Guilty until proven innocent? Political world ponders motives for Trump raid as midterms approach
Some prominent Democrats eye path to prevent Trump from running again, while others assume former president's guilt for unspecified crimes.
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From pundits to lawyers to lawmakers, the nation's most prominent political voices have been fiercely debating the motivations behind the FBI raid of Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida on Monday night as the bureau and the Justice Department remain tight-lipped about the unprecedented action targeting a former president.
Two sources briefed on the raid told Just the News that federal agents were looking for evidence concerning whether Trump took documents containing classified information from the White House to his compound at Mar-a-Lago after he left office last January.
Eric Trump, the 45th president's son, confirmed the FBI told Trump's staff that the bureau was searching for documents the National Archives believed were classified and missing, adding his father had been cooperating with the investigation for months. The National Archives had referred the case to the Justice Department, which launched a probe into whether the former president's handling of documents violated federal law.
Despite Trump's apparent cooperation with the investigation, the FBI executed a search warrant for Mar-a-Lago. The warrant hasn't been made publicly available, although Judicial Watch announced Tuesday it has filed a motion to unseal the warrant.
Meanwhile, both the FBI and the Justice Department have declined to comment on the raid. The FBI didn't respond to a request for comment for this story.
The White House has been similarly tight-lipped, denying any foreknowledge of the raid.
"No, the president was not briefed, was not aware of it," White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Tuesday. "No one in the White House was given a heads up. We learned about this just like the American people did."
The government's silence hasn't stopped Trump's critics from concluding the raid and search warrant prove Trump broke the law — either without specifying a crime or citing allegations unrelated to the reported classified records probe.
Several Democrats in Congress were quick to accuse Trump of criminal activity.
"That's what happens when you break the law, try to steal an election, and incite a deadly insurrection," said House Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). "I'm glad to see the FBI taking steps towards accountability. Donald Trump should be in jail."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) added there must've been justification for the raid.
"I don't really have too much to say except that to have a visit like that, you need a warrant," she told MSNBC. "To have a warrant, you need justification. And that says that no one is above the law, not even a president or a former president of the United States."
Attorney Paul Calli, who represents investigative journalist James O'Keefe in what he describes as a case of government overreach, told Just the News last month that the federal government can mislead judges when requesting search warrants.
A prosecutor "can write anything she wishes to convince the court to sign the warrant," he explained, "and the judge reviewing it has to assume the prosecutor is telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Sadly, that is not always the case, and thus it is really the prosecutor who secretly controls the basis on which a warrant is issued."
Since the raid, Trump supporters have cited the Trump-Russia probe as a reason to be skeptical of search warrants being beyond reproach. Specifically, they've pointed to the infamous Steele dossier, which contained several salacious and since-debunked claims about Trump and his alleged ties to Russia.
The government used the dossier to obtain a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant to surveil onetime Trump campaign aide Carter Page in 2016.
Still, some legal experts echoed Pelosi, arguing there had to be sufficient evidence to secure a federal search warrant against a former president.
Others went further — most notably Marc Elias, the Democrat's top election lawyer, whose former law firm represented Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign.
Following the FBI raid on Monday, Elias on Twitter suggested Trump could be barred from seeking public office again.
"The media is missing the really, really big reason why the raid today is a potential blockbuster in American politics," wrote Elias, citing U.S. Code Title 18, Section 2071, which states that if someone "willfully and unlawfully" mishandles certain federal documents, they "shall forfeit his office and be disqualified from holding any office under the United States."
Following immediate criticism, Elias added that such a legal effort to prevent Trump from seeking the presidency would be difficult but nonetheless a "blockbuster in American politics."
MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell and some progressive groups were among those to pick up on and promote Elias' idea.
However, prominent legal experts dismissed the idea as fantasy.
"There's no concept," renowned civil liberties lawyer Alan Dershowitz said Tuesday on the "Just the News, Not Noise" television program. "It's completely made up. You can run for president from prison. You can run for president if you're about to be sentenced to death. There is nothing in the Constitution prohibiting a person who has committed crimes or been convicted of crimes of running for president."
Dershowitz, professor emeritus at Harvard Law School, explained the Constitution has three criteria for seeking the presidency.
"You have to be born in the United States, you have to be 35 years old, and you can't have served in the Civil War in the South," said Dershowitz. "Those are the three basic criteria. And the idea that you can disqualify somebody from running is just wrong."
George Washington University Law School professor John Banzhaf similarly rejected Elias' notion, noting that the Supreme Court has ruled multiple times that the Constitution alone sets the conditions for holding certain offices and that additional conditions or qualifications can't be added.
This isn't the first time Elias and other like-minded liberals have pushed the idea of disqualifying Trump or his supporters from running for office. He spearheaded an effort to label and disqualify Republicans who supported efforts to challenge the 2020 presidential election as insurrectionists.
Specifically, Elias pushed to use a Reconstruction-era provision of the 14th Amendment designed to disqualify from post-war office Confederate political and military leaders who "engaged in insurrection or rebellion" against or provided "aid or comfort to the enemies" of the United States. Some Democrats in Congress supported the campaign.
Elias was previously a central player in soliciting and disseminating the Steele dossier in 2016 — an episode that, according to some legal experts, indicated an anti-Trump bias within the FBI.
"There is a documented history of bias against Trump by top FBI officials, including prior falsification or misrepresentations used to facilitate the Russia conspiracy investigation," George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley wrote Tuesday.
"Thus, Attorney General Merrick Garland surely knew this raid would rekindle suspicions that this could be another example of what fired FBI official Peter Strzok once called an 'insurance policy' against Trump becoming president in 2016 — only this time in 2024," Turley continued. "For that reason, the Justice Department has an added burden to show this raid was a step toward actual criminal prosecution and not just a political indemnification."
Dershowitz seems to believe the FBI and Justice Department are engaging in the latter, arguing Tuesday the raid "is part of an attempt to try to get him [Trump] disqualified from running."
The Trump raid has fueled concern among conservatives that the FBI is being weaponized for political purposes.
The raid "is another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the Regime's political opponents, while people like Hunter Biden get treated with kid gloves," wrote Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. "Banana Republic."
Even some prominent Democrats critical of Trump have said the government needs to explain itself.
The Justice Department "must immediately explain the reason for its raid & it must be more than a search for inconsequential archives or it will be viewed as a political tactic and undermine any future credible investigation & legitimacy of January 6 investigations," tweeted former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Trump and others, such as Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, have demanded Garland or FBI Director Christopher Wray explain why a raid and search warrant were necessary rather than subpoenas.
Just the News has previously reported on the FBI and the Justice Department using what legal experts decried as unnecessary strong-arm tactics, including raids, to target skeptics of the 2020 presidential election outcome and other critics of the Biden administration.