The Department of Justice investigation into Donald Trump’s possession of classified documents has recently come into light. What consequences will the former president, and America, face?
If there is a single disposition that has defined Donald Trump’s presidency and post-presidency, it is entitlement. It was unsurprising then, that despite the Department of Justice trying for months without the use of force to retrieve highly classified documents that Trump and his team had taken from the White House to Mar-a-Lago, Trump refused to return them. This left the Justice Department with only one option: a spectacular Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) raid on the former president’s home and members-only club on the morning of Monday 8 August.
Before the raid, the Justice Department had obtained some sought-after documents, and in June, one of Trump’s lawyers falsely declared that all documents marked as classified had been returned. But the unsealed warrant and property receipt reveal that during the raid, the FBI recovered a further tranche of top-secret files, the kind that constitute a threat to the United States if they fall into the wrong hands. Apparently, Justice officials remain unsure as to whether classified documents remain in Trump’s possession, and they are now looking to obtain security footage from the Florida estate.
Among the potential violations for which Trump is under investigation is breaching the Espionage act of 1917 – the act under which Julian Assange has been charged. Consequences for a breach can include a lengthy prison sentence. It seems hard to imagine that Trump – a wealthy and still powerful former president beloved by many Americans – would end up in prison, something that has happened to no former or sitting president. Yet it is also unlikely that the notoriously circumspect Attorney General Merrick Garland would have signed off on the raid if he was not committed to pursuing the investigation to its conclusion.
There are two key points of political interest arising from the raid. The first is observing how Trump’s most vocal supporters – Fox News, conservative pundits, Republicans – will continue to contort themselves rhetorically and morally in order to cast him as a heroic defender of America and its values. The second point of interest: finding out how far the Department of Justice is willing to go in prosecuting a former president.
Only one question needs to be asked to discern whether Trump’s supporters will continue to excuse and defend him. Does Trump retain enough influence with voters – particularly his passionate conservative base – to be easily instrumentalised by his allies in their quest to obtain and retain power? If the answer is yes, they will continue to align themselves with him.
Many Trump-backed candidates running in the upcoming midterm elections are loudly decrying the raid as evidence of the Biden administration engaging in political persecution. Fox News host Jesse Watters baselessly proposed that the FBI might have planted evidence in order to justify the raid. Trump himself has claimed that he had used the power of his office to implement a standing order to declassify documents, something widely disputed by those in his inner circle.
Some have argued that the Mar-a-Lago raid will ultimately benefit Trump’s 2024 electoral prospects, enraging and enthusing his supporters who will be persuaded that he is subject to harassment by a partisan Department of Justice, driving an already deeply polarised nation into even more acrimonious conflict. Trump is indeed using the raid to fundraise for his likely upcoming presidential bid, and tens of millions of Americans undoubtedly see the saga as evidence of sinister government overreach.
Yet it is not obvious that the raid and investigation uncomplicatedly benefit Trump. He has proved adept at casting himself as the victim regardless of circumstance. If not for the latest crisis, he would surely find another issue on which to stake his martyrdom. Likewise, raid or no raid, Fox News will never lack the capacity to weave a narrative in which Joe Biden’s administration is plotting to unwind America’s freedoms and take Trump as a political prisoner. To refrain from investigating Trump, for fear that doing so might threaten the American social fabric, would be unwise. The threat posed by Trump and his allies being left to operate outside the law significantly outpaces the consequences of any investigation and, according to a recent poll, 57 percent of Americans think the investigation should continue, compared to 40 percent who do not.
This drama takes place against a worrying backdrop. America is in danger of further disenfranchising large portions of their population, jeopardising the nation’s already fragile democratic elements. Many Republicans who will be running for powerful positions in the upcoming midterm elections have repeated Trump’s lies that the 2020 election was stolen by Biden, and some of those candidates would, if they win this November, have the power to manipulate future election results. The Republican Party is well on the way to becoming an organisation that is, to put it mildly, deeply antagonistic towards the conventions of liberal democracy.
It would be foolish to rely solely on institutions like the FBI to stand as the bulwark against authoritarianism, but in this instance and at this stage, the Department of Justice has chosen not to defer to Trump’s power, popularity, and conviction that he exists beyond the rule of law. The United States is threatened by those who consider themselves entitled to exercise power however they wish. If such behaviour is left to flourish unimpeded, they will have no reason to feel otherwise.
Dr Dan Dixon is a writer and academic with a PhD from the University of Sydney. He is currently teaching at Macquarie University and the University of Sydney. He writes and teaches on US politics, literature, and culture.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.