The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The media shouldn’t amplify the GOP’s crazed anti-FBI rhetoric

Supporters of former president Donald Trump wave flags outside his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., on Aug. 9. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

Just as with the “big lie” of a stolen election, the GOP’s newest big lie — that the FBI is abusing its power in searching former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home for improperly removed documents — is as dangerous as it is false.

Republicans are using the incendiary claim — including comparisons of the FBI’s lawfully executed warrant to Nazi violence — to rile up their base and undermine the rule of law. They risk inciting violence from the same unhinged forces that stormed the U.S. Capitol.

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Trump’s alleged document removal implicates multiple criminal statutes, including Section 1924(a) of Title 18 in the U.S. Code, which prohibits removal and retention of classified documents, and Section 2071 of Title 18, which, as Just Security reports, “makes it a crime to willfully and unlawfully remove a government record with the intent to conceal or destroy it or to conceal or destroy such documents already in one’s custody.”

The FBI search was no lark. A grand jury was impaneled in the spring to look into document removal; the search required a showing of probable cause before a federal magistrate.

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GOP leaders vowing to investigate the FBI — in essence, stop the investigation in order to protect Trump — have no basis for their accusations of abuse of power. They certainly know a warrant requires probable cause, meaning the judicial branch has weighed in on the propriety of the search. Having joined in on the calls to “lock her up!” when Hillary Clinton was the subject of an FBI investigation, they ostensibly know these are serious matters.

Nevertheless, once more many in the media are uncritically regurgitating GOP false accusations, sharing Republicans’ obscene comparisons of the FBI to Nazis and even repeating ridiculous conspiracy theories that evidence was planted. In doing so, the media are amplifying ominous warnings — threats, really — that the FBI will regret this. Far too many outlets take at face value that Republicans are “outraged” rather than acknowledging that many Republicans fully understand the search warrant process and are trying to whip up their base.

When considering an invitation to Republican propagandists to appear on TV or when airing their attacks on law enforcement (who must execute warrants every day, running the risk of violent responses), the media might want to rethink their role in helping to stoke another MAGA meltdown. At the very least, they should ask Republicans some tough questions:

  • Where is the evidence of abuse by the FBI or Justice Department?
  • Since a federal magistrate must sign off on a warrant, are you accusing the judiciary of abuse of power?
  • Why was the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails appropriate but investigation of Trump’s document removal a horrible abuse?
  • Trump could release his search warrant if he wanted to. Why hasn’t he? Have you asked him to?
  • Trump himself signed a law increasing the penalty for anyone who “knowingly removes such documents or materials without authority and with the intent to retain such documents or materials at an unauthorized location” from one to five years. Isn’t this a serious crime? Should the Justice Department not enforce this law?
  • Since the FBI cannot comment on pending investigations or reveal grand jury information, why are you demanding an “explanation” of the search? Isn’t threatening to investigate the investigators an attempt to chill (i.e., “obstruct”) the investigation?
  • Why are some Republicans now calling to defund the FBI? How can the party claim to be on the side of law enforcement with such proposals?
  • Is Trump subject to laws prohibiting unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents, conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding and solicitation of voting fraud (under Georgia statute)?
  • Since you’ve already asserted without evidence that the FBI abused its power, why would Americans trust any “investigation” you oversaw?
  • When you say a search of a former president’s home has never happened before, has there ever been a president who instigated a coup attempt? Has there ever been a president who encouraged submission of phony electors? Or one who removed 15 boxes of presidential documents from the White House, including highly classified material?

This is yet another dangerous moment in which Republicans are fanning the flames of indignation with lies, unfounded accusations and baseless conspiracy theories. This time, the media should reflect on its own role in enabling the GOP to tear down our democracy.

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