The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House GOP stands by Trump despite revelation FBI searched for nuclear documents

Republicans have floated no fewer than 12 different reasons to explain away the FBI search of former president Donald Trump’s residence in Florida. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

House Republicans stood by former president Donald Trump on Friday despite the revelation that FBI agents sought classified documents relating to nuclear weapons in their search of his Mar-a-Lago estate this week, underscoring Trump’s viselike grip on the GOP.

Republicans also were highly critical of the FBI, Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray over the execution of the search warrant and about what they characterized as a lack of transparency in sharing information with Congress about a criminal investigation.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Friday singled out Garland, saying the attorney general “has a lot of explaining to do.” Garland said Thursday that he had personally authorized the search of Trump’s residence.

“He has a real problem here,” McCarthy said. “Why would he divide the nation?”

Since the search at Trump’s property, Republicans have accused the FBI and the Justice Department of government overreach, issuing threats and comparing the actions to Gestapo tactics and “Third World” political persecution, though the FBI agents were executing a court-approved search warrant.

On Thursday, an armed man wearing body armor tried to breach the FBI’s Cincinnati field office, sparking an hours-long standoff that ended when he was fatally shot after firing at officers, authorities said.

Wray, who was nominated by Trump and confirmed by all Senate Republicans in 2017, said in a Friday statement that attacks on the FBI “are a grave disservice to the men and women who sacrifice so much to protect others.”

“Violence and threats against law enforcement, including the FBI, are dangerous and should be deeply concerning to all Americans,” he said.

GOP reacts to Trump search with threats and comparisons to ‘Gestapo’

House Republicans, who were back in Washington on Friday to vote against the Democrats’ climate, health-care and tax bill, deflected blame that their rhetoric has inspired Trump supporters to attack law enforcement.

“None whatsoever,” McCarthy said in response to a question about whether he felt responsibility for the heightened rhetoric among Trump supporters. “I don’t know why that person [in Cincinnati] went [to the FBI office]. That was wrong for the person to go in all shapes and forms.”

Others argued it was necessary for both parties to tone down rhetoric to prevent further violence.

“Violence, no matter where it comes from, and violent rhetoric, no matter where it comes from, it has to stop,” said Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), who survived the politically motivated shooting that targeted House GOP members practicing for a Congressional Baseball Game five years ago. “But what happens in what I see in today’s social media frenzy is people want to immediately blame some politician for creating such a fervor.”

The Washington Post reported late Thursday that classified documents were among the items FBI agents sought in the search, according to people familiar with the investigation. Experts in classified information said the unusual search underscores deep concern among government officials about the types of information they thought could be at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property and potentially in danger of falling into the wrong hands.

Unlike the day of the search, when Republicans quickly came to Trump’s defense, most were silent following the revelation that the FBI was seeking nuclear-related documents at his private residence. Most chose not to comment on the reports until after the legal documents were publicly unsealed.

“What we have to do is just wait and see what the warrant actually says,” Davis said.

House Republicans did not change their tune after a warrant was unsealed Friday afternoon. Several GOP aides and members said they were still waiting to see the affidavit, which they believe would have more detailed information.

The Washington Post also contacted the offices of all Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee before the warrant was unsealed. They had no immediate response.

Taylor Foy, a spokesman for Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), said that “at this point we are just waiting to get a copy of the actual search warrant,” while criticizing the FBI over the actions of a former agency lawyer in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

One House GOP member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss how most in the conference were feeling, said it will be very difficult for Republicans to defend Trump if he did take highly classified documents containing nuclear-related material to his home. But if his actions do not meet that threshold, then the “Biden administration will have just paved the pathway for Trump to be elected” in 2024, the member said.

National Archives counters Trump’s baseless claims about Obama records

Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), the No. 3 Republican in the House leadership, on Friday called the FBI search a “complete abuse and overreach of its authority” and promoted baseless claims that the agency protected Hillary Clinton, former FBI director James B. Comey and President Biden’s son Hunter.

McCarthy said Friday that holding on to documents relating to nuclear weapons “doesn’t seem like that’s something [Trump] would be doing.”

The top House Republican leader also said he agrees with Trump that the search warrant and related documents should be released publicly, and suggested that the Justice Department should have continued to seek cooperation from Trump rather than conduct a search. He said Garland should have spoken at greater length when he addressed the public.

“He is just inflaming the public,” McCarthy said. “And why would you only speak for a few moments?”

Garland said Thursday that he could not say more because of the pending investigation, and that the Justice Department had filed a motion requesting that the search warrant for Mar-a-Lago be unsealed.

The Republican suspicions of the federal law enforcement agencies reflect years of efforts by Trump to cast them as “deep state” enemies that he said falsely linked him to Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election.

At a news conference Friday, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee urged patience before jumping to conclusions about the former president. They pushed for transparency by the Justice Department and FBI on their decision-making process to search Mar-a-Lago rather than demand the documents in other ways that do not set a precedent.

“Chris Wray and Merrick Garland should be in front of us all today. We’re all here. Republicans on the Judiciary Committee are all here. Why don’t they come talk to us today?” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who would become chairman of the Judiciary Committee if Republicans win back the majority.

Rep. Michael R. Turner (Ohio), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, suggested that it was possible Trump had in his possession documents related to nuclear weapons that were technically classified but not “truly classified.” He said that he did not know what documents Trump might have had. But in response to a reporter’s question, he offered some speculation.

“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,” Turner said. “Many of them you can find on your own phone as we stand here. And if they fall within that category, they’re not an imminent national security threat that would rise to the level of, you have to raid Donald Trump’s home and spend nine hours there.”

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a former FBI agent, later explained it’s possible the affidavit remains under seal for two reasons: to keep covert cases and methods under wraps or ensure national security threats are not publicly unveiled.

Shortly after members of the GOP spoke, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in answering reporters’ questions, said, “You would think there would be an adult in the Republican room that would say, ‘Just calm down, see what the facts are, and let’s go for that instead of instigating … assaults on law enforcement.’ ”

Some Republicans also expressed worry that the escalation of heated rhetoric has eroded trust in the government.

“I worry about the future of our country if both parties continue to go to the extremes when it comes to the polarization, and we can do better,” said Davis, who recently lost his primary to Rep. Mary E. Miller (R-Ill.), a Trump ally. “I mean, look, I’ve been ranked one of the most bipartisan members of Congress my entire career, and it was used to beat me in a primary.”

The criticism of law enforcement has also rattled a number of Republicans who fear that it will make it more difficult for officers to do their jobs. While Fitzpatrick said the Justice Department and the FBI may have potentially set a dangerous precedent, he called it “a big, big deal” for the public to lose faith in law enforcement officers who work to protect Americans from all kinds of threats.

“The only way you beat the world’s greatest democracy is from within, turning American on American,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s incumbent upon everybody to act in a way that’s becoming of the office they hold and that’s not casting judgment on anything until you know all the facts.”