The US Department of Justice is under pressure to provide a fuller explanation of the FBI’s search of Donald Trump’s Florida estate after the unprecedented raid on a former US president’s home prompted howls of outrage from Republicans.
By Tuesday night, the Justice Department and FBI had yet to comment on the search of Mar-a-Lago, which was carried out a day earlier by what Trump described as a “large group” of federal agents. FBI searches must be approved by a federal judge.
Throughout the day, more details emerged about the focus of the raid. People close to Trump confirmed that it related to a probe into the former president’s handling of classified documents and presidential records found at Mar-a-Lago after he left the White House, and that the FBI left with new material retrieved during the search.
The investigation into Trump’s possession of boxes of sensitive documents had already prompted talks between federal officials and Trump’s attorneys in recent months. His aides insisted he had been compliant throughout.
“President Trump himself as well as his legal team has been more than accommodating and allowed access to whatever they have wanted in the past,” Christina Bobb, a lawyer for Trump who was present during the raid, told OAN, a conservative news network, on Tuesday.
“It’s just a weird power flex . . . and I don’t think the American people like it. I don’t think it was necessary. And it’s just Gestapo-style, you know, oppressing your political opponent,” she added.
The move has sparked a backlash from Republicans, who portrayed it as a politically motivated attack on someone who has repeatedly raised the prospect of trying to win back the White House in 2024.
Mike Pence, Trump’s former vice-president, said he shared “the deep concern of millions of Americans” over the search, and attorney-general Merrick Garland “must give a full accounting to the American people as to why this action was taken and he must do so immediately”.
Mike Turner, the top-ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee, published a letter to FBI director Christopher Wray calling for an “immediate briefing” on the search.
“In the history of our country, this action is unprecedented . . . Congress deserves immediate answers from you as to the actions you ordered,” Turner wrote.
Republican senator Lindsey Graham described it “a dangerous moment for the American constitution”.
“The pressure on DoJ from the liberals to get Trump has been unrelenting . . . Remember, they’ve been trying to get Trump since he came down the escalator,” Graham added, referring to Trump’s 2016 campaign announcement. DoJ and FBI officials very rarely comment on ongoing investigations before any charges are made.
Asked about the raid on Tuesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the administration had been given no advance warning about the FBI search and had learned about it only from public reports.
“We learned just like the American public did yesterday, and we did not have advance notice of this activity,” she said. “President [Joe] Biden has been very clear from before he was elected president and throughout his time in office that the justice department conducts its investigations independently.”
In the wake of the raid, Republican candidates sent fundraising emails to supporters citing the FBI search, in a sign they hope they can use the raid to rally the party’s base ahead of midterm elections where Democrats are widely predicted to lose their razor-thin majority in the House.
Mehmet Oz, the Republican Senate candidate in Pennsylvania who was endorsed by the former president, wrote on Twitter: “America is bitterly divided, & what President Biden’s FBI and DoJ did last night will only make things worse”.
Trump’s enduring grip on the conservative base of the Republican party was highlighted again on Tuesday night when Tim Michels, the candidate he endorsed in the Republican primary for governor of Wisconsin, prevailed against business-friendly establishment favourite Rebecca Kleefisch in a tight race.
Criticism of the raid was not limited to the Republican party, with Democrats also calling for the DoJ to provide more clarity. Others warned that if the search were carried out in connection with a probe into the preservation of presidential records — rather than a more serious matter — then it could jeopardise future investigations and boost Trump politically.
Andrew Cuomo, the former New York governor who was forced to resign following a wave of sexual harassment allegations, called on the justice department “to immediately explain the reason for its raid”.
He added that if the raid pertained only to “a search for inconsequential archives”, it would be “viewed as a political tactic and undermine any future credible investigation”.
Andrew Yang, a former Democratic presidential candidate, said on Twitter: “Mishandling documents doesn’t seem like raid material. It does however seem like excellent campaign material for Trump.”
In a separate blow to Trump, the DC court of appeals ruled on Tuesday that Congress had the right to subpoena the former president’s tax returns — something that had long been fought for on the left.
The Democratic-controlled House Ways and Means Committee said it expected to receive access to the returns immediately and would begin its oversight of the Internal Revenue Service’s mandatory presidential audit programme.
The Mar-a-Lago raid threatens to overshadow what had been shaping up as one of the most positive stretches of Biden’s presidency. News of the search broke as he was celebrating a string of legislative victories, topped by the passage of a flagship tax-and-spend bill through the Senate at the weekend.
Democrats hope to galvanise their voter base following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the 1973 Roe vs Wade precedent establishing a federal constitutional right to abortion.
Democratic leaders were reluctant to discuss the FBI search on Tuesday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she expected authorities had “justification” but said she had no further knowledge of the raid. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate leader, refused to comment on the search.
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