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Never before in US history: FBI searches the home of a former president

WASHINGTON — The battle between former President Donald J. Trump and the National Archives that came into the open when FBI agents searched Mr. Trump’s Palm Beach estate has no precedent in US presidential history.

It was also a risky gamble by Attorney General Merrick B. Garland that the law enforcement operation in Mar-a-Lago, the former president’s sprawling Florida home, will resist allegations that the Justice Department is pursuing a political vendetta against President Biden’s opponent in 2020 — and a likely rival in 2024.

Mr. Trump’s demonization of the FBI and Department of Justice during his four years in office, intended to undermine the legitimacy of the country’s law enforcement agencies, even if they had brought charges against him, has left Mr. Garland made even more difficult to investigate Mr. Garland. Trump without a backlash from the former president’s supporters.

The decision to order Monday’s search has jeopardized the credibility of the Justice Department, months before this fall’s congressional elections and as the country remains deeply polarized. For Mr. Garland, the pressure to justify the FBI’s actions will be great. And if the search for classified documents ultimately fails to yield significant evidence of a crime, the event could be banned from history to serve as another example of an action against Mr. Trump that backfired.

Mr. Trump is running his own risks by rushing to criticize Mr. Garland and the FBI, as he did during Monday’s search, when he called the operation “an attack that could only take place in fractured Third World countries.” Mr Trump no longer has the protections afforded by the presidency, and he would be much more vulnerable if he had misused highly classified information that threatens the country’s national security.

A number of historians said the search, while extraordinary, seemed appropriate for a president who blatantly broke the law, refuses to admit defeat and helped orchestrate a bid to undo the 2020 election.

“In an atmosphere like this, you have to assume that the attorney general didn’t do this casually,” said Michael Beschloss, an experienced presidential historian. “And that’s why the criminal suspicions – we don’t know exactly what they are yet – must be fairly serious.”

In Trump’s case, archivists at the National Archives discovered earlier this year that the former president had taken classified documents from the White House after his defeat, prompting federal authorities to launch an investigation. They eventually requested a search warrant from a judge to determine what was left in the former president’s custody.

Key details remain secret, including what the FBI was looking for and why authorities felt the need to conduct a surprising search after months of legal wrangling between the government and lawyers for Mr. Trump.

The search took place as angry voices on the far-right fringes of US politics talk about a new civil war, and as more mainstream Republicans threaten retaliation if they take power in Congress in the fall. Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader in the House, warned Mr. Garland to keep documents and erase his agenda.

“This puts our political culture in a sort of emergency alarm mode,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “It’s like flipping the apple cart of American politics.”

Critics of Trump said it was no surprise that a president who shattered legal and procedural standards while in the Oval Office would now find himself in the middle of a dispute over classified documents.


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For nearly 35 years, the tug-of-war over presidential documents — and who controls them — has been largely bureaucratic in the halls of the National Archives and discussed among lawyers in courtrooms.

Former President Richard M. Nixon spent nearly four years after Watergate fighting for control of millions of pages of presidential records and hundreds of hours of the tapes that helped him resign. Mr. Beschloss said Nixon initially made a deal with President Gerald R. Ford that would have given him control of his papers and also the ability to destroy them. But a law passed by Congress after Nixon left office in August 1974 forced him to take his fight to court. He eventually lost in the Supreme Court 7-2.

The dispute led to the passage of the Presidential Records Act in 1978, which first made clear that White House records belong to the federal government, not the president who created them. Since then, presidents of both parties have bickered over how and when the archives should be allowed to release those documents to the public.

Presidents and their assistants are also subject to other laws regarding the handling of classified information. Over the years, a handful of senior federal officials have been accused of illegally handling classified information.

David H. Petraeusthe military general who served as CIA director under former President Barack Obama admitted in 2015 to providing his top-secret diaries to his loved one, pleading guilty to one count of unauthorized removal and retention of classified material, a crime.

Sandy Berger, national security adviser to former President Bill Clinton, paid a $50,000 fine after pleading guilty to removing classified documents from the National Archives in 2003 to prepare his testimony before the 9/11 Commission.

But there has never been a clash between a former president and the administration like the one that culminated in Monday’s search, said Lee White, the executive director of the National Coalition for History.

Mr White, who has regularly met with National Archives officials over the years, said they usually work hard to resolve disagreements over documents with former presidents and their advisers.

“They tend to be respectful of the White House,” said Mr. White on the lawyers of the National Archives. “You know, these questions come on presidential records and they’re like, ‘Look, our job is to advise the White House.’ But they are not by nature an aggressive group of lawyers.”

Mr. Beschloss and Mr. Brinkley both said the search of Mr. Trump’s home has the potential to become a flashpoint in the ongoing battle between those investigating the former president’s actions and the forces behind the frantic efforts. of Mr Trump to remain in office.

But they said there were also risks to Mr. Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill, who rushed Monday to attack Mr. Garland and the FBI in the hours following the search.

“You now have Kevin McCarthy — something different that we’ve never seen before in history — making ugly threats to an attorney general, clearly trying to intimidate him,” said Mr. beschloss.

Mr. Trump’s defenders didn’t wait to find out what evidence the FBI found or even sought before using the search to raise long-standing grievances the former president had fueled during his term in office. Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio quickly posted a short video to Twitter accusing the Biden administration of acting like a dictator’s regime in a third world country.

“This is what is happening in places like Nicaragua,” Mr Rubio said in the video. “Where last year every person who ran against Daniel Ortega for the presidency, every person who put his name on the ballot was arrested and is still in prison.”

“You can try to reduce it, but that’s exactly what happened tonight,” Mr Rubio said.

The historians said the events are a test of the resilience of American democracy when it comes under attack.

“We are in the midst of a neo-civil war in this country,” said Mr Brinkley. “This is an unprecedented moment in American history.”

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