FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search has been called ‘unprecedented.’ Is it really?

·3 min read
Miami Herald File

Unprecedented.

That word is everywhere in coverage of the FBI search of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach.

It’s in headlines in Politico, USA Today, the Miami Herald and Fox News. It’s in tweets by supporters of the former president.

But is it really unprecedented? And what does that mean?

Law enforcement searches homes with warrants to look for evidence of criminal activity on a regular basis, Josh Chafetz, a law professor at Georgetown University, said on Twitter. That is not unprecedented.

What is unprecedented is that a former president’s residence was searched, Chafetz said. But he takes issue with the adjective.

“If you’re calling the Mar-a-Lago search “unprecedented,” you’re already buying into Trump’s framing,” he said.

Chafetz gave the example that if law enforcement searched his home, it would be unprecedented because his residence has never been searched before.

“See, you can describe anything as either precedented or unprecedented depending on your level of generality,” he said.

In a Monday statement, Trump questioned the difference between the FBI search of his home and Watergate. Garrett M. Graff, a journalist, historian and author of Watergate: A New History, answered the former president’s question on Twitter.

The raid had to have been approved and monitored by the highest level of the Justice Department, Graff said. An independent federal judge also signed off on the probable cause and believes that more evidence could be found in Mar-a-Lago.

“[It’s] hard to even imagine how high the bar of probable cause must’ve been for the Bureau to initiate such a politically sensitive search .... and how much probable cause was necessary to initiate a politically sensitive search,” he said.

For Graff, the fact that the search didn’t leak until Trump talked about it shows that the FBI and Justice Department conducted the search by the book.

“This is one of the most significant, sensitive, and politically explosive actions the US Justice Department and FBI has ever taken — one of a tiny handful of times it’s ever investigated a president,” he said.

Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., who serves on the Jan. 6 committee, appeared on “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC on Monday evening to weigh in on the FBI search — and why it was unprecedented.

“It truly is unprecedented,” Luria said during the broadcast. “But it truly is unprecedented because this is in reaction to an unprecedented presidency. We have never before seen a president who sought to overturn [an] election, fake electors, put pressure on the vice president, summon a mob to D.C....”