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The GOP’s inauspicious knee-jerk reaction to the Trump raid

The FBI searched former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club on Aug. 8 as part of an investigation into whether presidential documents were mishandled. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

One day, relatively soon, the heads of the Justice Department and the FBI are likely to be brought to Capitol Hill to testify about the historic decision to raid a former president’s home.

For now, though, we don’t yet know much about what was in the search warrant used to raid Donald Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago on Monday. We do know that the raid concerned the removal of classified documents from the White House and that, according to Trump, agents raided his safe.

But we also quickly found out that a lot of influential people are rather uninterested in any of that, reflexively shouting “witch hunt” and baselessly blaming President Biden for the raid in a way that bodes very poorly for whatever comes next in this process. Trump has marshaled his army of supporters to declare, in knee-jerk fashion, any legal scrutiny of him a deep-state operation.

It’s also an army that, it bears noting, was once quite consumed with the import of document security by would-be presidential candidates — and quite happy to promote the idea that their preferred candidate ought to “lock” such an opponent “up.”

Trump immediately likened the raid to what happens in third-world countries. Plenty happily echoed that talking point, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and the House Judiciary Committee’s Republicans, led by Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio). “Doesn’t the FBI have better things to do than harass the former PRESIDENT?” read a tweet from the House Judiciary GOP’s account.

Another talking point promoted by the House Judiciary GOP and Fox News commentators was the idea that, if they could go after Trump like this, nobody is safe.

Many blamed Biden — Fox News’s Brian Kilmeade went so far as to say that the order for the raid “has to have come from @POTUS and/or someone in White House” — despite there being zero evidence the president had any role.

The responses from the highest levels of the GOP soon arrived, and they were equally pitched.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) assured Monday night that Garland had better be prepared to answer questions. But even without any of those questions answered, McCarthy declared: “The Department of Justice has reached an intolerable state of weaponized politicization.” The Republican National Committee declared that “Democrats continually weaponize the bureaucracy against Republicans. This raid is outrageous.”

That’s a lot of firm conclusions based on not much at all. But it’s the fruit of years of Trump claiming persecution.

First there was the Russia investigation, which, it turned out, included plenty of evidence of potential obstruction of justice and even coordination with Russians — per a report by the then-GOP-led Senate Intelligence Committee — but is now shorthand for a classic “witch hunt” on the right. There was the Ukraine impeachment, which ended with Trump being acquitted but included plenty of remarkable details about using foreign policy to benefit his reelection. Lastly was Jan. 6, which many top Republicans initially acknowledged was very bad and even blamed Trump, only to acquit him at his second impeachment trial on a technicality and quickly revert to standing by Trump when it was clear he was going nowhere politically.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that this investigation hardly comes out of nowhere: Trump’s handling of government documents has long been a focal point. The Washington Post reported as far back as February on Trump’s “relentless document destruction habits.” A couple of days later, the National Archives confirmed that it had retrieved 15 boxes of documents from Mar-a-Lago — including records marked as “classified” and even “top secret” — that should have been turned over, and then asked the Justice Department to investigate, which it clearly has.

The question from there is whether this is a matter that merits a search warrant. That the Justice Department would go this route would seem to suggest it sees something potentially incriminating beyond merely shoddy record-keeping and document retention. The department knows this decision will be harshly scrutinized; going down this path only for its destination to be a minor finding, ending in a slap on the wrist, isn’t worth the blowback it’ll get from 40 to 45 percent of the country.

It also bears noting that this portion of the country was once quite laser-focused on keeping tabs on potentially sensitive government documents. Trump’s best attack on Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign was her private email server. Many of those who raised alarm bells about that were very quiet when we learned that government documents had made their way to Mar-a-Lago. (McCarthy, for one, had lambasted Clinton for what he called her “fundamental lack of judgment and wanton disregard for protecting and keeping information confidential” back in 2016.)

Then there’s the matter of supposed political targeting by the Justice Department and the baseless allegations about Biden’s supposed involvement. During the 2016 campaign, Trump encouraged supporters to chant “lock her up” over Clinton’s emails. He had very little compunction about using his power as president to investigate political adversaries, including on Ukraine. And whatever you think of how the Clinton investigation turned out, there was an investigation — a quite public one, involving a presidential candidate in the heat of a campaign, which might well have turned the 2016 election.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), the former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, offered a somewhat more measured response on Monday night. He complained about the proximity of the raid to the midterm elections and cited supposed overreach in past Trump probes. But he also said that “no one is above the law” and added, “time will tell regarding this most recent investigation” into Trump.

That latter sentiment seemed reasonable. By that early juncture, though, his party had already passed him by, deciding it wasn’t worth waiting for time to tell us anything.

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