The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The right’s post-Mar-a-Lago effort to impugn the FBI kicks up a notch

Former president Donald Trump arrives at Trump Tower in Manhattan on Aug. 9, the day after FBI agents searched his estate in Palm Beach, Fla. (David Dee Delgado/Reuters)

The first minutes after Donald Trump announced that his Florida estate had been searched by FBI agents went better than the former president could have imagined. His years-long effort to cast the bureau as inherently biased against him quickly prompted even Trump-skeptical Republicans to side with him against the devious “deep state.” The wagon-circling reportedly pleased Trump, whose team saw a new breath of unity with Trump as its focus.

That this reaction was based on claims of political bias within the FBI that have no basis in the available evidence was beside the point. The point was that the FBI became the opposition, just as Trump would have hoped.

But it turns out that this wasn’t enough. Baseless assertions of impropriety and bias by the FBI have now been kicked up a notch with multiple figures on the right claiming — again without evidence, much less justification — that maybe the agents planted evidence as they combed through Mar-a-Lago. Because, it seems, any opponent of Trump’s must be cast in the most nefarious terms possible.

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)

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The insinuation was first made by Trump attorney Christina Bobb. Speaking to a right-wing streaming service, Bobb (herself a veteran of the right-wing network One America News) repeatedly tried to suggest that the FBI had acted inappropriately. She asked to see their warrant when she arrived at Mar-a-Lago on Monday morning; she claims they at first resisted. She hoped to observe the search; they prevented her from doing so.

Which she presented as perhaps suspicious.

“We’ll see what they come up with. If they did, it will be interesting — especially since they precluded me from watching what they did,” Bobb said. “But at this point, I don’t necessarily think that they would even go to the extent of trying to plant information. I think they just make stuff up.”

It is certainly true that law enforcement officers have in the past planted evidence on suspects. But the idea that they would do so in this context makes no sense. They took a dozen boxes of material; if agents at the scene wanted to inject something incriminating, there were plenty of opportunities to do so once they’d left Mar-a-Lago. After all, planting evidence at a crime scene would generally be done with the aim of convincing other officials not in on the scheme that it was there all along. If all the officials are in on it, there’s no such need. And if all of the agents weren’t in on the alleged nefariousness at Mar-a-Lago, the problem would be being spotted by other agents more than Trump’s attorneys.

All of this runs the obvious risk of treating this insinuation as in any way credible. It is not, even in Bobb’s vague formulation. There is literally no reason to think that the FBI wanted to add anything to the evidence that wasn’t already present. Asserting that there is reason to think so requires that you believe (or want others to believe) that the bureau is inherently corrupt and out to get Trump, which is begging the question.

Anyway, it got worse. Another Trump attorney, Alina Habba, appeared on Fox News on Tuesday night with host Jesse Watters. Watters, whose track record of accuracy is not spotless, quickly elevated the idea that the FBI was up to something.

“What the FBI is probably doing is planting evidence, which is what they did during the Russia hoax,” he said. “We also have a hunch they doctored evidence to get the warrant — again, what they did during the Russia hoax.”

Watters’s hunch should be considered as strongly correlated to demonstrated reality as I should be considered a contender for this year’s Cy Young Award. Yes, an FBI official pleaded guilty to altering an email used in a warrant application, but he avoided jail time in part because a judge believed the claim that the information he added was accurate. The “planting evidence” statement is a reference to a complicated assertion made by special counsel John Durham that’s never been substantiated. But each is a good example of how isolated, decontextualized claims targeting the FBI have propagated through the conservative bubble with the central aim of casting the bureau and not Trump as the dubious actor.

Habba, of course, agreed with Watters.

“Quite honestly, I’m concerned that they may have planted something,” she said. “At this point, who knows? I don’t trust the government, and that’s a very frightening thing as an American.”

This, of course, is how it works: Use unfounded allegations of wrongdoing against the government as a reason to distrust the government and use distrust of government as a reason to suggest that the government committed acts of wrongdoing. It’s exactly how defenses of Trump’s claims about election fraud worked. He insisted that fraud was going to occur and then that it had occurred. A lot of people believed him. That belief was then cited as a reason to address election fraud, which heightened the sense that something needed to be fixed.

On Wednesday morning, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), long an outspoken critic of the intelligence community and how the government wields power, echoed the baseless idea that the FBI might plant evidence.

“Do I know that the boxes of material they took from Mar-a-Lago, that they won’t put things into those boxes to entrap him?” Paul said. “How do we know? … How do we know they’re going to be honest with us about what’s actually in the boxes? How do we know that was in the box before it left the residence if the lawyers weren’t allowed to see everything?”

After all, he added, the FBI had “lost a great deal of trust” — thanks in part to years of misrepresentations of the FBI’s actions.

Skepticism of law enforcement is always warranted and always an important part of the American system. But there’s a difference between informed skepticism and an effort to use eroded trust in law enforcement to further erode trust in law enforcement.

Consider where Paul’s framing does and doesn’t differ from that of Trump himself, who opined on his bespoke social media network Wednesday morning.

“Everyone was asked to leave the premises, they wanted to be left alone, without any witnesses to see what they were doing, taking or, hopefully not, ‘planting,’ ” Trump wrote. “Why did they STRONGLY insist on having nobody watching them, everybody out?”

This isn’t skepticism. This is Trump continuing a years-long pattern of disparaging the integrity of the FBI at every opportunity, solely to inoculate his supporters against occasions in which he was or might be the focus of the FBI’s interest. For occasions, that is, like this one.

There is an added benefit to this line of argument. Should the FBI announce that it uncovered something incriminating among the documents, Trump et al have a prefabricated response: You put it there. The base inoculated once again.

Update: On Thursday, the New York Times reported that the FBI provided Trump and his attorneys with a manifest of what had been taken — further eroding the idea that anything might have been surreptitiously added to the seized material.