Wednesday briefing: Could the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago be a gamechanger?

·14 min read
<span>Photograph: Cristóbal Herrera/EPA</span>
Photograph: Cristóbal Herrera/EPA

Good morning – and apologies for the unfamiliar name in your inbox. With Archie away, they’ve given me a go at First Edition this morning. And where else to start but with Donald Trump and his run-in with the FBI.

The Feds weren’t searching for the “love letters” from Kim Jong-un. Those had already been returned by Trump after a back-and-forth with the US National Archives. Nonetheless, when federal investigators raided the former US president’s Mar-a-Lago residence on Monday, they were still looking for documents related to his time in office.

Trump has no shortage of legal troubles, but the FBI search was a sharp escalation in the investigation into Trump’s potentially unlawful removal and destruction of White House records after he left office in 2021. And it’s likely to have consequences for the 2024 presidential election – whether the FBI’s action produces criminal charges or not.

But why is it happening now and is there actually a chance Trump could be prevented from running for office again? All that, after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Cost of living | Boris Johnson has said he is “absolutely certain” his successor will offer help to households, as annual bills were forecast to top £4,200 by January. Tory leadership hopeful Liz Truss, meanwhile, rejects energy bill help as “Gordon Brown economics”.

  2. Sport | Serena Williams, one of the greatest athletes of all time and a 23-time grand slam singles champion, has announced that she is retiring from professional tennis.

  3. Climate crisis | The UK is braced for drought conditions until October, with rivers forecast to be low and exceptionally low in central and southern England, according to the UK Centre of Ecology and Hydrology.

  4. Russia | A Russian airbase in Crimea has been damaged by several large explosions, killing at least one person; it is unknown if it was the result of a long-range Ukrainian missile strike.

  5. Royal Mail | More than 115,000 UK postal workers are to stage a series of strikes in the coming weeks; the Communication Workers Union (CWU) said it would be the biggest strike of the summer so far to demand a “dignified, proper pay rise”.

In depth: ‘You don’t start something you can’t finish’

Of course, Trump reacted with trademark calm as the FBI marched through Mar-a-Lago. Actually, in a hyperbolic statement, he expressed his anger at the raid: “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. They even broke into my safe!”

Trump went on to compare the FBI search to Watergate, where individuals with ties to Richard Nixon’s re-election committee burgled the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office building in Washington. The former president isn’t totally off to draw on that reference point: the raid took place on the anniversary of Nixon’s resignation in 1974; and Trump is suspected of breaking a law, the Presidential Records Act, brought in during the late 1970s to stop post-Nixon presidents tampering with presidential records.

But it’s unlikely that Trump and I talk to the same legal experts.

***

What happened

Agents at the FBI, the US federal crime agency, executed a search warrant at Trump’s home at the Mar-a-Lago resort, Florida, at about 9am on Monday. Sources familiar with the matter told the Guardian that the raid was part of an investigation into the former president’s removal and destruction of White House records after he left office in 2021.

Trump was golfing in New Jersey when the search took place. Speaking to Fox News, Trump’s son Eric said he had told his father that the search was taking place and that it was related to presidential documents.

This is not the first time that Trump’s treatment of official documents – which presidents are required to preserve – has made the news (see recent pictures of ripped-up notes in the bottom of toilet bowls, above). But it is a significant escalation in the affair.

***

Why the raid took place

The FBI had a search warrant, issued by a federal judge in Florida. The application for the warrant would have detailed why the bureau wanted access to the property and the type of evidence it expected to find. It also should have specified the items to look for and seize.

“The Department of Justice knows that initiating an investigation of a past president, especially one who is still politically active, will be a powder keg,” says Christopher Slobogin, professor of law at Vanderbilt University. “It also knows that if no charges are forthcoming, the department will have major egg on its face given the high-profile nature of this case. You don’t start something like this you can’t finish. The federal judge who issued the warrant knows all of this. So I assume both the DOJ and the judge made absolutely sure they had crossed all their Ts and dotted all their Is before moving forward.”

It is not clear whether that warrant was directly related to the apparent disappearance of evidence linked to the 6 January 2021 riot on Capitol Hill. Bob Woodward, of Watergate scoop fame, reported in March that call logs turned over to the House committee investigating the insurrection had an unexplained gap of seven hours and 37 minutes covering the period when the violence was unfolding.

But we do know that in February the US chief archivist wrote to Congress. In that letter, he confirmed that the National Archives and Records Administration (Nara), which looks after presidential documents and records, had found classified documents in 15 boxes of materials taken to – and then returned from – Mar-a-Lago. It had then informed the justice department. “Because Nara identified classified information in the boxes, Nara staff has been in communication with the Department of Justice,” wrote the chief archivist, David Ferriero.

The oversight committee at the House of Representatives has also opened a separate investigation that noted “removing or concealing government records is a criminal offense”.

Christina Bobb, a Trump lawyer and TV host, said she had seen the contents of the search warrant and that the agents were looking for presidential records or classified material. She added that agents seized around a dozen boxes during the raid. The warrant stating the grounds for the search would have been left at Mar-a-Lago when the FBI gained access to the property.

In terms of what happens next, Slobogin adds: “The DOJ will look over what it finds, combine it with what it already has, perhaps conduct other searches or seek subpoenas, and then decide whether it wants to proceed to a grand jury, which will decide whether formal criminal charges, in the form of an indictment, should be brought.”

***

What is the Presidential Records Act?

Trump has Richard Nixon to thank for the PRA. Congress moved to stop the disgraced ex-president – I’m referring to Nixon here, btw – from destroying his records by passing the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act.

Its descendant is the 1978 Presidential Records Act, which requires presidents and vice-presidents to preserve their records. Those records include everything from official documents to handwritten notes, phone logs, tapes and emails. Destruction of a document requires the archivists’ permission.

The purpose of the act, among other things, is to help congress and law enforcement investigate wrongdoing, to keep a record of presidential history and help subsequent incumbents in the White House understand what their predecessors had been up to. The Washington Post reported that Trump was warned about the act early on in his presidency, when his first two chiefs of staff expressed concern about documents being ripped up.

On Monday, photographic evidence emerged of wads of paper in White House toilets, embellished with what appeared to be Trump’s telltale handwriting and inscribed with his favourite type of pen: a Sharpie. The photographs were released by the Axios news site in advance of the publication of Confidence Man, a book by the New York Times journalist Maggie Haberman.

***

What it means for Trump and re-election

It is worth taking a look at US federal law, specifically section 2071 of title 18 of the United States Code. Whoever “wilfully and unlawfully conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates, or destroys” a government record or document faces a fine or a three-year jail sentence.

But here’s the kicker: if you’re convicted, you shall be “disqualified from holding any office under the United States”.

This where the raid could be a gamechanger, according to Marc Elias, who was the top lawyer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. On Twitter, he flagged the disqualification provision in section 2071 and called the search a “potential blockbuster in American politics”. So could Trump be ruled out of a comeback in the 2024 presidential election?

Don’t punch the air just yet. Trump would have to be convicted first and, even then, there are strong legal arguments that the US constitution, not criminal law, sets eligibility criteria for the highest office in the land. Elias admitted later that an attempt to disqualify Trump would be challenged on that basis – it’s a question that could go all the way to the supreme court (which has three Trump appointees on it). Still, he adds, get the popcorn out.

***

What Republicans think

As you would expect, Trump’s base has been energised by this. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, the extreme rightwing Republican who doesn’t do civic discourse, variously tweeted “DEFUND THE FBI” and “Save America STOP COMMUNISM! Impeach Joe Biden!!”

Accusations of a politically motivated stitch-up flew immediately, with the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, describing the raid as an “abuse of power”.

She added: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Countless times we have examples of Democrats flouting the law and abusing power with no recourse. Democrats continually weaponize the bureaucracy against Republicans …”

Such language helps position Trump, once again, as an anti-establishment figure being denied a rightful crack at the presidency by those bad people at the Department of Justice and elsewhere. Hours after fulminating at the search, he posted a campaign video on his Truth Social network. It was filmed before the search but contained lines that will be an obvious narrative for a presidential run.

“We’re a nation that has weaponized its law enforcement against the opposing political party like never before. We’ve never seen anything like this. We’re a nation that no longer has a free and fair press. Fake news is about all you get. We are a nation where free speech is no longer allowed.”

Barack Obama’s former strategy guru, David Axelrod, knows a thing or two about when a political narrative is being shaped. “This is why Trump is going to run. He wants to portray any criminal probe or prosecution as a plot to prevent him from once again becoming Potus. Many of his followers will believe it – as they did his lies about the last election.”

Our Washington DC bureau chief, David Smith, says the FBI action already seems to have galvanised Trump and the Republican party. “The general rule with Trump is, what does not kill him makes him stronger. In the hours since news of the FBI raid emerged, it’s been unnerving to see the Republican party rally around him. Even foes such as Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, and Mike Pence, the former vice-president who split with Trump over the January 6 insurrection, have expressed concern over the FBI’s actions and demanded answers.

“Potential rivals for the 2024 Republican nomination such as Florida governor Ron DeSantis have done likewise, asserting without evidence that it’s political persecution by the ‘deep state’ – the word of the day has been ‘weaponisation’. They realise they have to stay in lockstep with the Make America Great Again base,” says Smith. “And Trump and other Republicans are fundraising off the raid. It’s been galvanising for him and increases the likelihood of him running for president again – unless, of course, he is prosecuted, charged and put on trial.”

Perhaps the search could end up being to Trump’s benefit.

What else we’ve been reading

  • Steve Jobs’s favourite designer and king of micro-pleating, Issey Miyake, died yesterday. I learned much about him in this warm tribute in Esquire. Hannah J Davies, deputy editor, newsletters

  • Shaun Walker spoke with Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw and Budapest – many of them women, children and elderly people – about their anguish at being away from home and their new lives in safe houses and shelters. Craille Maguire Gillies, production editor, newsletters

  • I am a lifelong lover of the humble spud – fried, roasted or otherwise. Nigel Slater’s recipe for warm potato salad with smoked salmon is everything that I love about his cooking: classy comfort food that makes life feel better and, says Slater, “sumptuous” in a wrap. Hannah

  • Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s insatiable ambition is put in chilling context by the Economist in its Editor’s Picks podcast, a weekly selection of stories from the magazine. Craille

  • The Guardian’s chief culture writer Charlotte Higgins writes entertainingly about seeing her 2013 book Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain reimagined on stage – as a romcom. Hannah

Sport

Athletics | Jessica Ennis-Hill’s former coach Toni Minichiello has been banned for life from training athletes after an investigation found he had engaged in sexually inappropriate behaviour, emotional abuse and bullying.

Football | Rangers have reached the Champions League play-off with a thrilling 3-0 win over Union Saint-Gilloise to go through on a 3-2 aggregate.

Tennis | Tumaini Carayol pays tribute to one of the greatest athletes ever, after Serena Williams announced her decision to retire from sport: “Over her 27‑year career, Williams set the marker that matters for all who follow her, no asterisks needed.”

The front pages

The Guardian’s lead today is “Johnson: new PM ‘certain’ to bail out households over cost of living”. The Metro has “Wake up zombies” as Martin Lewis the “consumer champ” calls for the government to act over energy bills. The i says “Truss softens on ‘handouts’ for cost of living” while the Express offers its endorsement – “In Liz we trust” – leading with a comment piece to that effect by Leo McKinstry. The Times has “Universities blacklist ‘harmful’ literature”. The Telegraph has “Inflation stealth tax of £30bn looms” – it says millions of people face being dragged into higher tax bands. The Financial Times reports “New powers to override City regulators win Truss backing”, which it calls a “Rare show of policy unity with Sunak”. The Mail’s splash is “Minority of babies now born to married couples”. The Mirror’s front-page lead concerns ex-footballer Ryan Giggs, who is on trial in Manchester on charges of assault and coercive and controlling behaviour, which he denies. “‘Giggs cheated on me with 8 women’” is their headline, while the Sun has “He came at me & headbutted me. I could taste blood”. The trial is expected to last two weeks.

Today in Focus

A gas hob burning
A gas hob burning

The UK’s energy-bill crisis explained

Big oil companies are making record profits while consumer energy bills soar. Finance reporter Jasper Jolly explains why.

Cartoon of the day | Martin Rowson

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

CBeebies is taking on Shakespeare – and the premise is not as daft as you might think. They’ve tackled the Proms and, for the last few years, a shortened Shakespeare, all of which is performed on stage and then broadcast later. This year it is partnering with London’s Globe theatre on a new production of As You Like It for the under-sixes – with some non-binary casting, but minus the melancholy subplots – which will run until tonight and be screened next year. Catherine Shoard has entertaining conversations with the Globe director Michelle Terry – who’s on a mission to demystify Shakespeare, “the earlier the better” – and CBeebies actors including Steven Kynman: “You cannot fool children. They will see through you. They’re like sniffer dogs for insincerity.”

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.