Trump, Mar-a-Lago and Merrick Garland: Five key questions answered

(The Hill) — There’s been a new and dramatic twist in the saga of former President Donald Trump, Mar-a-Lago, and the FBI. 

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced on Thursday afternoon that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is seeking to unseal two key documents: the search warrant that authorized agents to raid Trump’s Florida estate Monday, and the inventory of what they found. 

Soon after Garland’s announcement, a judge set a 3 p.m. deadline Friday for a decision on whether the former president would oppose the request or accede to it. 

Here are five key questions — and their answers. 

What was sought and what was found? 

We don’t know but we soon might. 

The search was reportedly undertaken on the suspicion that Trump had classified material at Mar-a-Lago. But not even that has been officially confirmed — yet. 

This will change if Garland’s request to unseal documents is fulfilled.  

The list of material that agents took away from the property will be fascinating. It also seems likely to show, at least by implication, what kind of case the DOJ is looking at bringing against Trump. 

The current dispute apparently has its genesis in efforts by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to retrieve material that it believed Trump had wrongly taken with him at the end of his presidency.  

Earlier this year, NARA said that it had found classified information among 15 boxes of material that it eventually got from Mar-a-Lago, and alerted the DOJ. 

One key element that remains unanswered is the nature and sensitivity of the material that was seized on Monday. 

If it turns out that seemingly innocuous documents have fallen prey to the government’s tendency toward over-classification, Garland and the DOJ will face even louder complaints about overreach. 

But it’s precisely because of that danger that many people assume there must be something more vital within the material.  

The unsealing of the documents seems designed, at least in part, to take the wind out of the sails of some of the wilder conspiracy theories doing the rounds. 

Can Biden maintain his silence? 

So far, yes. 

The president and his aides have been at pains to assert a wall of separation between the DOJ investigation and the White House. 

Officials told reporters Thursday that they had not been informed in advance of Garland’s plans for a news conference. 

That is consistent with Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre’s comments on Tuesday that the White House had learned about the search of Mar-a-Lago from news reports “just like the American public did.” 

On that occasion, Jean-Pierre emphasized that Biden had always believed that “the Justice Department conducts its investigations independently.”  

Beyond the ethical questions, Biden has nothing to gain from commenting publicly on the legal developments.  

Any comment he could make would be parsed for signs that he was putting a thumb on the scales against Trump, suggesting the DOJ pursue a particular action or both. 

All that being said, the president has a well-documented tendency to wander off-script, and it is 100 percent certain he will be asked about the latest developments as soon as reporters get the chance. 

Does the whole episode complicate life for Trump’s GOP rivals? 

Yes, unquestionably. 

One of the most striking developments right after Monday’s raid was the procession of potential challengers for the 2024 GOP nomination lining up behind Trump. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and former Vice President Mike Pence were among those who were critical of the law enforcement action, and implied or stated that the former president had been wronged. 

In one sense, they had little choice. The FBI raid has enraged huge swaths of Trump’s MAGA base and inflamed the talking heads of conservative media. Any failure to demonstrate support for the former president would have been duly noted. 

But these dynamics also copper-fasten Trump’s primacy within the GOP — even as he is in legal peril on several other fronts. Moreover, his would-be rivals have nailed their colors to his mast without knowing the strength or weakness of the evidence against him. 

There have been some dissenting voices. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a onetime prosecutor, told SiriusXM the search of a safe at Mar-a-Lago was “fair game.”  

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) waited longer than many others in his party to make any public comment, and settled on insisting that the nation “deserves a thorough and immediate explanation” of what happened on Monday. 

Garland appears to be in the process of providing one. 

What does it all mean for Democrats? 

It’s too early to tell. 

A former president who might yet be the GOP nominee for a third time is in legal peril. On its face, that can’t be bad for Democrats. 

The potential problem is twofold.  

First, the raid appears to have fired up Trump’s supporters to an even higher pitch than normal. Whether the intensification of MAGA passions lasts, and whether it has any effect headed into November’s midterms, are impossible questions to answer at this point. 

One odd downside for Democrats is that they were enjoying their best stretch in months, and now they’ve lost the spotlight.  

Several key pieces of legislation have been passed or, in the case of the Inflation Reduction Act, are on the cusp of passing. U.S. forces killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. There are even some signs that inflation could be leveling off. 

Now, it’s all Trump all the time — again. 

Will the story fade? 

Not anytime soon. 

Garland’s Thursday move gave new life to a story that has dominated the week. The pressing Friday deadline for Trump’s legal team to decide their response ensures another cliff-hanger. 

Meanwhile, the story has so many intriguing unknowns that it won’t go away fast. The traditional media, and the partisans of social media, are spoiled for choice as to which loose thread they might pull on. 

In the medium term, the Mar-a-Lago drama also replenishes public interest in the other legal challenges Trump faces, from New York to Washington to Georgia. 

It’s a story that could run and run.

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