Questions Remain As FBI Raids Mar-a-Lago : The NPR Politics Podcast This episode is available to everyone, though on some platforms there may be a short delay in availability between the version for subscribers (which is sponsor-free) and non-subscribers (which includes sponsor interruptions). Thank you for your patience!

FBI agents executed a search warrant on the Florida home of former president Donald Trump Monday, though it remains unclear what they were looking for. We explore and contextualize the implications of the search, both politically and historically, as Republicans and Democrats alike prepare for the midterm elections this fall.

This episode: voting correspondent Miles Parks, justice correspondent Ryan Lucas, congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh, and senior political editor & correspondent Domenico Montanaro

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Questions Remain As FBI Raids Mar-a-Lago

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BRANCH MERSON: Hi. This is Branch Merson (ph) from Albuquerque, N.M. It's the morning of my 19th birthday, and I just finished a celebratory bike ride of the Sandia Crest Trail, a beautiful mountain trail along the backside of the Sandia Mountains that takes you 13 miles and over 3,000 feet up to the peak of the Sandia Mountains. This podcast was recorded at...

MILES PARKS, HOST:

2:10 p.m. on August 9, 2022.

MERSON: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. Like, hopefully, my legs will be able to walk again.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: (Laughter).

MERSON: Enjoy the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: You will be able to walk again one day.

PARKS: I was saying, my quads were burning just hearing that.

MONTANARO: You know, we have such fit, active listeners. They're always doing something interesting.

PARKS: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

LUCAS: I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

PARKS: We're learning more about yesterday's FBI raid at Mar-a-Lago, home to former President Donald Trump. Trump's son, Eric, told Fox News the search had to do with an investigation over classified records that the former president took with him after leaving office.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC TRUMP: Sean, the purpose of the raid from what they said was because the National Archives wanted to, you know, corroborate whether or not Donald Trump had any documents in his possession. And my father...

PARKS: Later in the podcast, we're going to talk all about the political ramifications of this raid. But, Ryan, I want to start with you. Get us up to speed. Tell us what we know about what happened.

LUCAS: Well, we know that the FBI conducted a court-authorized search beginning in the morning yesterday at Trump's Mar-a-Lago club and residence. It's a search that took many hours, and it appears as though this is part of an investigation into the possible mishandling of government secrets. We know that top-secret papers were found at Mar-a-Lago. The National Archives and Records Administration has said that more than a dozen boxes of White House records and other items were there. These are things that should have gone to the National Archives when Trump left office but instead wound up back at Mar-a-Lago. The Justice Department is investigating how that happened. And it's important to remember here that mishandling classified documents is a crime, and people have faced charges over that in the past.

PARKS: It's worth noting, Ryan, that the FBI is led by Christopher Wray, who was appointed by former President Trump in 2017. And this is an agency that can't just break into anyone's house whenever they want to. They need a search warrant. Can you talk a little bit about that process, kind of how it works and what it takes for the FBI to be able to do something like this? And is it different if it's at the former president's house?

LUCAS: Well, right. This isn't something that the FBI can just kind of pop off and do on its own. This is something that's court authorized. What that means is that the FBI is going to have to go to a federal judge and demonstrate probable cause, one, that a crime has been committed, and two, that evidence of that crime is at the location that they wanted to search. In this instance, that would, of course, be Mar-a-Lago. And then, if a judge is convinced that there's probable cause for that, the judge will sign off on that warrant. So there is an independent check to ensure that this is being done according to form and it's not just some agent saying, hey, this is what we want to do.

Technically, there is no higher bar to conduct a search warrant at a former president's house. But of course, we all know that the stakes on this are incredibly high. The attention is going to be incredibly high. So it's very likely that something of this nature would be signed off on at the highest levels of the Justice Department, including, perhaps, by the attorney general himself, Merrick Garland. I did ask the Justice Department about that yesterday. They are not commenting. They're not commenting in general on what happened yesterday at Mar-a-Lago. But certainly, this is something that everyone is aware of the stakes and the attention that it's going to draw.

PARKS: And, Domenico, what's your reaction to this raid?

MONTANARO: Unprecedented sort of has become the word of the Trump-era with everything that this - with the former president has done, whether it's post-presidency or during his presidency. And, you know, we've seen Republicans really rally around the former president when, you know, a lot of people might have thought that, you know, they wouldn't necessarily do so. And we're hearing now that it's potentially possible that he could be doing the political calculations in his head and thinking maybe he needs to move up the timeline of trying to get into the 2024 presidential race. So, you know, I think all of the things that people think they thought they knew or would know - don't be shocked by anything that happens in Trump-world.

PARKS: And a lot of people first found out about this raid from the former president himself in announcing it. What has he said so far about it?

MONTANARO: Well, we heard there from his son, Eric. Trump himself had put out a statement saying that he had been raided. You know, as Ryan pointed out, this is a search that had to be approved by a federal judge. But there was a little bit of what Trump had to say today when he called into a tele-town hall for Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, who's now running for Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Another day in paradise. This was a strange day.

PARKS: Ryan, do we have any indication as to why this is happening now, you know, almost, you know, a year and a half after Trump has left office?

LUCAS: We do not have a good answer as to why this is happening now. We know that the investigation into the potential mishandling of classified information and Mar-a-Lago began earlier this year in the late winter. But, you know, we have not seen the search warrant. We don't know exactly what they were looking for. We don't know what exactly is driving this. It's a question that, certainly when we get a chance to ask senior Justice Department officials, it's something that we'll be looking for, although this is something that they are going to be very tight-lipped on, knowing the fire that they're coming under from the political right.

I mean, Trump himself has talked about this in the statement that he put out last night announcing this FBI search, saying that this is the weaponization of the Justice Department. It's a theme that we've heard from him repeatedly over his time in office and certainly since he's left office as well. And so the political atmosphere around this is actually more charged now, I think, than it's been before, even though we knew that, you know, his actions on January 6 are under scrutiny as well.

MONTANARO: I mean, the president himself could put out the search warrant and make it public. So for all of the things that, you know - the allegations that they want to throw out and the speculation about what this search was actually about, they could make it public themselves if they wanted to. All I know, all we know is that we are in a situation that is completely unprecedented. You've never had a former president of the United States, a sitting president of United States, anyone at that level of government have their home searched because of an FBI search.

LUCAS: One of the things that I think is going to be important to bear in mind here, because there's been a lot of churn in the past 24 hours about what this means, is that just because the FBI conducted a search of Trump's house does not mean that he's on the verge of being charged. It also does not mean, necessarily, that he ever will be charged. This is part of an investigation, so I'm cautioning people not to jump to the conclusion right now that Trump is somehow going to be charged in this investigation.

PARKS: OK, Ryan, thank you so much for your reporting on all this.

LUCAS: Thanks for having me.

PARKS: Let's take a quick break, and when we return, more on the Mar-a-Lago raid.

And we're back. With us now, NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh. Hey, Deirdre.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hey, Miles.

PARKS: So how are people reacting to this raid on Capitol Hill?

WALSH: Well, I would say most congressional Republicans are really outraged and sort of lashing out at the Department of Justice, at the FBI, you know, demanding a briefing on what led to this, promising investigations if Republicans win back control of the House of Representatives in November as many expect them to do. I would note that the top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, has been silent. I reached out to Republican leadership earlier today and haven't heard back. In a contrast, House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy last night tweeted out that he called this a intolerable state of weaponized politicization, and he warned Attorney General Merrick Garland, preserve your documents and clear your calendar. That's just sort of a, when I (laughter) - if I am speaker, you're going to be spending a lot of time before congressional committees.

And I think that, overall, this really shows you how much Donald Trump is still the leader of the Republican Party. And if we thought after the January 6 committee hearings that there was a potential pause or pivot away from Donald Trump, I think the unity that you are seeing from the vast majority of congressional Republicans shows you what they're seeing at home, right? A lot of these members are home right now talking to voters. Donald Trump is still very popular.

PARKS: There's also more news today that the House Ways and Means Committee won a court battle here in Washington, D.C., separately of all of this, but related to Donald Trump's tax records. What can you tell us about that?

WALSH: Right. This legal battle has been going on for a while. The House Ways and Means Committee oversees tax policy, and they do have the authority to request tax returns of private citizens. It's kind of a rare authority they have that they don't often use. But they first requested Trump's tax returns in 2019, and it's been through this winding court battle. And the latest ruling from the appeals court is that they do have the ability to review them.

It's possible that Trump's legal team will again appeal this, and it could go on for a while. But if the legal rulings hold up and they do again verify that the Ways and Means Committee can get them, there is a small group of staffers and members on that committee which could potentially see the tax data for the first time fairly soon.

PARKS: Domenico, can you lay out what the political ramifications of all this? There's so many different investigations swirling in Trump-world right now. What effect does that have on midterms and on 2024?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, Deirdre noted that after the January 6 committee hearings and this pause that we've had for the summer, you know, Trump has really seen his once-ironclad grip on the Republican base start to loosen a bit. And you would think on the one hand that it's possible something like this could further damage Trump. You know, Republican base voters could see Trump as too much of a risk. They might not want to take a big chance for the race for president in 2024 with a vulnerable, current president in Joe Biden, you know, on someone like Trump who, you know, would be 78 years old if he were to win and become - if he became president again, only (laughter) to be able to serve one more term.

But as Deirdre is noting, that is not what we are seeing from Republicans. In fact, Republican strategists are saying today that they see this as emboldening Trump, that this plays into his idea of grievance politics, which really is what shaped his brand from the time that he started and continues to press on the campaign trail, whether it's pushing his election lie that he somehow won the election because of widespread fraud - even though we know that that's not true - versus white grievance, which he has continued to promote over and over and over again. And this just plays into that even just a little bit more. And you could see, you know, him potentially move up that timeline for running since he's getting some of this goodwill from Republicans.

Now, you know, we don't know long term how that's going to play out and if there's something big that the FBI or Justice Department does pull out of this that dismisses some of these allegations of politics being played by the Justice Department.

WALSH: If I could just take a wider lens out to this sort of political messaging moment that Republicans have right now, Democrats on Capitol Hill just sort of came off a good few weeks. They passed significant legislation on a number of different fronts, some of it bipartisan. And, you know, this was something that was sort of potentially shifting the momentum for Democrats heading into the midterms. But with this big news about the former president, Republicans are able to get back in the conversation and rile up their base at a time they really need to, right? They are linking this search warrant at Mar-a-Lago to this broader argument of federal government overreach.

Republicans have constantly been criticizing different federal agencies for sort of getting too involved in issues that they argue they don't belong in - over pandemic policies, about education. You know, the big climate and health care bill that the Senate just passed boosted the budget for the IRS to crack down on people who aren't paying their fair share of taxes. Republicans seized on that and are now - a lot of Republicans saying, if this is what the FBI can do to Donald Trump, what are 87,000 new IRS agents going to do to you, American citizen? So it's just this argument that this big, hulking, you know, government structure in Washington is invading people's lives.

PARKS: OK - a lot to watch out for. And we will be back in your feeds tomorrow. I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

WALSH: I'm Deirdre Walsh. I cover Congress.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

PARKS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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