What if the Republican officials who jumped to cynical conclusions about the FBI’s execution of a search warrant targeting Donald Trump’s Florida residence are right? What if it turns out that the precedent-setting search of a former U.S. president’s effects was justified only by the suspicion that he had misbegotten government documents in his possession—a violation of statute that has not previously justified such extraordinary measures? What if the FBI expanded the terms of political engagement based on nothing more than speculation and partisanship, thereby opening a Pandora’s Box? What then?
These are questions that the former president’s opponents and supporters alike don’t seem to have thoroughly contemplated. Indeed, in the roughly 90 minutes it took Republicans to reach the worst possible conclusion about the FBI’s motives, these questions could not have been wholly explored. The opacity that has so far typified the Justice Department’s conduct indicates that federal law enforcement has been similarly incurious. So, let’s examine the possibilities.
First, if the GOP’s allegations prove entirely true, the Biden administration and the Democratic Party it represents will have set fire to any credibility they had as a responsible alternative to what they insist is the Trumpified GOP’s malicious and persecutory governance. That is, whatever credibility was left, given the efforts by Democratic campaign apparatuses to lend financial support for the Trumpified GOP’s most aggressive elements.
If the Democratic Party has any sense of constitutionalist propriety left, it will commit to reimposing restraint on federal law enforcement. That would be a byproduct of holding accountable those responsible. Even if Republican criticisms are wholly unfounded, the first step toward proving that would be to make public the warrant and its predicates—at least, whatever does not jeopardize an ongoing investigation. Someone must explain why these documents were so imperiled by being in Trump’s custody that they couldn’t be subject to subpoena.
If the probable cause justifies this extraordinary intervention in ways that were not satisfied by similar violations of similar statutes by other federal officials accused of improperly handling government documents, it would put Republicans on the defensive. At the very least, those who are capable of being persuaded would have reason to quietly doubt the allegation that we now live in a “banana republic,” in which the rule of law is subordinated to the will of the powerful.
If the Biden administration cannot do this, or if the DOJ has behaved as recklessly as its Republican critics allege, then amends must be made. Careers should be on the line. Resignations must be tendered. Anything less would invite what the Republican Party is all but promising will follow their return to power: the reciprocal treatment of former Democratic officeholders in pursuit of little more than retaliation.
But nor have Republicans fully internalized the consequences of their behavior over the last several hours.
“The FBI raid on President Trump’s home is an unprecedented political weaponization of the Justice Department,” South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem declared. “Using government power to persecute political opponents is something we have seen many times from [third] world Marxist dictatorships,” Sen. Marco Rubio agreed. “The raid of MAL is another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the Regime’s political opponents,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis insisted. “Now the Regime is getting another 87k IRS agents to wield against its adversaries? Banana Republic.”
Beyond the crass agitation, this sort of talk is unbearably short-sighted. The officeholders taking a hatchet to the foundational legitimacy of America’s governing institutions are also seeking to assume command over those institutions. It will be their Justice Department one day, their Internal Revenue Service. They will one day inherit the mechanisms of self-government they are disparaging as the organs of something akin to a junta, bereft of democratic legitimacy and unworthy of allegiance or fealty.
What’s the long game here? It can’t be the preservation of republican propriety and the jealous stewardship of institutional legitimacy. It can only be the short-term pursuit of political advantage. But political advantage is a fleeting thing, and voters are fickle. Even entertaining the establishment of a norm that views political retribution as just another feature of cyclical governance cannot end well for the world’s longest-lived constitutional republic.
At the very least, Republicans who have deployed the language we once reserved for politburos and despots have learned nothing from the assault on the Capitol Building. The Americans who have confessed to and regret their participation in that lizard-brained mob appeal to our pity because, they insist, they were misled by their leaders into thinking that January 6 was a make-or-break moment for the republic. The heard apocalyptic rhetorical flourishes from political figures they trusted and took them to their logical conclusion. Some are doing the very same thing right now.
We’re left to conclude that almost no one in the political arena has thought beyond the news cycle and the personal advantages it might bestow on them. I’d say we deserve better from our elected officials. But perhaps we don’t.