You might think that the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago yesterday would provide a welcome opportunity for a Trump-weary Republican Party. This would be an entirely postpresidential scandal for Donald Trump. Unlike his two impeachments, this time any legal jeopardy is a purely personal Trump problem. Big donors and Fox News management have been trying for months to nudge the party away from Trump. Here was the perfect chance. Just say “No comment” and let justice take its course.
But that was not to be.
The former president has discovered a new test of power: using his own misconduct to compel party leaders to rally to him. One by one, they have executed the ritual of submission: Kevin McCarthy, Marco Rubio, even the would-be Trump replacer Ron DeSantis. Maybe they’re inwardly hoping the FBI will do for them what they are too weak and frightened to do for themselves. But outwardly, they are all indignation and threats of retribution.
Meanwhile, Senate and House Democrats are about to pass another major piece of legislation, the third big spending bill of the Biden presidency, after COVID relief and infrastructure.
FBI warrants aside, the Republican message in 2022 primary contests in battleground states such as Arizona and Pennsylvania has been false accusations against the 2020 election. The Democratic message? $35 insulin. The Republican response? Ask not what your member of Congress can do for you. Ask what your member of Congress can do to salve Donald Trump’s hurt feelings.
One of Trump’s political assets has been his ability to persuade others to adopt his grievances as their own. So far, he has not bumped into many limits on that power. Will that continue? Republicans may want to accomplish certain things if they gain a House or Senate majority in 2022 and recover the presidency in 2024. The only thing Trump wants is vindication for his 2020 defeat: revenge upon those who defeated him and legal impunity for his schemes to subvert and overturn the defeat.
2016 Trump made a lot of promises. 2020 Trump had a political record. 2024 Trump offers only resentments.
In the hours since the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s freshest resentments have become the election manifesto of his party, whose leaders are one by one lining up to investigate and punish the Department of Justice for enforcing the law against Donald Trump. Usually, August of an election year is when a party shifts its message from red meat for the true believers to softer themes for the general electorate. Trump is trying to stop that pivot, and after the FBI’s visit, he may succeed.
After all, the execution of a search warrant is very seldom the end of an investigation. More legal action is coming, perhaps indictments, federal or state or both. How much energy do Republicans want to commit to defending Trump at every turn? As things are developing, the demand will be intense.
Hours before the FBI search, The New Yorker published a new report of Trump’s expressed contempt for wounded American soldiers—and his eager admiration for Hitler’s generals. The report, an early extract from a forthcoming book by Susan Glasser and Peter Baker, confirmed and expanded 2020 reporting here at The Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg.
More and more of Trump’s ugliest secrets are coming to light, culminating in extracts from the tax returns obtained by the House of Representatives. So long as Republicans follow Trump, they can never change the subject. He won’t let them. He can’t let them. Another scandal always lies ahead.
Republicans had hoped that Trump might quietly fade away after losing in 2020. Humor him a bit on the way out the door, then say goodbye. But Trump will not go away willingly. The gentle nudges delivered by Fox News and the big donors are not working either. If Republicans do not want to follow Trump into all-out justification of all the wrongdoing already brought to light—plus whatever is written into indictments in the future—they’re going to have to do more than hint. They’re going to have to fight.
If not, if they enable him one more time, then they might as well call the nomination contest over now. It’s his party for the future as in the past, hopelessly and miserably.