Was Mar-a-Lago an own goal?

27 september 2022Leestijd: 5 minuten

The American former president Donald Trump cleverly used all negative attention of the FBI raid in his Florida mansion in his own advantage. Roberta N. Haar illustrates why the timing of the raid proved to problematic for multiple reasons.

While my American friends were mostly silent on the search and seizure of classified files retrieved from former U.S. President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home, my European friends were scandalized. In late August, many in Europe voiced to me the certainty that this would be Trump’s undoing.  My answer was that I thought that the Justice Department and the FBI acted in a way that would surely backfire against them—that they were striking the ball into their own net.

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The Mar-a-Lago rally effect

Since Trump left the White House a year and a half ago, the U.S. National Archives engaged in a sometimes-tense, back-and-forth with him and his representatives to find out what prohibited documents he took home. While it is true that in January of this year Trump returned 15 boxes with 100 classified documents, including some with the highest-level of classification, the FBI seized 325 additional documents in its August 8th search.

Roberta N. Haar is Professor of Foreign Policy Analysis and Transatlantic Relations at the University of Maastricht and the University College Maastricht.

That Trump had documents at his personal residence in Florida is not in dispute. But the timing of the search is problematic for several reasons. First, the FBI raid added grist to the spin mill that a deep state, which includes what Trump calls a “totally corrupt” FBI, was out to get him. As the pundit Jonathan Capehart pointed out, Trump has an ability to take every damaging episode about him—those things that clearly damage him in the court of law—and take these same cases to the court of public opinion, where he trans morphs them to his benefit.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray undervalue Trump’s spin ability. One needs only to see how little impact all the criminal probes against him and people in his administration (six of whom have already been convicted) had on his popularity. Even Trump’s ignoble repeatedly pleading “the fifth,” meaning he invoked his right against self-incrimination that is guaranteed by the fifth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, does not shake his base’s belief in their man. Truth Social (the media platform Trump helped to start after his ouster from Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube), urged people to respond with violence against the so-called deep state, including a post that said, “F— the Feds! The Second Amendment is not about shooting deer! Lock and load!

The second and related reason is that the timing politicized acts of government bureaucracy. Just like FBI director James Comey’s announcement of reopening an investigation of then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified emails 11 days before the election, Garland and Wray are politicizing the work of the Executive branch and putting their thumbs on the scale of the election. However, they are not inserting the FBI and the Justice Department in the way that Trump argues, by being Biden’s attack dog, but in the fact that they are thrusting Trump back to the forefront of a media storm. As I wrote in January 2021, soon after the attacks on the U.S. Capitol, Trump loves nothing more than being at the center of attention, spinning his counterfactuals with abandon to adoring crowds.

This past summer, the Rupert Murdoch-owned media outlets (the New York Post and Fox News), plus the Wall Street Journal were rethinking their support of Trump, calling him “unworthy” to be president again, citing his “character” and conduct on January 6th. But after the August raid on Mar-a-Lago, conservative outlets and media personalities immediately swung to defend him with wild apocalyptic warnings, including that Democrats would try to assassinate Trump.

The fact that politicizing acts of government works both ways, is a third reason why the timing is bad. Trump utilized the upsurge in positive media coverage to raise money for his political action committees.  The Washington Post noted that the FBI search was a major boost to Trump’s PAC fundraising, which had been sagging over the summer. In the days immediately after document seizure, money to Trump PACs surged to over $1 million a day while Trump’s largest PAC, the Save America PAC, crested $99 million. Trump supporters responded to the more than 100 e-mails sent to them by Trump employees that used alarming all-capital phrases like “THEY BROKE INTO MY HOME,” and “They’re coming after YOU.”

Dangerous secrets or Keepsakes from his Oval Office days

If it was just a matter of getting back the documents that Trump was holding onto as keepsakes from his Oval Office days, then Garland and Wray made a mistake in their timing.  They could have waited until after the 8th of November midterm elections—taking the heat out of Trump’s amazing spin machine and neutralizing any effect on the outcomes of the midterm elections.

But what if the documents that Trump squirreled away really do hold seriously damaging information?  As Ronald Kessler said on Fox News,  the documents could include “incredibly valuable secrets…that the Russians would have been trying to penetrate Mar-a-Lago day and night” to get their hands on. Indeed, since the raid and the negative fallout, the FBI let it be known that some documents were categorized as “exceptionally grave” while others contained information about clandestine human sources. What about the empty 48 classified folders?  Where are those documents and what did Trump do with them?  Perhaps the quicker the documents were seized the better and how the raid affects politics is a secondary order.

Division is the norm

This puts me in two minds about the timing of the raid. Add to this that President Joe Biden recently adopted Trump’s divisive tactics in key, battleground states. In calling MAGA Republicans a threat to democracy, Biden is like Trump, labeling a part of the electorate an enemy. And Biden is not the only one, scores of Democratic candidates and liberal social media users are campaigning with allegations that all Republicans are responsible for the January 6 riots. Since Biden calling Trump’s base the enemy plays into Trump’s spin that a coastal elite is running a deep state that is out to get him, such harder-edge tactics may ultimately backfire on Biden.

Even if such moves on the part of the president do not become an own goal, all Americans suffer when both parties employ apocalyptic warnings and division tactics. We all should worry about whether America’s democratic structure can withstand such repeated strikes.