Not long after FBI agents searched his Mar-a-Lago home Monday, Donald Trump unveiled a new video that casts him as the best person to once again lead the world’s pre-eminent superpower.
“It is time to start talking about greatness for our country again,” the former president says in the campaign-style ad, reprising the slogan that won him a first term in office after narrating a list of what he calls American failures in the months since he left office.
For Mr. Trump, who has long presented himself as the antidote to an untrustworthy establishment, the questions about the legality of his conduct raised by the FBI action did little to dim the prospects of another run at the presidency.
They may have achieved the opposite.
“The actions on their face seem so blatantly political that, knowing President Trump, I think they would clearly inspire him to want to run again,” Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary under Mr. Trump, said in an interview Tuesday.
Mr. Trump “will look at this as an attempt to stop him and his agenda – and realize that the only way he can fight back is to actually jump back into the political arena,” Mr. Spicer said.
Judicial experts said it’s unlikely the FBI would secure a warrant for a search of Mr. Trump’s Florida home without extraordinary justification. But in the absence of public information about what led to the federal action, Mr. Trump quickly became the object of a chorus of Republican support. Candidates and party leaders decried what they called an abuse of power by the Joe Biden White House – which said it had no prior knowledge of the search – and promised a retaliatory investigation of Attorney-General Merrick Garland.
Among voters, meanwhile, Mr. Trump found new purchase for a narrative of political persecution that he has long wielded as a foil to accusations of wrongdoing.
The FBI search of Mar-a-Lago amounts to a “witch hunt they’re doing on him,” said Linny Horrocks, 69, a retired railway worker from Gering, Neb., who travelled to Cheyenne, Wyo., on Tuesday to get his car fixed.
He said the raid had been orchestrated by the Democratic Party and corrupt judicial officials to damage Mr. Trump’s prospects in 2024. “Democrats don’t want him to run again so they’re trying to find some reason to stop him,” he said.
“I’d vote for him if he runs again,” Mr. Horrocks said.
Support for Mr. Trump remains strong even among those convinced he has made mistakes. There is little reason to continue the investigation of Mr. Trump over Jan. 6 because it is already clear that he failed to intervene as rioters took over the Capitol, Lynn Dreher, a 70-year-old retired diesel mechanic and bar singer, said as he played a slot machine at the Outlaw Saloon on Cheyenne’s south side.
“They already know he’s guilty,” Mr. Dreher said. “He didn’t stop the guys from going in there and rioting.” Nonetheless, Mr. Dreher declared Mr. Trump the “best president ever” because he “brought a whole bunch of jobs back.”
“He’s better than this clown we’ve got now,” Mr. Dreher added, in reference to Mr. Biden.
Mr. Trump’s support has for years defied the revelations that have sunk other political leaders. He won office despite the publication of lewd and misogynist comments. His approval ratings were little changed by two impeachments. Public blame for his role in the events of Jan. 6 has also waned. A year after the riot, the Pew Research Center showed that the percentage of Americans who said Mr. Trump bore no responsibility had risen to 34 per cent, from 24 per cent immediately after the event.
On Saturday, after months of further revelations from the Jan. 6 committee that has presented compelling accounts of Mr. Trump’s complicity in the Capitol riot, the former president won a straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Texas, with 69 per cent of those voting saying they would prefer him as their next nominee, far ahead of the 24 per cent who expressed support for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Mr. Trump’s supporters are “pretty much locked in and impervious to evidence,” said George C. Edwards III, an emeritus political-science scholar at Texas A&M University who is the author of Changing Their Minds?: Donald Trump and Presidential Leadership. The FBI search is “just going to reinforce their view that either the deep state or the establishment – or however you want to characterize it – is just anti-Trump.”
“It may bolster his prospects of winning the nomination, which were pretty good anyhow. Because it’s reigniting the passion for him,” Prof. Edwards said.
Those who have remained loyal to Mr. Trump have little incentive to change their minds now, said Julie Wronski, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi who has written on the roots of support for the former president.
“You’ve been defending Trump’s behaviour for years. You create these world views and these identities and you work psychologically really hard to preserve those,” she said. “So facts don’t change feelings.”
Republican operatives wasted little time in seizing on the search for political and financial gain, with a fundraising e-mail from the Republican National Committee lamenting that “Biden’s FBI raided President Trump’s beautiful Florida home,” and another from Mr. Trump’s team saying, “The lawlessness, political persecution, and Witch Hunt, must be exposed and stopped.”
The FBI has made no public comment about the search, and White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Mr. Biden had received no prior notification. “The President and the White House learned about this FBI search from public reports,” she said Tuesday.
Jacob Frenkel, a former U.S. federal prosecutor who worked on political corruption cases, said the search brings the U.S. justice system into “uncharted territory.”
“The reason for the use of a warrant likely was the strong belief that making a document request or even a subpoena would result in either non-compliance or potential destruction of documents,” he said.
Officials have told U.S. media that the search was related to an investigation of Mr. Trump’s handling of classified information. That allegation runs contrary to Mr. Trump’s contention that he has been targeted, Mr. Frenkel said.
“This is not about selective application of the law. We’re talking about the application of a law that applies directly to the president of the United States that is not applicable to most average people.”
Right-wing media nonetheless cast the FBI search as an act of institutional war against Mr. Trump, and a dark omen. “There’s nowhere else for the Biden administration or intelligence agencies to go other than to do this to you,” warned Steven Crowder, a broadcaster with 5.69 million subscribers on YouTube.
“If a Republican gets in, investigate everybody, raid everybody,” he added. “Use all of it. I don’t care if we become Nicaragua at this point.” Mr. Crowder then turned to an interview with Rudy Giuliani, the former lawyer for Mr. Trump.
The FBI search, Mr. Giuliani said, broke an unwritten rule against investigations of former presidents, a practice that, he said, “has kept us a democracy – and kept us different than a fascist state.”
Mr. Trump has said the federal agents broke open a safe.
But Mr. Giuliani said it’s not the first time FBI agents had come to Mar-a-Lago. Agents first came several weeks ago and “searched the whole place,” he said. The FBI then padlocked the room agents broke into Monday, he said.
“They just went and broke the padlock they put there – they lost the key,” he said.
NATHAN VANDERKLIPPE, INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT
ADRIAN MORROW, U.S. CORRESPONDENT
The Globe and Mail, August 9, 2022