The FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago may have done what many Republicans had hoped wouldn’t happen—put the spotlight squarely on former President Trump just ahead of the midterm elections.
The unprecedented action of issuing a search warrant against a former U.S. President has also divided Republicans over anti-FBI rhetoric in response to the raid, as the FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued a joint threat warning, following an increase in violent threats on social media against Federal officials and facilities.
Those threats followed a police shootout that killed one of Trump’s Truth Social users, Ricky Shiffer, who allegedly tried to breach an FBI field office in Cincinnati after posting on the social media site, “Be ready to kill the enemy.”
Trump Broke the FBI Raid Story, Overshadowing Other Issues
It was Trump himself, not the Department of Justice or the FBI, who revealed to the public the existence of the search warrant to collect documents he took when he left the White House.
“It is consistent with how Trump benefited from the fervor when he launched his campaign in 2015, 2016, from being in the limelight and getting free media attention,” Robert Y. Shapiro, Professor of Political Science and International & Public Affairs at Columbia University and award-winning member of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, tells Political IQ. “This is more of that on steroids. Once again, he’s in a situation where he can claim that he was ‘the wronged’ and ‘the persecuted’ by the Democratic Administration and the Democratic Justice Department and so forth.”
The power to tamp down the media attention that Trump feeds on, he says, is in the hands of Attorney General Merrick Garland, who he believes hasn’t been transparent enough about the raid. “Things could change very dramatically here if Garland were to indict Trump,” says Shapiro. “If he took that action, that would really show that the level of infraction here is extraordinary. He could kind of shut everybody up by indicting Trump.”
Meanwhile, some in the media, like New York Times Columnist David Brooks, have questioned whether the FBI didn’t just hand the former President “a lifeline” or even went so far as to “re-elect” him.
But Cook Political Report Editor-in-Chief Amy Walter argued that Trump’s MAGA base didn’t need a raid to fire it up because “his base was already energized.” To the contrary, she asserted, “What this is doing is saying to Independent voters who are already so frustrated and worried by this stuff that they’re seeing out there, that more time with Trump means we got to step back.”
And that’s not what Republicans, who’ve been pushing for a referendum on Democrats and the economy, wanted this midterm election season.
“I think as much as these midterms are about Trump, that plays to the Democrats’ favor because it takes the focus off Biden, whose approval numbers aren’t good,” says J. Miles Coleman, Associate Editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an online election handicapper at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“That’s a problem,” Shapiro agrees. “That’s distracting Republicans from the issues that they benefit the most from,” like the economy, or the recent story that the CDC botched its handling of the Covid pandemic.
Some GOP Using Rhetoric That Backfired on Democrats
At the same time, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) called for the “complete dismantling and elimination of the democrat brown shirts known as the FBI.”
And they weren’t the only ones. Their provocations were backed up by, for example, Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) comparing the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago to “the Gestapo” while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said, “I think every Republican believes that the FBI, when it comes to Trump and other organizations, have lost their mind.”
Other Republicans were quick to express their disapproval of such language, like Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) who said it made his colleagues “look unserious.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence went further, comparing his fellow Republicans to Democrats, saying, “Calls to defund the FBI are just as wrong as calls to defund the police.”
“Defund the police“—a rallying cry that grew out of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—did, in fact, backfire on Democrats during the 2020 general election, according to Coleman.
“That was one of the reasons why Democrats ended up losing about a dozen seats in 2020. And their losses came in the more marginal districts where there’s less of an appetite for that kind of messaging.” He adds that it’s been a tactic of Republicans ever since to put Democrats on the spot, to ask them where they stand on the “defund the police” message. “It undercuts the Republican stance on law and order if they’re calling to defund the FBI.”
Polls Show Support for the FBI Search Warrant
According to the FBI search warrant, at least some of the documents recovered from Mar-a-Lago were classified “TS/SCI,” the highest category of top-secret government secrets.
New polling suggests, that’s not sitting well with the American people. In a YouGov survey, 62% said it was “a problem” that Trump held onto classified documents after leaving office.
In polling from Politico/Morning Consult, a plurality (48%) of registered voters believed that the search warrant was conducted against Mar-a-Lago because there was evidence Trump committed a crime, versus 40% who said the search was conducted to damage his political career.
Further, 52% of those surveyed by Politico/Morning Consult approved of the FBI’s decision to conduct the search warrant versus 37% who disapproved.
Trump Has Made Millions Fundraising Off the Warrant
Trump, in the meantime, has not missed the opportunity to raise money off the attention. According to The Washington Post, his PAC topped $1 million during at least two days after the August 8 raid, and his intake since has been roughly around $200,000 to $300,000 per day.
It’s unclear whether that windfall is trickling down to other Republicans, but GOP strategist Eric Wilson told the Post, “If you’re not talking about Mar-a-Lago in your fundraising you’re swimming against the current.”
FBI Raid Could Have Years-long Consequences
On Thursday, Judge Bruce Reinhart said he was leaning toward releasing a DOJ-redacted version of the affidavit used to justify the search, adding to the drip, drip, drip of details about why the former President’s home was raided based on a warrant that alleged violation of the Espionage Age, and the concealment and destruction of government materials.
But legal experts say it could take years for the details of the documents themselves to trickle out (and some, of course, we may never learn). This means that Democrats or Republicans could be making political hay off this information for a long time depending on what’s revealed.
In the immediate aftermath, Shapiro says “there’s still plenty of time” for the news spilling out of this raid to impact the November midterms, now less than three months away. But he’s quick to add, “There’s also plenty of time for the economy and the Covid situation to turn around in a positive way that benefits the Democrats. There’s a difference between three months and two weeks.”
As for the longer term, Shapiro believes Republicans “need to turn the page on Trump. Because Trump is the most vulnerable Republican Presidential candidate. And in my view it’s Trump’s candidacy that’s keeping Biden in the race in 2024.”
Coleman concurs, “Biden, we have to keep in mind, he’s not popular right now. Part of that is because there was a critical mass of voters who voted for him in 2020 just to get rid of Trump.” And the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago and all it’s revealing, he says, “just reminds some of these Independent voters why they went for Biden as President in the first place.”