Nothing Else Matters if Trump Broke the Law, But…
As I’m sure you’ve heard, the FBI raided former president Trump’s humble abode in Palm Beach on Monday night. That he is, oddly enough, a former president did not matter; neither did his inevitable jeremiad, declaring the Bureau to be the instrument of “a Third World Country”; nor did his supporters’ undying conviction that every tick of the BREAKING NEWS chyron could summon them to the most imaginary front line since Michael Jordan had hair. The FBI thought about these things, perhaps deeply, and decided that none of it mattered enough to keep them from rolling up on Mar-A-Lago to pantomime the strangest college move-out day since James Hinckley was your average everyday cinephile.
It shouldn’t have mattered, either, because this isn’t a third world country. As our present president was so fond of saying in 2019, “This is America.” America, the country where an EMT became Swiss cheese in her sleep when the Louisville police dubbed her a drug trafficker. Surely the nation’s highest law enforcement agency can obtain a warrant to search the president’s things for — according to sources — things that are not the president’s, things that, in fact, belong to the National Archives. Let him howl; let them howl, with all due respect, and let the carceral state get down to business if the howls become a hoedown.
These are not the observations of an unusually empowered person; they’re the bare minimum of what we can expect from a free government in a post-Magna Carta age. If a former president steals documents from government over which he presided, he doesn’t become some elevated manifestation of intrinsically noble theft; he becomes, in turn, a suspect, a defendant, and a convict,just like you and me. “No man is above the law,” no matter how lofty his resumé or how militant — no offense — his supporters.
Easy to think; easy enough to write; and not quite strenuous — I suspect — to say. So, why am I, a random, embattled college sophomore who shouldn’t rank among the triple-digits of this nation’s finest columnists, explaining this before anyone actually involved with the raid?
Well, there’s plenty of excuses to go around: Joe Biden, whose White House houses the Justice Department that houses the FBI, claims he found out about it when we did, if not later, via the news. (Hey, we don’t pay him to be hip.) His press secretary, Katherine Jean-Pierre, has rebuffed requests for comment like a workaholic at Father’s Day brunch. (Why mourn what’s absent when you can celebrate what’s present?) Merrick Garland, the Attorney General of the United States, hasn’t said a word either, and the same cat that has his tongue seems to playing the laser game in the FBI director’s tongue, too.
Bestride the line of political scrimmage, Kevin McCarthy and half the House GOP are wolfing about the DOJ’s alleged politicization, pledging to put the paddles to the currents of law with more hearings than a Kanye co-producer. Trump himself, bane of all corruption that he is, has dispatched his lawyers to right-wing television — in the manner of apostles from *Jesus Christ Superstar — *to preach the gospel of “if they find something, the FBI planted it.” (On paper, it’s less the word of the Lord, and more an excuse from the legal pads of a mediocre rapper.) And everyone from Mike Pence to Andrew Cuomo claims that a public statement could save the DOJ’s legitimacy.
I’m old enough to remember when these kinds of cataclysms would have called for a press conference a la feu*,*** in which the authorities would explain why they felt compelled to — from the sound of it — rip the fabric of time and space. What pressure from the hands of God and man is keeping that from happening here?
Besides its uncontested perch as must-see TV — we’re not angels, Joe; entertain us — a press conference would establish to the Right that their quibbles with the raid will not sail an empty sea; to the center, that this is not some unconscionable escalation; and to the Left, that this investigation still has legitimacy at its core, no matter how they feel about the man at its center. (If the president effectively stole documents from the National Archives, he should be treated like someone who effectively stole documents from the National Archives — not worse, and not better.) Without a word from the people in charge of the raid — and, one can only assume, in charge acting on its findings — the highest-ranking government officials with something to say will be more public shamans than public servants, building what Jason Stanley called “a cult of the Leader” that sees the long arm of the law as a weapon of war.
“Evil triumphs when good men do nothing,” said someone not named Edmund Burke. (Sorry, the closest we can get is John Stuart Mill.) If we, the people of the United States, were dealing with the UK’s Conservative Party, I wouldn’t be complaining about Biden’s silence; Britain’s Right treats its leaders with all the reverence of a toddler noshing Cinnamon Toast Crunch. But we’re not living with Britain’s Right; we’re dealing with the Ollie’s Aisle Edition of Kim Il-Sung in the Everglades. Yes, the mainstream GOP should defer to the rule of law, and no, the heck they won’t. As such, the task of carving out confidence in the law has fallen to its executors, from Biden to Garland to — ideally — Christopher Wray.
If the first government official to defend the raid is seen as a partisan hack, we’re screwed; adjudicating Former President Trump’s (potential) crimes with clarity will be forever seen as a partisan project. But if no one steps up to defend (or, I don’t know, explain) the raid in the first place, we were probably screwed, anyway.