FBI search of Trump home was likely vetted carefully, despite Texas Republicans’ claims of a witch hunt
Federal authorities would have needed to meet an extraordinarily high threshold for probable cause to sign off on such a high-profile, politically explosive operation, legal experts say.
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The FBI raid Monday on former President Donald Trump has Texas Republicans rallying to his defense, echoing his unfounded claims that it was a political hit job.
But legal experts assert there would have been a very high standard of probable cause to execute such a politically charged operation.
Federal agents searched the Florida home of the former president in what Trump described in a statement as a “siege” on his private property. The Justice Department has been mum on the ongoing probe, though a number of national media outlets reported it was connected to an investigation into whether Trump improperly removed classified documents from the White House. In his statement, Trump did not reveal the nature of the investigation, which would have been outlined to him in the search warrant.
The operation marks the first time in history federal agents have searched a former president’s home. Trump, who is also a likely candidate for the 2024 election, likened the investigation to the Watergate scandal, when Republican operatives broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee.
Almost immediately, Texas Republicans decried the operation as political persecution.
“The FBI raiding Donald Trump is unprecedented. It is corrupt & an abuse of power. What Nixon tried to do, Biden has now implemented: The Biden Admin has fully weaponized DOJ & FBI to target their political enemies,” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, tweeted Monday evening.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott echoed the sentiment.
“This is next-level Nixonian,” he tweeted. “Never before has the country seen an Administration go to such extent to use the levers of government to target a former President and political rival.”
U.S. Rep. Randy Weber, R-Friendswood, attended a dinner with Trump on Tuesday in New Jersey, posting a picture of himself at the table with the former president and U.S. Rep. Michael Cloud, R-Victoria, in support of the former president.
"The FBI Hierarchy & DOJ & the White House should be ashamed!" Weber tweeted.
But legal experts stressed that it’s unlikely officials could have signed off on the search warrant, given the public scrutiny, without a high standard of probable cause.
“I think that this was signed off at the highest levels of both the Justice Department and the FBI, with full knowledge of how controversial it would be and how much reflexive opposition to it there would be,” said Michael Bromwich, a former federal prosecutor who served as inspector general at the Justice Department from 1994-99. The head of FBI, Christopher Wray, was appointed by Trump in 2017.
The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment, but Bromwich, who worked with Attorney General Merrick Garland during his time at the department — and was his college classmate — said “it had to be serious crimes and the evidence needed to be powerful.”
Andrew Weissmann, a former federal prosecutor who worked with special counsel Robert Mueller on his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, agreed in an interview with The New Yorker that Garland would have had to sign off on the raid. Garland released a memo requiring department leadership to approve of steps “involving a political figure” earlier this year.
“The fact the search apparently didn’t leak until basically when word came from Donald Trump himself shows the FBI and the Justice Department conducted this search by the book and a high degree of integrity. No leaks? Impressive,” tweeted historian and journalist Garrett Graff, who recently wrote a book on the Watergate scandal.
The White House also denied in a statement that it was aware of the raid in advance, and Biden said early in his presidency that he would break from his predecessor and leave the Justice Department to its own devices. A federal magistrate judge in Florida signed off on the search warrant, the Miami Herald reported.
“We leave any law enforcement matters to them. It would not be appropriate for us to comment on any ongoing investigations,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday.
Still, Republicans in Congress are calling for investigations into the search, which they could kick off if the party takes control of the House next year. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a statement that the party will conduct “immediate oversight” of DOJ, warning Garland to “preserve your documents and clear your calendar.”
Cruz expressed a similar sentiment in his tweets, and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, retweeted McCarthy’s statement. (Cornyn’s office confirmed to the Tribune that in this case, a retweet does mean an endorsement.) Other House Republicans in the Texas delegation made similar comments.
If Republicans are in the majority, they would have subpoena power to compel Garland to testify. To do so would interfere in an ongoing criminal case and “may imperil prosecution,” Bromwich said. “That would be, I guess at this point, shocking but not surprising.”
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