Attorney General Merrick Garland cannot afford to miss a legal shot at Donald Trump | Column

·4 min read

The FBI’s raid of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence should sound familiar. It wasn’t too long ago that federal law enforcement officials addressed allegations of a high level federal official failing to protect classified information.

The Department of Justice is heading for a reckoning at the hands of Republicans if it can’t build a much stronger case against Trump than mishandling classified information.

On August 11, 2015, Hillary Clinton agreed to turn her private email server over to the FBI after an intelligence community inspector general told Congress that at least five emails from Clinton’s server contained classified information.

There wasn’t a raid to retrieve it. In fact, there wasn’t much of a question as to whether Clinton mishandled critical documents and data while serving as secretary of state.

Almost a year later, then-FBI Director James Comey explained that Clinton and her colleagues “were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.” Even as he noted evidence of statutory violations, Comey proclaimed that “no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.”

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Remember the investigation of Hillary Clinton's emails?

Most of us haven’t forgotten the case or Comey’s contorted justification for treating Clinton with kid gloves.

Like it or not, the Justice Department’s handling of Clinton’s email scandal is the current standard for dealing with senior federal officials who mishandle sensitive material when they leave office.

Raiding a former president’s personal residence for any reason is a remarkable step by federal law enforcement.

According to Eric Trump, the FBI conducted the search because "the National Archives wanted to corroborate whether or not Donald Trump had any documents in his possession."

Democrats should be praying that Eric Trump isn’t getting the full picture. We don’t know exactly why the FBI executed the search warrant, but the Justice Department better be building an airtight criminal case that goes well beyond mishandling federal documents.

Trump supporters carry flags near Mar-a-Lago  in Palm Beach, Florida on August 9 2022.Former president Donald Trump says the FBI conducted a search of his Mar-a-Lago estate.
Trump supporters carry flags near Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida on August 9 2022.Former president Donald Trump says the FBI conducted a search of his Mar-a-Lago estate.

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Political bias has been a problem at the Justice Department

Politicization at the Department of Justice is an ongoing national blight. The Obama Justice Department failed to root out political bias related to Trump’s candidacy.

We’ve since learned that officials justified their actions based in large part on demonstrably false information. Those biases at the Justice Department only worsened under the Trump administration.

Trump openly and routinely pressured his attorneys general to investigate political opponents.

President Joe Biden rightly vowed to address the issue. Biden has, to his credit, appeared to operate at arms length from the attorney general even as the Department of Justice investigates his own son, Hunter Biden.

Even so, there is no more politically precarious investigation than one into a former president. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s handling of Trump will indeed reflect on Biden and congressional Democrats regardless of whether the latter have any say in the matter.

Attorney General Merrick Garland
Attorney General Merrick Garland

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Ignore the 'witch hunt' screams

Ignore the political voices shouting that this is either much needed “accountability” or the recent raid is a “witch hunt.”

Reality is rarely as simple as knee-jerk reactions. The Justice Department should apply the law to the facts and determine whether there’s enough evidence to bring a credible case. The president is no exception to that rule.

At the same time, the attorney general can’t ignore the backdrop of the Clinton email investigation. If Garland is focused solely on recovering classified documents, the raid is both overkill and political malpractice.

If Garland goes after Trump for mishandling documents, he’ll have an extremely difficult time explaining why Clinton received such different treatment. Trump will be perfectly willing to remind him of any differences effective immediately.

Cameron Smith, columnist for The Tennessean and the USA TODAY Network Tennessee
Cameron Smith, columnist for The Tennessean and the USA TODAY Network Tennessee

Garland may choose to take a legal shot at Trump, but he can’t afford to miss. Good prosecutors take time to build their case. By executing the search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, Garland has put himself on the clock to charge Trump.

If he can’t build a criminal case that sticks in short order, Republicans will decimate Democrats and overhaul the Department of Justice come November. They should. It’s past time for federal law enforcement to stop playing politics.

USA TODAY Network Tennessee Columnist Cameron Smith is a Memphis-born, Brentwood-raised recovering political attorney raising three boys in Nolensville, Tennessee, with his particularly patient wife, Justine. Direct outrage or agreement to or @DCameronSmith on Twitter. Agree or disagree? Send a letter to the editor to

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Case against Trump: Why FBI, Merrick Garland shouldn't miss legal shot