In their defense of former President Donald Trump following an FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, congressional Republicans showed how close they remain to Trump and previewed how the next Congress could proceed under Republican control.
Republican leaders, responding to Monday’s search, quickly tied it to broader criticism of the Biden administration’s Justice Department and its handling of issues such as a probe of the president’s son and a response to parent protests at school boards last year.
The Mar-a-Lago search also already fed into Republicans’ pitch to voters in the hotly contested midterm elections this fall.
“We’ve got to take back the majority in the House and Senate so we can subpoena the records behind this and these other efforts, so we could bring in the director of the FBI, the attorney general and force people to testify under oath about who told you to do this and what was the justification behind this,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told Fox News on Tuesday.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, used the search in a fundraising email Wednesday arguing for Republican Senate control next year. “The FBI, Merrick Garland, and Joe Biden must explain what happened TODAY – or face impeachment,” the email said.
Some of the most outspoken members of the House Republican caucus piled on. Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., tweeted for Attorney General Merrick Garland to “clear your calendar” in advance of vigorous oversight of the search if Republicans retake the majority.
Others on the House side went further; Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., compared FBI agents to Nazis and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., called for defunding the FBI. Members of the Republican Study Committee met with Trump on Tuesday night, and Chair Jim Banks, R-Ind., posted on social media about Trump’s potential 2024 run for the White House.
“House conservatives are united in standing with President Trump,” Banks said on Truth Social. “We will Make America Great Again!”
That reflexive defense of the president, when the public knows so little about the subject of the search, worried some legal experts.
The Justice Department has so far remained quiet about the search since Trump announced FBI agents had entered Mar-a-Lago. The Biden administration said it knew nothing about the search in advance.
Legal experts said some of the only possible information the public could have at this point is in the hands of the former president.
“I know that’s how politicians roll but it suggests to me a lawlessness and an elevation of the president to be above the law in a way that I find really troubling,” Barbara McQuade, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at University of Michigan, said.
McQuade pointed out that public reporting so far has pointed to the FBI searching for classified information Trump took from the White House after his term ended.
“This means that there was a detailed affidavit that established probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime was located on the premises at Mar-a-Lago,” McQuade said. “There are a variety of different crimes that could be charged here from misdemeanor mishandling of classified information up to felony violations of the Espionage Act.”
George Washington University law professor Randall Eliason said Trump may have a copy of the search warrant, if it has not been sealed.
Eliason, a former federal prosecutor, said the FBI knew the stakes heading into the search.
“I mean, the DOJ wouldn’t get this search warrant if they’re looking for missing records of who attended a steak dinner at the White House,” Eliason said. “This is going to be something pretty significant.”
Trump and his congressional allies filled the information vacuum.
Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, told Fox News Monday that oversight “is going to change” in a Republican Congress. In the meantime, he wanted Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray to answer questions about the search when the House returns for votes on Friday.
“What was on the warrant? What were you really doing? What were you looking for? Why not talk to President Trump and have him give the information you’re after?” Jordan said.
That is unlikely because the Justice Department typically does not comment on pending investigations. During a Senate oversight hearing last week, Wray frequently deferred from commenting on that probe or one into Hunter Biden, President Joe Biden’s son, saying it would not be proper to comment on a pending investigation. Wray was appointed by Trump to a 10-year term at the head of the FBI in 2017.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the likely Judiciary Committee chairman if Republicans win control of chamber, hinted he wants to examine more deeply the potential for political bias at the Justice Department.
“Transparency brings accountability & if the FBI & DOJ aren’t transparent about raiding a former presidents home they risk further damaging their credibility. I’ve already raised issues from whistleblowers about political bias in investigations so we’ve got a right 2b skeptical,” Grassley tweeted.
Some Republicans in the Senate took a more measured response to the raid because of the lack of information about it right away.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the Justice Department “should already have provided answers to the American people and must do so immediately.”
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., sounded a more cautious tone in an appearance on CBS Tuesday, but still said the search would “raise more questions” for him.
“We need to let this play out and see exactly what happens, but we should all have been stunned and surprised and shocked at what happened yesterday,” Scott said.
Republican members of Congress face another wildcard: What else the Justice Department might do in this and other various probes, including one about the origins of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters.
One of Trump’s closest allies in Congress, Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, invoked the search of the president’s residence in responding to his own legal problems, after the FBI seized his phone with a search warrant Tuesday.
Perry played a role in Trump’s effort to overturn his loss in the 2020 election, according to testimony provided to the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, including elevating acting head of the DOJ civil division Jeffrey Clark.
Perry later asked for a pardon following the attack. The House committee subpoenaed Perry in the investigation, but he did not cooperate.
“As with President Trump last night, DOJ chose this unnecessary and aggressive action instead of simply contacting my attorneys,” Perry said in a statement from the House Freedom Caucus.