Donald Trump has more than $100 million in his political war chest. But he has something even more valuable — an active FBI investigation against him.
Anyone can raise money. Few can dominate the nation’s political consciousness, cleaving the country into two passionately opposed sides and giving rise to perfervid theories and counter-theories, based on being the target of a law-enforcement action. That’s the quality that Trump has brought to the table for years, and it is boosting him still.
Democrats all over the country have been not-so-subtly promoting MAGA candidates in GOP primaries in hopes they will be easy to beat. If the FBI were doing the same thing on behalf of Joe Biden, it wouldn’t have handled its search of Mar-a-Lago any differently.
Some have theorized that the Biden Justice department is seeking to disqualify Trump from running from office by convicting him of mishandling classified material under Section 2071, which stipulates that the offender “shall forfeit his office and be disqualified from holding any office under the United States.” This doesn’t make sense, though, since the Constitution’s qualifications for president can’t be superseded by a statue.
And, regardless of the legalities, the fact is that the FBI search has certainly helped Trump politically. It has put him front-and-center again. It has made it easy for him to portray himself as an embattled victim. It has caused nearly everyone in the GOP to embrace him and for some to call for his swift and decisive nomination as the party’s presidential candidate again.
Of course, none of this was intended by FBI Director Christopher Wray, although it was entirely foreseeable.
No one is above the law, yet if the FBI search was really over a document dispute, it’s hard to see how the law-enforcement stakes were big enough to justify taking a step sure to inflame roughly half the country.
Trump is enjoying every minute within the conflagration. Monday was his best day in pursuit of a third Republican presidential nomination since he left the White House.
The episode and its fallout show how Trump — off of Twitter and out of office — can still blot out the sun. The magnitude of the controversy and attention he generates is beyond what anyone else, even the brightest stars in the party, can hope to match.
Last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended a woke county prosecutor who pledged not to enforce laws that he opposed. For a couple of days, this felt like a big deal. DeSantis was denounced as a strongman by his enemies and celebrated as a brave champion of law and order by his allies. Yet, compared with the action at Mar-a-Lago, the firing was a picayune dispute over county government — local theater compared with Broadway; Hollywood, Florida compared with Hollywood, California.
The FBI search played into Trump’s hands in another way. Populism thrives on the sense that big, out-of-control-forces are wielding outsize power, that things aren’t what they seem, and that institutions are fundamentally corrupt.
Trump built his political career playing to this sentiment. He portrays himself as the courageous fighter against such malign forces, and their victim.
Usually, politicians want to avoid seeming like victims — it communicates weakness. Trump, on the other hand, welcomes it. If you think about it, it’s pathetic that he claims he was cheated out of a landslide presidential victory in the worst fraud in U.S. history and couldn’t do a damn thing about it.
For him, though, the contention that he’s being treated unfairly, a constant throughout his adult life, is both a negotiating posture (“how dare you charge such an exorbitant amount to build the clubhouse at my new golf course”) and a worldview. In the political realm, the more he’s being cheated, the worse and more malign his enemies are — and the more his supporters need to rally to his side.
Trump has been able to make this dynamic work for him with most, if not all, of the party regarding his 2020 election lies. When it comes to the FBI’s latest move, he garners near-universal assent — and for good reason.
It is impossible to over-estimate the effect of the Russia investigation on the Republican psyche. To have a couple of years of “the walls are closing in” media coverage, speculation Trump might be a Russian agent, and an intense special-counsel investigation all coming to naught and predicated on the Steele dossier that was laughably bogus from the start won’t soon be forgotten. No one who stoked the frenzy expressed any regret afterward. It was simply on to the next thing.
After that experience, no assurance that “There’s no way the FBI would do that,” or “Well, they had a warrant, so it must be OK,” is ever going to get any traction for Republicans.
This is why there was such a rush to embrace the former president after the raid, including by Republicans hoping to supplant him. And because any political taint around federal law enforcement naturally raises apocalyptic fears — and don’t kid yourselves progressives, you’d feel the same way if the shoe was on the other front — there is no room for modulation or nuance.
Trump ups the ante with rhetorical grenades and wild charges (e.g., the FBI may have planted evidence against him), and it’s awkward for any Republican to disagree with him. To the extent Trump becomes the central figure in a Manichean struggle between good and evil, it makes any other concern — electability, a well-considered and achievable agenda, an orderly operation — seem small-minded by comparison.
Now, maybe what we learn about the classified material sought by the FBI turns out to be so shocking that the search looks different in the cold light of day.
Maybe, after the initial rallying around Trump, the FBI’s intrusion becomes part of the endless backward-looking fights that Republican voters had shown signs of growing fatigued with.
Maybe. For now, the chances of another Republican beating Trump look more remote. Thank you, Christopher Wray.