By Steve Peoples | Associated Press
NEW YORK — For much of the year, small cracks in Donald Trump’s political support have been growing.
Dissatisfied Republican primary voters began to consider new presidential prospects. GOP donors grappled with damaging revelations uncovered by the Jan. 6 committee. S everal party leaders pondered challenging Trump for the party’s 2024 nomination.
But after the FBI executed a search warrant at his Florida estate, the Republican Party unified swiftly behind the former president.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who likely represents Trump’s strongest potential primary challenger, described the Biden administration as a “regime” and called Monday’s Mar-a-Lago search for improperly taken classified documents “another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the Regime’s political opponents.”
The GOP push to portray Trump as the victim of a politicized Justice Department ignored the potential criminal misconduct that justified the search in the eyes of a federal judge. It overlooked Trump’s role in hiring now-vilified FBI Director Chris Wray, who also served as a high-ranking official in a Republican-led Justice Department. The Biden White House, meanwhile, said it had no prior knowledge of the search.
But the robust defense serves as a fresh reminder of the former president’s enduring grip on the GOP, driven by an ability to use a sense of grievance among many Republican voters toward government and other institutions. Trump tapped into that animosity to overcome two impeachments and the fallout from an insurrection. His allies said Tuesday that the FBI search would only strengthen his position again.
“The sooner he kicks off his campaign, the better,” Indiana GOP Rep. Jim Banks, the chair of the Republican Study Committee, said in an interview.
Banks was among about a dozen Republican lawmakers who spent several hours Tuesday evening with Trump at his summer home in Bedminster, New Jersey. During a meal that included steak, scallops, mashed potatoes, salad and a Trump cookie, the group talked about the upcoming midterm elections and the 2024 presidential race, Banks said.
The former president told the lawmakers “his mind is made up” about a 2024 campaign and “we’ll all be happy with his decision.”
The FBI search seemed to trigger a shift among Trump’s advisers, who had been privately urging him to wait until after the midterm elections to announce his intention to seek the presidency again. Suddenly, some of those same advisers were urging him to launch his campaign before the November elections.
Trump stoked such speculation in the hours after the search by posting a campaign-style video on social media. “The best is yet to come,” he said.
He followed up with a fundraising appeal, making it personal by declaring “it’s important that you know that it wasn’t just my home that was violated — it was the home of every patriotic American who I have been fighting for.”
In Columbia, South Carolina, Sen. Lindsey Graham said he spoke with Trump and felt sure another campaign was coming.
“One thing I can tell you,” Graham said. “I believed he was going to run before. I’m stronger in my belief now.”
As Republicans rallied behind Trump, Democrats pushed back against GOP claims of political interference, without evidence. Some accused the GOP of a departure from its longstanding commitment to “law and order.”
“The FBI director was appointed by Donald Trump,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Asked if the raid might hurt Democrats in the November elections, she said: “You’re talking about if the Justice Department decides to have a warrant to go in because they suspect something is justified, it’s going to have an impact on the election? No, no, no, no, no.”
Some of Trump’s most vocal Republican critics still shied away from embracing the former president. And it was unclear how rank-and-file Republican voters and independents frustrated by Trump’s divisive leadership might be moved by the new developments.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor and one of many Republicans considering a 2024 presidential bid, noted Tuesday that a federal judge had to sign off on the warrant.
“The former president is presumed innocent,” Christie said in an interview. “On the other hand, we can’t immediately impugn the motives of the prosecutors just because they’re from another political party.”
“It’s an extraordinary action. And there better be some pretty extraordinary facts to underlie it. If there are, then they have every right to do it.”
And some other Republican officials seemed to express continued concerns about Trump by refusing to weigh in at all.
The relatively short list of those GOP leaders who remained silent Tuesday afternoon was led by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who has privately encouraged his party to move past Trump. But the Kentucky Republican eventually weighed in, saying: “The country deserves a thorough and immediate explanation of what led to the events of Monday. Attorney General Garland and the Department of Justice should already have provided answers to the American people and must do so immediately.”
The overwhelming majority — from House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy to DeSantis, accused the Biden administration of “weaponizing” the Justice Department and ignored any potential wrongdoing by Trump.
“The GOP now fully embraces the notion that Trump should, indeed, be above the law, and that Trump 2.0 will be a bonfire of vengeance,” wrote Republican commentator Charlie Sykes, a frequent Trump critic.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who is gearing up for a presidential run of his own, said he shared “the deep concerns of millions of Americans” over the search of Trump’s private residence.
He stopped short of attacking the FBI, however. Instead, he said Attorney General Merrick Garland should “give a full accounting to the American people as to why this action was taken and he must do so immediately.”
Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Josh Hawley of Missouri aggressively condemned the Justice Department on Trump’s behalf.
Hawley called the search “an unprecedented assault on democratic norms and the rule of law.” He called for Garland’s resignation or impeachment and the removal of FBI Director Wray.
Cotton said Garland had “weaponized” the Justice Department against his political enemies. “There will be consequences for this,” he warned.
Also from Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, still another Republican weighing a 2024 run, called the search “unprecedented and alarming.” But like Pence, he added, “We must see the probable cause affidavit before making a judgment.”
The search intensified the months-long probe into how classified documents ended up in boxes of White House records located at Mar-a-Lago earlier this year. A separate grand jury is investigating efforts by Trump and allies to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
In late June, long before the latest development, 48% of U.S. adults said that Trump should be charged with a crime for his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, according to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Views on Trump’s criminal liability broke down predictably along party lines, with 86% of Democrats and 10% of Republicans saying Trump should be charged. Still, the fact that nearly half the country believed he should be prosecuted represents a remarkable position for the former president, pointing to the difficulties he could face in another White House run.
Former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg said Monday’s FBI search would almost certainly strengthen Trump’s standing among Republican primary voters, especially those Republicans who had begun to lean toward DeSantis or another fresh face. But if Trump is ultimately indicted for a federal crime related to the search, as Nunberg said he expects, the former president’s ability to win over a broader group of voters in the 2024 general election could take a major hit.
“Despite the fantasies of everyone from Sean Hannity to Steve Bannon, I can promise you that someone under indictment isn’t going to get elected president of the United States,” Nunberg said.
But on Tuesday, at least, the Republican Party was squarely behind Trump, its undisputed leader.
One of Trump’s most vocal supporters in Congress, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, almost seemed to thank the Justice Department for bringing her party together.
“I’ve talked a lot about the civil war in the GOP and I lean into it because America needs fearless & effective Republicans to finally put America First,” she tweeted. “Last night’s tyrannical FBI raid at MAR is unifying us in ways I haven’t seen.”
AP writers Jill Colvin, Meg Kinnard, Alan Fram and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.