The Mar-a-Lago Raid Proves the U.S. Isn’t a Banana Republic

A bedrock principle is that no one—not even the president, much less the former president—is above the law, and if they commit crimes, they must answer for them.

Mar-a-Lago from above
John Roca / NY Daily News Archive / Getty

Updated at 11:15 a.m. ET on August 10, 2022

Donald Trump would have you believe that Monday’s surprise FBI raid on his Florida estate was, like so many things he disdains, un-American.

Not much is known about the operation as of this writing. The FBI has not commented, and much of what is public comes from a statement by Trump, a notoriously unreliable source of information. Trump wrote, “My beautiful home, Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, is currently under siege, raided, and occupied by a large group of FBI agents,” who he said arrived unannounced and broke into a safe.

Reporting from The Washington Post and The New York Times indicates that the raid appears to be connected to Trump’s removal of records from the White House at the end of his administration, in what critics have said was a clear violation of federal public-records law.

“Nothing like this has ever happened to a President of the United States before,” Trump wrote. “Such an assault could only take place in broken, Third-World Countries. Sadly, America has now become one of those Countries, corrupt at a level not seen before.”

Trump is right that nothing like this has ever happened to a former president of the United States before—he always omits the former, a way of refusing to acknowledge that he lost the 2020 election—but he’s wrong about what it means about the rule of law in the United States.

Trump was always more banana republican than Reagan or Lincoln Republican. Unlike his presidential predecessors, and despite his open disdain for Latin America and Latin Americans, he often styled himself as a sort of caudillo, trying to rule with an iron fist, circumvent the Constitution and legislature, enlist the military into his schemes, and use the power of the state to further his own electoral and personal fortunes. Just today, Susan Glasser and Peter Baker reported on how Trump pushed the military to conduct the sort of garish parades that, as one general put it, characterize foreign dictatorships, and complained that U.S. generals were not as loyal to him as Hitler’s top brass was to the führer. And at the end of his term, Trump retired to a palatial estate fringed by palm trees to plot his next moves.

In a real banana republic, he might have hoped to live with impunity—as long as he could outwit his political opponents’ schemes. Instead, Trump has found himself beset on many sides. He was impeached, a second time, on his way out of office; a district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, continues to investigate his meddling in vote-counting after the election; the New York attorney general is investigating his company, and will soon depose him; and a House committee is probing his attempt to overturn the election and pressuring the Justice Department to bring charges against him related to that. (The DOJ has refused to comment on any related investigations.)

Trump is not the victim of political persecution. A bedrock principle of American law is that no one—not even the president, much less the former president—is above the law, and if they commit crimes, they must answer for them. “What is the difference between this and Watergate, where operatives broke into the Democrat National Committee?” Trump asked in his statement. But this question is simple enough that any AP U.S. History student could easily manage it: Watergate was an illegal break-in conducted by a team of political operatives, not law-enforcement agents with judicially approved warrants, working for an FBI director appointed by Trump.

For all Trump’s bluster, he hasn’t been charged with any crimes. If he is, he will have every opportunity to defend himself in court. (Contrast that with his own disdain for due process for other people accused of crimes.) Some legal scholars are nervous about the precedent set by potentially prosecuting a former president. But the precedent set by giving him a free pass by virtue of his electoral history would be even more troubling.

The raid seemed to come out of nowhere, a sign that the federal government is handling this investigation—whatever it is—with great secrecy and delicacy. In the coming days, the public is likely to learn more, including whether White House documents are really the sole or main factor behind the “siege” of Mar-a-Lago.

Even though Trump’s rise to the White House in 2016 owed much to “her emails”—Hillary Clinton’s sloppy handling of classified records—his administration was particularly brazen about not maintaining records from the start. Trump ripped up documents at will, leaving teams to comb through the scraps and literally tape them together. On Monday, Axios published photos that appeared to show notes in a toilet. In recent weeks, news reports have brought attention to the destruction of records by the Secret Service, Pentagon, and Department of Homeland Security relating to the January 6 insurrection.

Over four years in office, Trump’s behavior was often egregious. He courted Russia in 2016, was impeached for extorting Ukraine, and topped things off by trying to steal the election. But he largely escaped consequences for these offenses, other than losing in 2020. Could his downfall really be about something as mundane as proper handling of sensitive documents? Justice in the U.S. is still blind, despite his protestation, but that doesn’t mean it lacks a sense of humor.

This article originally misstated the timing of Trump's second impeachment.