Why the Public Is Skeptical of Garland’s Mar-a-Lago Story

August 15, 2022

Robert Delahunty

Washington Fellow

There are at least four legitimate reasons Americans think something crassly political has just transpired.

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally co-authored by John Yoo and published in National Review on August 13, 2022. John Yoo is the Emanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley, a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University

Attorney General Merrick Garland’s Thursday press conference was a disaster. After keeping the press corps and the public waiting for almost 40 minutes, Garland delivered a three-and-a-half-minute speech laden with sanctimonious boilerplate and then headed for the exit without taking questions.

His performance sought to allay serious questions about the conduct of the Department of Justice in ordering 30 armed FBI agents to raid former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence. It failed in its mission. Garland seemed to think that he could cross a constitutional Rubicon while pretending that nothing of consequence had happened. Yet about 48 percent of the American public believes that political hostility to Trump was behind the FBI raid (40 percent think it was the work of “the impartial justice system”), and large majorities of both Republicans (77 percent) and independents (54 percent) think the motivation for the raid was political. This is a stunning loss of public confidence in the integrity of federal law enforcement. It could inflict long-lasting damage on the rule of law, which depends on public faith in the equal enforcement of the laws.

Garland promised to ask for the government’s search warrant to be unsealed. The federal district court in Florida released it late Friday. In fact, the warrant offers limited insight into the motivation for the raid. It outlines three possible criminal charges against the former president, one of which is an alleged violation of the rarely enforced Presidential Records Act. That offense looks much more like an administrative error or misunderstanding than a serious crime. A second charge concerns the misuse of classified information, and the third alleges obstruction of justice.

From the face of the search warrant itself, there was no urgency to justify the unexpected raid (which seems to have been in the works for weeks): Some of the government’s interests, such as the recovery of archival materials, could have been achieved through continued negotiation with Trump’s legal advisors. In those lawyers’ view, the government took an extreme and unjustified enforcement measure even after Trump had substantially complied with earlier requests for missing presidential records and had also taken the further safeguards that the government had asked for in June. There also seems to have been little urgency in gaining possession of the allegedly classified materials, because the search warrant was not executed until several days after it was issued. Meanwhile, Trump has claimed, “it was all declassified.”

The government’s limited disclosure — which Trump has welcomed — is insufficient to dispel the inference that Garland was acting from partisan motives. If Garland truly welcomed informed public discussion of his actions, he would have offered to disclose the affidavit that supported the government’s application for the warrant, which lays out the basis for the claim that it had probable cause to think that the raid would uncover evidence of criminality.

To be sure, disclosure of such an affidavit would be highly unusual. But this is a unique case, in which the conduct and motivations of the Justice Department and the FBI are being seriously questioned. Garland has spoken openly about ongoing criminal investigations and prosecutions, as with the January 6 cases. And once he had made his exit on Thursday, a predictable cascade of leaks from inside his Department and the FBI began to flow. In those circumstances, Garland cannot hide behind protocols and keep the public in the dark. Having triggered a collapse in public confidence in federal law enforcement, Garland owes it to the public to repair the damage fully.

Why do so many Americans justifiably believe that something crassly political was behind the raid? There are at least four reasons.

First, the timing of the raid. The Justice Department has an unwritten but longstanding policy of avoiding overt law enforcement and prosecutorial activities close to an election, typically within 60 to 90 days before Election Day. The FBI raid came just before the 90-day run-up period began. It looks as if Garland was trying to beat the clock. But the search also cannot help but influence November’s election.

Second, the leaks. Garland had hardly vacated the podium when leaks from the inside began to flow to administration-friendly media. These allowed the agencies to put their self-serving spin on the raid without having to take responsibility for, or permit questioning of, those claims. Garland knows how Washington, D.C., works. He apparently wants to have it both ways: a trickle of official information but a gusher of selective, off-the record disclosure.

For example, anonymous Justice Department officials dropped the sensational news that they were searching for classified documents related to nuclear weapons. We have to wait to see the basis for the government’s suspicions here (one reason why the disclosure of the affidavit would help). But we have our doubts that President Trump would have such highly sensitive documents in his possession. We have both worked on national-security matters for the Justice Department and White House. We cannot believe that actual documents involving the design or the use of nuclear weapons would be easily moveable out of the White House — if any were ever there. The sitting U.S. president has no secret safe where he keeps the blueprints for U.S. nuclear warheads or secret maps with the location of U.S. ballistic-missile submarines (which have a tendency to sail about).

We could see DOJ officials, however, claiming as “nuclear weapons material” personal letters between Trump and, say, Kim Jong Un which might discuss offers to disestablish North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. But these would be hardly the kinds of classified information that would justify the unprecedented search of a former president’s home. According to some press reports, DOJ officials in June had already toured the room where these documents were kept, removed several boxes, and asked that additional locks be added to the room. If the officials already saw such supposedly sensitive nuclear-related documents, they would have asked to seize it in June. We worry that classified nuclear information is being invoked speciously in order to save a search that is rapidly sinking in the eyes of the public.

Third, White House political pressure. It is widely reported that Biden wanted Garland to prosecute Trump. Biden’s associates told the media that Biden wants Garland “to act less like a ponderous judge and more like a prosecutor who is willing to take decisive action over the events of Jan. 6.” Garland apparently is willing to oblige.

Fourth, the impression of incompetence or, worse yet, improper political motivation already created by the Justice Department and FBI. Regardless of whether any classified documents do indeed sit illegally in Mar-a-Lago, Trump can point to a litany of law-enforcement persecution. There was the Russia-collusion claim, which turned out to be utterly false — as special counsel Robert Mueller concluded. That false claim, inspired by Hillary Clinton and her operatives, consumed the first two years of Trump’s presidency and helped hand the Democrats a midterm victory in the 2018 House elections (well after Mueller knew or should have known that the charges were spurious). There was FBI director James Comey trying to entrap the new president in allegations of obstruction of justice. There was the illegal FISA surveillance of Trump campaign officials.

Meanwhile, these same authorities seem to act with a light hand when it comes to Democrats. Despite requests to appoint a special counsel to handle the Justice Department’s investigation of Hunter Biden’s allegedly criminal activities, Garland has refused to do so. The FBI has found it hard to explain to Congress what it did with one of Hunter’s laptops. According to FBI whistleblowers who spoke to Senator Chuck Grassley, a high-ranking FBI official quashed an investigation into Hunter in the 2020 election. Trump himself pointed out that Hillary Clinton had kept classified information on an unsecured private computer network, but had never suffered a surprise FBI search of her home or office.

Since the 2016 presidential campaign, the FBI’s standing in the eyes of tens of millions of Americans has plummeted. The agency covered itself with shame for its role in the 2016–18 Russian collusion hoax. Now its leadership is doubling down. Instead of trying to rebuild public confidence, Garland’s press conference and handling of the search are further undermining DOJ’s and FBI’s reputations.

If Garland won’t refute this presumption of bias powerfully and in detail, fair-minded Americans will assume the worst of him, his department, and the FBI. Law enforcement depends on the rule of law. There are not nearly enough FBI agents to actively enforce federal law all the time, nor would we want there to be. Americans voluntarily follow most of the laws, most of the time, because they believe that prosecutors and agents enforce the law fairly. If Garland cannot present a trustworthy account that justifies the search of President Trump’s home, he will further undermine the country’s confidence in the honesty, integrity, and fairness of federal law enforcement.