One of the unfortunate realities of our current political setup is that key figures can promote their message largely in partisan silos where they won’t be questioned. So when Republicans and conservative pundits advance baseless speculation that President Biden approved the Mar-a-Lago search warrant or that the FBI might have planted evidence — or simply claim that the search was an abuse of power without knowing much of anything about it — unchallenged, it takes hold among large segments of the population.
But we’re starting to see the GOP be asked to account for the remarkable faith it rather blindly invested in these talking points and in Donald Trump’s actions. And on Friday, two exchanges stood out.
Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee held a news conference the morning after the Justice Department and Trump appeared to agree to release the warrant. The presser also came after The Washington Post reported that the FBI had been looking for documents related to nuclear weapons.
We still know very little about precisely what that means, but reality seems to have set in for some of Trump’s defenders: What if the evidence they opted not to wait for before deriding the Justice Department as politically “weaponized” was pretty damning?
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) on Friday embodied this dilemma.
After more-nuanced comments from ranking committee Republican Michael R. Turner (Ohio) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), Stefanik grabbed her trusty flamethrower. She cited the Biden administration’s “weaponization of the Department of Justice and FBI against Joe Biden’s political opponent” and declared the search was “a complete abuse and overreach of its authority.”
But when it came time for questions — about The Post’s report on the FBI seeking nuclear documents — the same Stefanik suddenly urged people to withhold judgment.
“So before you jump to conclusions and just accept information from sources who are not the attorney general, who are not the director of the FBI, let’s see what the facts are,” she said. “That’s why transparency is key here.”
A reporter jumped in to note that Republicans — including Stefanik — have expressed a large degree of certitude about whether this was an abuse of power before learning those facts. The reporter pointed to Republicans arguing en masse that this was political and floating the baseless planted-evidence theory.
Stefanik didn’t really address the premise. She noted that Republicans have asked for Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice to preserve records — suggesting that the request demonstrated an interest in those facts. But that request was made as she and others were very much prejudging what those documents would reveal.
(Rep. Chris Stewart (Utrah) stepped in to say, “I think it’s naive to assume that the American people would not wonder: Is this political?” But often, the response hasn’t been question-raising; it’s reached some rather firm prejudgments. Just minutes earlier, Stefanik was saying this was political and a weaponization of the Justice Department — not merely suggesting it as a possibility.)
Stefanik was asked a similar question earlier Friday on “Fox & Friends,” where host Steve Doocy also cited The Post’s reporting on the FBI seeking nuclear documents.
“If that is true and they were just in the basement in Mar-a-Lago, that’s kind of a big deal,” Doocy noted.
Fox News' Steve Doocy on nuclear documents reporting: "That's kind of a big deal!"— The Recount (@therecount) August 12, 2022
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY): "We do not know the facts, which is why it's important to follow the facts..."
Reality: Following the facts is exactly what the DoJ and FBI seem to be doing. pic.twitter.com/yL2O5gS9WZ
Stefanik again expressed a sudden interest in waiting for the facts.
“Well, certainly, Steve, there’s been a lot of, again, guesses as to — and media reporting,” Stefanik said. “We do not know the facts, which is why it’s again important to follow the facts wherever they lead.”
Perhaps the most important comments Friday, though, laid out where the red line is. They came from Turner, the top Republican on the committee.
Turner, it bears emphasizing, has been somewhat more circumspect than other Republicans in criticizing the search. He has allowed that there are situations in which something like this search could be justified. He told Politico on Tuesday, “Unless there is a true national security threat, this is clearly an overreach.”
Thursday’s news suggested something like that was indeed on the table — depending upon how you define “true national security threat,” of course. And on Friday, Turner expanded on what his test would be, allowing that there are “a number of things” that could qualify.
“There are there are a number of things that they could show us — and I don’t want to speculate on what those would be — that would obviously rise to the level of, maybe you didn’t have any options,” Turner said.
But Turner added that he would be “surprised” if the Justice Department couldn’t get such documents other than by searching Trump’s residence. Turner also suggested that it would be surprising if Trump ever had such documents in his possession, and even said that having documents marked “classified” involving nuclear issues might not meet his test.
“I can tell you that there are a number of things that are classified that fall under the umbrella of nuclear weapons, but that are not necessarily things that are truly classified,” he said.
You begin to see how arduous this might be for Turner and others when further details come out. But recent history has shown how Republicans repeatedly have proved adept at retroactively drawing gray areas to cover wherever we find out Trump’s conduct lies. (And Turner is better insulated than others, having at least professed early on to have an open mind.)
But many have gone even further out on a limb for Trump, declining to wait for the facts that Stefanik now insists on heeding. And we’re about to start learning how firm that branch is.