Donald Trump is taking every step of his bid for a third consecutive Republican nomination amid a darkening storm of legal uncertainty.
The twice-impeached former president, who tried to steal an election and is accused of fomenting an insurrection, launched his first two-state campaign swing on Saturday as he seeks a stunning political comeback.
Then on Monday, Trump’s potential exposure – in two of his multiple strands of legal peril – appeared to grow, foreshadowing a campaign likely to be repeatedly punctuated by distractions from criminal investigations.
According to Kaitlan Collins and Katelyn Polantz, two persons who discovered two secret documents at a Trump storage facility in Florida testified before a federal grand jury. This is a fresh development in the story of his classified material. Additionally, federal prosecutors are seeking for access to documents stored on at least one Mar-a-Lago staff member’s laptop. Although the former president has not been charged with a crime, these developments are the latest evidence of special counsel Jack Smith’s aggressive approach to the investigation. And it demonstrates how the former president’s efforts to infuse vitality into a so far sluggish campaign might be hampered by a constant drumbeat of legal issues – especially in light of the several criminal threats he may encounter.
On a different front, The New York Times reported that a Manhattan district attorney is providing proof to a new grand jury looking into Trump’s alleged involvement in providing hush money to adult film star Stormy Daniels. A district attorney in Georgia said last week that decisions on charges relating to Trump’s attempt to reverse his loss in the state’s 2020 election are about to be made. It is unknown if the inquiry specifically targets the former president. All of this occurs while Smith looks into Trump’s involvement in the uprising that occurred on January 6, 2021, in the US Capitol.
A third consecutive US election will be contaminated by scandals that will drag the FBI and the Justice Department farther into a political quagmire due to the exceptional and unusual legal labyrinth around Trump. (President Joe Biden is also under investigation by the special counsel for how he handled papers from his time serving as vice president, and former Vice President Mike Pence, who is considering a run for office in 2024, is being investigated by the DOJ for comparable problems.) This comes after the Hillary Clinton email scandal in 2016 and inquiries into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia during that presidential run, as well as Trump’s erroneous allegations of voting fraud in 2020.
Trump’s reelection bid in 2024 may be significantly impacted by his unique legal situation and the fact that he is running again. Some of his possible Republican opponents could be hoping that his legal difficulties would do the dirty work for them since they are hesitant to try to unseat him. Trump’s personal political brand may become much more tarnished if it is believed that he is the target of a criminal probe, which has already caused several Republican losses in national elections in 2018, 2020, and 2022.
However, Trump is a master at using attempts to hold him politically and legally accountable to his actions. The concept that he is being politically persecuted by Justice Department investigations and what he thinks are rogue Democratic prosecutors has already become a fundamental tenet of his nascent presidential campaign.
“We’re going to stop the appalling weaponization of our justice system. There’s never been a justice system like this. It’s all investigation, investigation,” the ex-president said on the trail over the weekend.
Signs of an advanced investigation
As is normal, it is not known what the people who found the classified documents at the Florida storage facility may have said to the grand jury. But the ex-president is being investigated not just for possible violations of the Espionage Act, but also for potential obstruction of justice related to the documents.
The two individuals, who were hired to search four of Trump’s properties last fall months after the FBI executed a search warrant at his Mar-a-Lago resort over the summer, were each interviewed for about three hours in separate appearances last week. The extent of information they offered the grand jury remains unclear, though they didn’t decline to answer any questions, one of the sources familiar with the investigation said.
Ryan Goodman, a former special counsel at the Department of Defense, told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Monday that the latest development was a sign of an advanced special counsel investigation and could indicate that Smith was leaning toward indictments.
“It sounds like he is trying to lock in their testimony, to understand how they would testify at trial, whether it is incriminating evidence against Trump or exculpatory evidence that the prosecutors would then have that and have it solidified.”
How political factors could blur legal distinctions
It was inevitable that the straightforward but politically fraught act of looking into an ex-president would spark a political uproar. The fact that Trump is seeking the presidency once more raises the stakes and indicates that, should Trump be charged, Attorney General Merrick Garland will have to make important judgments.
More specifically, the grand jury report emphasizes that, despite the political commotion, the inquiry into Trump’s acquisition of secret information at Mar-a-Lago is taking conducted within its own legal bubble.
This is still the case notwithstanding the political favor given to Trump by the finding of secret records that should have been returned when Biden left the vice presidency at his Wilmington, Delaware, home and a Washington, D.C., office. Pence’s Indiana residence also included some sensitive information.
Despite the fact that the situations are very different, Trump was able to assert that he was unfairly singled out thanks to the revelations. Trump’s claim that the documents were his and not the government’s and what appear to be repeated refusals to return them will undermine any attempt he makes to claim that he, like Biden and Pence, unintentionally took them home.
Following the most recent hint of a skewed response to the debate over sensitive material by House Republicans, who are pounding Biden over papers but giving Trump a free pass, new signs of the momentum in the Trump documents special counsel inquiry emerged.
House Oversight Chairman James Comer was, for example, Pamela Brown this weekend why he had no interest in the more than 325 documents found at Trump’s home but was fixated upon the approximately 20 classified documents uncovered in Biden’s premises by lawyers and an unknown number also found during an FBI search of the president’s home this month.
The Kentucky Republican added, “We would absolutely broaden it if someone can provide me proof that there was influence peddling with those confidential materials that were in the custody of President Trump. He continued by alleging that Biden and his family were “extremely friendly” with members of the Chinese Communist Party, but he provided no proof of these connections or any indication that they had anything to do with secret papers. His comments gave the sense that his committee is looking for evidence to discredit Biden while treating Trump differently, which is precisely the type of double standard the GOP has alleged the DOJ is using toward Trump.
The two special counsel investigations probing Trump and Biden’s retention of secret documents are unfolding independently. In a legal sense, there is no overlap between them. But they will both be subject to the same political inferno if findings are made public.
Were Trump, for instance, to be prosecuted – over what so far appears to be a larger haul of documents and conduct that may add up to obstruction – and Biden is not, the ex-president would incite a firestorm of protest among his supporters. Even though the sitting president enjoys protections from prosecution because of historic Justice Department guidance, it’s hard to see how the political ground for prosecuting just one of them could hold firm – especially if Biden and Trump are rival presidential candidates in 2024.
From the outside, it appears as if Biden and Pence were far more cooperative with the DOJ and the FBI after some classified documents were found at their properties than Trump has been. It took a search warrant for FBI agents to get into Mar-a-Lago, and the ex-president claimed that presidential documents that belonged to the federal government when he left office belonged to him. But voters might find it hard to understand nuanced legal differences between the two cases – a factor the House Republican counter-attack based on Biden’s documents made more likely.
On Monday, as the political ramifications from the classified papers controversy grew, the nation was reminded of the fate that may befall lower-ranking government employees who bring classified information home.
According to Holmes Lybrand, court records indicate that a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who kept secret documents in his Florida home would enter a guilty plea to one count of improper retention of national security information in February.
Robert Birchum served in the Air Force for more than 30 years and previously held top secret clearance. According to his plea agreement, he stored hundreds of files that contained information marked as top secret, secret or confidential classified outside of authorized locations. A plea agreement stated that “the defendant’s residence was not a location authorized to store classified information, and the defendant knew as much.”