As the early 20th-century US politician John Sharp Williams so perfectly put it: “My reading of history convinces me most bad government results from too much government.” Judged by this yardstick, the FBI’s raid on former US President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago mansion — a clumsy, authoritarian effort to forcibly retrieve mishandled government documents — was both. It makes it far more likely that the 2024 presidential contest is a Trump-Biden rematch, an outcome that an overwhelming 70 percent of Americans in recent polling simply do not want.
First, to the merits of the Aug. 8 raid. The FBI’s aim, with sign-off from the Biden-appointed Attorney General Merrick Garland, was to retrieve mishandled classified material, records from Trump’s time in the White House that ought to be in the National Archives and not at his private mansion. In February, the National Archives took 15 boxes of material back from Trump, some containing classified documents. The government appeared to think the former president was holding out on them, and might have been unlawfully keeping further records. This was the first time a search warrant had been issued against a former president.
Although Trump’s conduct appears to be a clear violation of the law, the dramatic and draconian nature of the raid amounts to executive over-reach, a fact highlighted by the treatment of previous high-level Democratic Party grandees who broke the very same law, which is rarely enforced and even more rarely (almost never) results in serious legal consequences. In 2005, former Clinton-era national security adviser Sandy Berger was caught trying to smuggle classified documents out of the National Archives in his socks and pants (you couldn’t make this up), only to receive community service for his crime, in essence a slap on the wrist. His house was not raided by the FBI.
Tellingly, in 2016 the FBI opened an investigation into Hillary Clinton to see if there was classified material among the 33,000 emails on her New York private server. They found 110 emails, deleted before 2014, containing classified information. While FBI Director James Comey noted that Clinton and her colleagues had been “extremely careless,”absolutely nothing of legal consequence happened to them. It is hard not to identify with Trump’s consistent populist critique of the left-leaning “deep state” — that the media, intelligence, law enforcement, entertainment and academic pillars of the American establishment hold him and Republican populists to one standard, and their favored Democratic Party leaders to another.
Ironically, all of this took place as Trump’s grip on the Republican Party had begun to marginally weaken. The televised Congressional hearings into the Jan. 6 riots have reduced GOP voter support for Trump at the edges. A Reuters/Ipsos poll in July showed a significant 32 percent of Republican voters felt he should not run again for president in 2024, up from 26 percent in June.
Ironically, all of this took place as Trump’s grip on the Republican Party had begun to marginally weaken.
Dr. John C. Hulsman
While Trump’s previously iron grip on the GOP has slipped a bit, a genuine rival — in the person of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis — has emerged, promising to continue Trump’s populist program (deregulation, tax cuts, social criticism of leftist woke initiatives and an avoidance of foreign wars) without all the messy personal baggage the former president brings to the table. A New York Times/Siena College poll in July gave DeSantis 25 percent support among GOP voters in a six-person 2024 primary, while Trump led with a 49 percent plurality of Republican voters. All of these political realities make it clear that while Trump is ahead in the 2024 race for the GOP crown, his nomination is not a foregone conclusion.
That is, before the Mar-a-Lago raid, which plays perfectly into Trump’s sense of victimhood, as well as the Republican Party’s increasingly dominant view that the levers of government, as well as the American establishment, are no longer playing the political game fairly.
This has mightily helped Trump’s cause. GOP rivals such as DeSantis as well as established critics such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have all rushed to the former president’s defense after the raid. The Trump movement itself, long becalmed as the media’s focus shifted to the hapless Biden administration, has found a second wind.
There is a conspiracy theory making the rounds that may just explain all this. For Joe Biden — deeply unpopular and seemingly overwhelmed by the demands of his office — this raid is manna from heaven. Biden has rallied his demoralized Democratic base by the attack on their favorite hate object, while reminding them of his number one selling point: Unlike his more leftist rivals in the Democratic Party, he can reach out to decisive independent voters and actually beat Trump, perhaps the only man in the country less popular than he is. The New York Times poll had Biden beating Trump in a 2024 re-match 44 to 42 percent. The greatest irony is that these two deeply unpopular rivals need each other. The raid makes it more likely, despite America’s deep misgivings about them both, that they will face off again in 2024.
• Dr. John C. Hulsman