry after a review of Clark’s phone.
Of course, you can count on the Republicans — already threatening to retaliate against the Justice Department — to go berserk. They’ll carry on about congressional rights. They’ll promise to use the House Judiciary Committee to “get to the bottom” of all this if they retake control of the chamber.
But it is far from clear that the American voters will be sympathetic in the run-up to the midterms. Trump’s victim-crying and his Republican amplifiers might have used up what’s left of voters’ patience with all the “How dare we get investigated for crimes!”
Republicans seem bent on turning the upcoming elections into a referendum on whether Trump and conspirators can be investigated and held accountable for alleged crimes. But they might not want to start measuring the drapes in the speaker’s office quite yet. Originally, they thought inflation was the winning issue to land them in the majority, but that issue has moved to the back burner thanks to Republican screeching about Trump.
Weeks of hyperventilating from Republican enablers of Trump might not be the best strategy.