When it comes to the Mar-a-Lago matter, there will be no appeasing Donald Trump and his most fervent supporters. There will be no point at which they acknowledge that any law enforcement activity related to the court-approved search of the former president’s home is legitimate. The sooner we accept this as a fundamental fact about the situation, the better.
This is brought to mind by the news that a federal judge has ordered the Justice Department to produce a redacted version of the affidavit undergirding the search warrant for Trump’s Florida resort. Federal Magistrate Judge Bruce E. Reinhart says he’s “inclined” toward release.
A prediction: If this document is released, Trump and many of his supporters will seize on the redactions as “evidence” that the "real rationale" for the search is being covered up — and that the entire process is irredeemably illegitimate.
This points to a concrete real-world conundrum. Release of the affidavit probably can’t solve a key problem it appears intended to solve: It likely can’t reassure Trump supporters that the process is legitimate, because Trump and his most influential propagandists will never allow that it’s legitimate, no matter what.
It’s hard to say how revealing the affidavit might be. The Justice Department has argued that release of the affidavit — which detailed the rationale that led Reinhart to authorize the search — will jeopardize its investigation and even imperil future cooperation of witnesses.
By next Thursday, the department will offer a version redacted to deal with those dangers. But Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department inspector general, says that to avoid those risks the document will need to be heavily redacted. He predicts the department will argue that going further would compromise the safety of confidential informants, citing threats against the judge.
“MAGA people are making direct threats against anybody associated with this case, including the judge, the FBI agents and anyone providing information against Trump,” Bromwich told me. He said the department is likely to submit “a 95 percent redacted affidavit.”
Trump supporters may argue against assuming that any department redactions were made in good faith. But it’s important to note that Reinhart, who read the full affidavit, will be evaluating whether the department’s redactions are legitimately about protecting the investigation and its witnesses.
Of course, if Reinhart does agree those redactions are legit and orders the affidavit’s release, Trump and his supporters are likely to claim that the judge himself acted corruptly in accepting those redactions or even that he’s in on the coverup.
If the redacted document is released, “there will be a huge hue and cry,” Bromwich suggests, predicting that Trump and his supporters will effectively say, “what kind of a sham is this, the judge said he was going to release the affidavit, and we get next to nothing.”
counterpointIt’s too soon to judge Trump on missing documents and fake slates
Now, we should retain healthy skepticism toward the Justice Department and its redactions. Indeed, The Post and other news organizations are urging release of the affidavit on the grounds that the public needs to know the rationale for a search of such historic importance. If a heavily redacted affidavit is what’s made public, we won’t know for some time whether the redactions are defensible.
But, to be clear, healthy skepticism is not the position Trump and his supporters are taking. They’re casting the search as already existing conclusive proof of totalitarian oppression, resorting to all manner of lurid comparisons to fascist regimes and developing nation dictatorships.
Here’s the point: When the starting position is that any and all law enforcement activity related to Trump is inherently illegitimate — that this activity by definition cannot have been justified by reasonable suspicions of wrongdoing — then everything works backward from there.
We’ve already seen this over and over again.
When federal agents searched Trump’s resort operating partly on information shared by confidential witnesses around Trump, this happened because evidence they’d collected convinced a judge (Reinhart) of probable cause. But Trump supporters labeled this the stuff of totalitarian secret police forces.
When the warrant was released, it documented specific suspected crimes (violation of the Espionage Act and other statutes involving handling of government information). The search inventory showed that highly sensitive documents had been recovered. But Trump and his supporters demanded release of the affidavit, even as his lawyers avoided official action toward that end.
Meanwhile, despite public release of the warrant, Trump’s propagandists intensified their claims that the FBI had declared war on Trump supporters. They were undaunted by intensifying threats of violence against law enforcement.
Now, if the affidavit is released with heavy redactions, the conspiracy theories will intensify. And the end point isn’t hard to predict. For Trump and his supporters, the price of social peace will essentially be a grant of absolute impunity to Trump on multiple fronts.
This at a time when Trump still faces potential indictment for possible crimes related to efforts to steal the 2020 election, incitement of a violent assault on the government and possession of highly classified national security documents. Meanwhile, Trump is gearing up another potential effort to overturn our political order.
The release of the affidavit is unlikely to appease Trump and his supporters in the least. He is all but certain to do all he can to ensure that it only escalates their rage.