Few things have made more obvious former vice president Mike Pence’s designs on a 2024 presidential bid than his tweet following the FBI search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.
Yet Pence’s response to the search was not to urge Americans to withhold judgment until we learned more — any! — details of the warrant or the broader investigation that prompted it. Instead it was to echo Trump’s deeply political line of argument.
He shared the “deep concern of millions of Americans over the unprecedented search of the personal residence of President Trump,” Pence wrote. “… After years where FBI agents were found to be acting on political motivation during our administration, the appearance of continued partisanship by the Justice Department must be addressed.”
This response, all of it, is exactly what Donald Trump has worked hard to inculcate since at least 2016.
Let’s start with that assertion from Pence — deafening in the last 24 hours — that the FBI had been demonstrated to have targeted Trump politically. Set aside Pence’s self-incriminating framing (that the FBI was acting on political motivation during the Trump-Pence administration), and remember where this idea originated.
Trump’s first foray into disparaging the FBI came during the 2016 campaign, when he criticized the bureau for not filing criminal charges against his opponent, Hillary Clinton. After all, he argued, she had kept classified information at her house (in the form of emails). How could the FBI’s investigation not result in an indictment? (In another context, this would seem like clumsy foreshadowing.)
Trump then began casting the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election as politically motivated soon after he won. The rationale was uncomplicated and now quite familiar: He didn’t want anyone thinking he had lost the race but for Russian involvement. So he lashed out. On Jan. 10, 2017, with details sparse, he declared the probe to be a “witch hunt,” a position he has not moderated since.
Pence’s argument that the FBI was politically motivated certainly derives largely from the narrative that Trump and his allies constructed to backstop that position. The revelation that senior officials had disparaged Trump in text messages became the foundation for a rickety story about the FBI ginning up a case solely to do political damage to the president.
(That the allegations about members of Trump’s campaign being connected to Russia didn’t emerge until after the election was over was explained away as the FBI seeking leverage over Trump. That there were real ties between Trump’s team and Russian actors was simply ignored.)
The idea that the FBI targeted Trump for political reasons was never substantiated either by an internal review or by the explicitly political one led by Trump’s attorney general, William P. Barr. An inspector general report released in 2019 found no “documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation” influenced the decisions to open the four individual investigations into people tied to Trump’s campaign. The Barr probe led by special counsel John Durham is ongoing but has completely failed to demonstrate that the Russia investigation was not warranted by the facts available at the time.
Trump actively stoked the idea that the FBI was out to get him for one very obvious reason: It ensured that his supporters and his allies in conservative media would approach the investigations into his actions as themselves suspect. It also had an added benefit: Should the FBI launch further probes, his team would already be conditioned to respond with skepticism.
Of course, there’s no reason that any Republican would need to weigh in immediately on Monday’s Mar-a-Lago search. They could simply wait and see, wait to learn why the search was executed and offer an assessment at that point.
But that’s not the culture of the modern Republican Party. Instead, there are rewards to be earned from moving quickly in casting the probe as suspect. Following an example set in part by Trump himself, GOP officials rushed to offer up products in the robust marketplace of social media commentary. The most outrageous denunciation of the search could earn more attention and more followers — and perhaps more clout. A number of people hustled to raise money off the news, including GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who suggested that angry donors contribute to the party’s Senate nominee in Georgia; J.D. Vance, a Senate candidate in Ohio; and Trump himself.
One reason that the Mar-a-Lago search might “unite [the] different factions in the party,” as a Trump aide told Politico, is that it isn’t pro-Trump but anti-FBI. Republicans from both the pro- and less-pro-Trump segments of the GOP get to express outrage at a group that Republicans are primed to distrust. Outrage at a government department that can be cast as the swamp or the Deep State or even the Elites, depending on who’s doing the casting.
Trump’s effort to depict the search as the work of “Radical Left Democrats” has its own value to politicians or members of the conservative media. If you want to appeal to a Republican audience, casting this as Democrats-against-Trump is valuable. More than three-quarters of Republicans still view Trump favorably, down only slightly from the height of the 2020 campaign. That includes more than half who view him very favorably. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, is viewed favorably by essentially no Republicans.
This, too, has been part of a concerted effort by Trump, who focused heavily as president on exacerbating partisan tensions to bolster the loyalty of voters on the right. It worked like a charm. Republicans may not have loved Trump in 2016, but they liked him better than Hillary Clinton. As the years passed, affection for Trump was correlated to detesting his enemies. Cast the FBI as the left, and you gain support on the right.
You’ve probably noticed how Pence’s fortunes have fared since 2020. Never quite as popular as Trump, he saw his favorability ratings with the GOP tank in the wake of Trump’s criticisms of him. But he still wants their votes, so he offers his assessment with practiced studiousness: Surely the FBI is A Problem.
Contrast Pence with another ex-elected official, former Texas congressman Will Hurd. His assessment? Of course it makes sense that Trump might have been a target of FBI investigation, based on what we already know!
Trump and his lawyers admitted to and then handed over presidential documents improperly taken from and stored outside the White House. Of course the FBI had probable cause to go in looking for more.— Will Hurd (@WillHurd) August 9, 2022
But this is not a reality that many Republicans acknowledge, if they are even exposed to it. In polling released on Tuesday, 2 in 5 Americans said they thought Trump should face criminal charges related to the Capitol riot. Among Republicans, it was 3 … percent. And that’s the Capitol riot, not some vague thing like maybe having classified material at his house.
Trump spent a lot of time and a lot of energy casting the FBI as untrustworthy. It meant misrepresenting the bureau’s work and making false claims about their motivations. He worked even harder to enforce a structure of loyalty within his base.
On Monday night, all of that work paid off.