WASHINGTON — Former President Donald Trump denounced the “weaponization of the Department of Justice” after the unprecedented FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Florida, on Monday as part of a federal investigation into allegations that he illegally removed classified White House documents.
He compared the search, which coincided with the 48th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation, to the raid on the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in 1972.
“Here, in reverse, the Democrats stormed the home of the 45th President of the United States,” Trump said in a statement.
But historians, legal analysts and former FBI officials have said that recasting the FBI action as a political attack is inaccurate and ignores the potentially significant legal danger facing the president.
“The burden of proof to execute an order like this would be, for all intents and purposes, unprecedented in the history of the Department of Justice.” Garrett Graff saidhistorian and author of “Watergate: A New History”.
Under the law, any search must be authorized by a federal judge after probable cause is found that a crime has been committed and that there is evidence of the crime at the location to be searched.
Trump himself confirmed that FBI agents opened a safe at Mar-a-Lago as part of the court-approved search.
Experts: Mar-a-Lago Search Indicates Solid Research
Brandon Van Grack, a former Justice Department attorney and senior prosecutor, said the FBI search indicates there has been a major investigation underway into possible criminal violations by Trump, and ample evidence of wrongdoing.
Mishandling of classified information, specifically Statute 18 of the US Code of 1924, carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and has been used to prosecute former government officials, Van Grack told USA TODAY.
“The fact that they got a search warrant and knew what to look for suggests that the FBI has conducted numerous interviews. Which is all to say that there is a very real risk of criminal charges” for Trump, said Van Grack, who was a key member of special counsel and former FBI Director Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible Russian collusion and the Trump’s campaign in the 2016 presidential election.
Former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani said Trump could also be exposed to significant criminal exposure if he mishandles or destroys government records.
The most likely charge that would apply in that case, he said, would be Title 18, US Code 2071, which involves concealing or destroying US government documents. That carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison. prison and, if convicted, could bar Trump from ever holding elective office again.
McCarthy calls the search political and criticizes Garland
Republicans immediately criticized the FBI search as political retaliation by the Biden administration, even as details remained unclear.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, in a tweet referencing Attorney General Merrick Garland, promised to carry out “immediate supervision of this department” if Republicans regain control of Congress and “leave no stone unturned.”
“Attorney General Garland, keep your documents and clear your calendar,” McCarthy said.
For the Justice Department to authorize such a politically sensitive operation, Garland and FBI leaders would almost certainly have approved it, according to Graff.
The raid suggests the investigation is well underway, he said, adding that he wouldn’t be surprised if the Justice Department had already determined that it had enough evidence to charge a crime before it started.
“The idea that they proceeded with a search warrant is remarkable testimony, both to the state of the investigation and to the level of cooperation they believed they would get from the target,” Graff said.
That contrasts sharply with the Watergate investigation, in which the FBI and special counsel negotiated with Nixon White House lawyers to provide documents.
“That is clearly not the case here,” Graff said.
This also shouldn’t have been unexpected, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe said, given the plethora of criminal investigations into Trump.
“It’s hugely significant, but also, I think, predictable to a degree,” McCabe said. “I think it’s predictable in that way, it’s totally shocking in the context of, I don’t think this has ever happened before.”
McCabe agreed that the search would have been a major matter within the Justice Department and the FBI before it was carried out.
“This is not, you know, a couple of officers showing up at a judge’s door in the middle of the night to get an emergency warrant,” he told CNN. “This is something that would have been planned, reassessed and legally scrutinized from every possible angle by the entire leadership structure (of) both organizations.”
Former Trump press secretary recalls other lapses
Former White House officials under Trump also rejected Trump’s characterization of the search as politically motivated.
Stephanie Grisham, one of Trump’s former press secretaries, said Trump was careless and careless when handling classified documents, and when talking about classified information. Or he had no idea, she told USA TODAY, or he didn’t care, even though he posed a potential threat to national security.
Grisham said he was also concerned about Trump talking about classified information and operations, citing the now-infamous dinner at Mar-a-Lago with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“They were being briefed on missiles in North Koreaand they were giving him documents and all these people at Mar-a-Lago were posting them on Facebook,” he said.
“There are a lot of things I’m not going to say because I don’t want to jeopardize national security,” he said. But she said she was concerned about another apparent lapse during a photo session with Trump on the US-Mexico border.
“I was standing with him, and he immediately started detailing a bunch of technological advances that we had started (to counter border raids) and had to stop. We had to step forward and say, “Hey, sir.” “
Grisham also said that Trump inappropriately talked to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte about how many nuclear submarines the United States had in Korean waters in 2017. “And certainly when he made the announcement of the assassination of (ISIS leader) Al Baghdadi, he made a lot of comments. that they were highly classified, or just tactically sensitive. I’ve seen him do it over and over and over again.”
As for the document, he said there are two ways that what Trump did could have broken the law. One is the mishandling of classified information. “I saw him mishandle presidential records” a lot, he said.
The other potential legal liability, he said, was destroying public records and breaking the law with the Presidential Records Act.
Van Grack, the former Justice Department official, said “there is still a big hurdle” to criminally prosecuting a former president for violating Section 1924, since it requires removal of classified information to occur “without authorization” and the chairman of the United States States would have had that authority.
The search was “impressive,” said Matthew Dallek, a veteran presidential historian who has written extensively on modern-day politics and presidents.
“As with everything else with Trump, it’s unprecedented,” he said.
Contributing: Francesca Chambers
Contact Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison and Josh Meyer at @JoshMeyerDC.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump compares FBI search to Watergate; experts say that’s inaccurate