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As the FBI raids Mar-A-Lago, Donald Trump reaches for unconvincing historical parallels
“These are dark times for our nation”, former US President Donald Trump declared when he announced his mansion at Mar-A-Lago had been raided by FBI agents on Monday night Florida time. An assault like this “could only take place in broken, Third World countries […] corrupt at a level not seen before”.
“They even broke into my safe!” he went on, comparing the FBI action to Watergate:
What is the difference between this and Watergate, where operatives broke into the Democrat National Committee? Here, in reverse, Democrats broke into the home of the 45th President of the United States.
Watergate was the hotel–office complex in Washington, home to the Democratic Party national headquarters, which was famously burgled in June 1972 by political operatives working for the re-election of Richard Nixon. After more than two years of tortuous judicial and political inquiries, Nixon became the first – and still the only – American president to resign.
Trump says MAL has been searched by feds pic.twitter.com/UEC5KE5pJm— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) August 8, 2022
The differences between the raid on Trump’s mansion and Watergate are obvious. Trump’s mansion was raided by law officers executing a legally issued search warrant. They entered by the front door and searched openly. Watergate was an illegal break in by political operatives acting secretly.
And where Trump, playing to his shrinking base, claimed last night’s raid was undertaken by “Democrats”, it was in fact conducted by a group of FBI agents. The Florida raid took place to enforce the law; the Watergate action broke the law.
As of late Monday night Washington time, neither the FBI nor the Justice Department had made an official announcement about the raid. However, on the basis of background comments by various officials, most media reports agree that its purpose was to secure various documents, including classified material, from Trump’s presidency. Some reports said the FBI officers left with 15 boxes of documents.
Trump had failed to meet the requirements of the innocuous-sounding national Archives Act, which exists to minimise the scope for corruption and abuse of process. Trump has treated these legal obligations, and any accountability provisions, with contempt. Indeed, a soon to be published book by New York Times political correspondent, Maggie Haberman, includes photos showing Trump used to flush unwanted documents down the toilet.
The FBI raid follows the recent critical scrutiny of Trump’s actions in inciting a riot against the Capitol on January 6 2021, when the congressional vote for the presidential election was declared. While politically humiliating to Trump, it is not clear that any legal action will follow from those hearings. Congress has no power to initiate such action, and some speculate that Attorney-General Merrick Garland is reluctant to be seen to be undertaking politically motivated prosecutions.
Trump, speaking of himself in the third person, asserted in his statement on the FBI raid that “the political persecution of President Donald J. Trump has been going on for years.”
Loyalty or else
More than anything, that response is testimony to Trump’s paranoid worldview, which demands the loyalty of those around him despite any inconvenient principle or evidence to the contrary. In another soon-to-be published book, Trump’s former White House chief of staff, John Kelly, a retired marine general, recounts how Trump said he wanted his generals to be loyal to him the way Hitler’s were loyal to him under Nazi rule.
One of the Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward, wrote a series of books about Trump and interviewed him several times. He reported an episode where Trump went through the faces of various Democratic congressional figures watching him deliver his State of the Union address, most of whom – according to Woodward – looked bland, bored or unemotional. After each of them, Trump exclaimed to Woodward “look at the hate” – “they hate me”.
“It was a remarkable moment,” Woodward commented.
A psychiatrist might say it was a projection of his own hatred of Democrats. But it was so intense that it did not resemble the subdued reaction of the Democrats. His insistence that it was “Hate!” was unsupported by the images […] This Trump spectacle was unforgettable and bizarre.
From the Roe v. Wade anti-abortion and anti-gun control rulings of the Supreme Court, to charges against Trump’s supporters for violence on January 6, to the various dubious activities of Trump himself, much in American politics looks likely to be played out in the courts over the next year or two – far more than is healthy in a democracy.
But when Trump has slashed and burnt his way through many political conventions, recourse to legal sanction may be the only means of protecting democracy. These are dark times for the American nation, but for precisely the opposite reason Trump asserted.
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