FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago: Welcome to the Third World

[The Justice Department] must immediately explain the reason for its raid and it must be more than a search for inconsequential archives, or it will be viewed as a political tactic and undermine any future credible investigation and legitimacy of January 6 investigations. — Former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

Headline from Politics Insider this morning:

Feds likely obtained ‘pulverizing’ amount of evidence ahead of searching Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home, legal experts say.

Pulverizing! Hold that thought.

We’ve reached the stage of American history where everything we see on the news must first be understood as political theater. In other words, the messaging layer of news now almost always dominates the factual narrative, with the latter often reported so unreliably as to be meaningless anyway. Yesterday’s sensational tale of the FBI raiding the Mar-a-Lago home of former president Donald Trump is no different.

As of now, it’s impossible to say if Trump’s alleged offense was great, small, or in between. But this for sure is a huge story, and its hugeness extends in multiple directions, including the extraordinary political risk inherent in the decision to execute the raid. If it backfires, if underlying this action there isn’t a very substantial there there, the Biden administration just took the world’s most reputable police force and turned it into the American version of the Tonton Macoute on national television. We may be looking at simultaneously the dumbest and most inadvertently destructive political gambit in the recent history of this country.

The top story today in the New York Times, bylined by its top White House reporter, speculates this is about “delayed returning” of “15 boxes of material requested by officials with the National Archives.” If that’s true, and it’s not tied to January 6th or some other far more serious offense, then the Justice Department just committed institutional suicide and moved the country many steps closer to once far-out eventualities like national revolt or martial law. This is true no matter what you think of Trump. Despite the early reports of “cheers” in the West Wing, the mood in center-left media has already drifted markedly from the overnight celebration. The Times story today added a line missing from most early reports: “The search, however, does not mean prosecutors have determined that Mr. Trump committed a crime.” There are whispers throughout the business that editors are striking down certain jubilant language, and we can even see this playing out on cable, where the most craven of the networks’ on-air ex-spooks are crab-crawling backward from last night’s buzz-words:

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The hugeness of the story has become part of its explanation. An action so extreme, we’re told by expert after expert, could only be based upon “pulverizing” evidence.

Throughout the Trump years we’ve seen a numbing pattern of rhetorical slippage in coverage of investigations. The aforementioned Politics Insider story is no different. “Likely” evidence in the headline becomes more profound in the text. An amazing five bylined writers explain:

Regardless of the raid’s focus legal experts quickly reached a consensus about it: A pile of evidence must have backed up the warrant authorizing the search.

They then quoted a “former top official in the Justice Department’s National Security Division” — you’ll quickly lose track if you try to count the named and unnamed intel spooks appearing in coverage today — who said, “There’s every reason to think that there’s a plus factor in the quantum and quantity of evidence that the government already had to support probable cause in this case.”

Politico insisted such an action must have required a magistrate’s assent “based upon evidence of a potential crime.” CNN wrote how authorities necessarily “had probable grounds to believe a crime had been committed,” while the New York Times formulation was that “the F.B.I. would have needed to convince a judge that it had probable cause that a crime had been committed.” Social media was full of credentialed observers explaining what must be true. “The affidavit in support of the MAL search warrant must be something else,” said Harvard-trained former Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Signorelli, one among a heap of hyperventilating names:

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It’s amazing how short our cultural memory has become. Apparently few remember all the other times this exact rhetoric was deployed in the interminable list of other Trump investigations, only to backfire later. Does anyone remember this doozy?

Applications for FISA warrants, Comey said, are often thicker than his wrists, and that thickness represents all the work Justice Department attorneys and FBI agents have to do to convince a judge that such surveillance is appropriate in an investigation.

That Washington Post story from April 11, 2017, “FBI obtained FISA warrant to monitor former Trump advisor Carter Page,” by Devlin Barrett, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous, was one of the key moments in the Trump-Russia scandal. It repeatedly stressed the illustrious credentials of all involved, noting, “any FISA application has to be approved at the highest levels of the Justice Department and the FBI,” before dismounting to the crucial conclusion:

The government’s application for the surveillance order targeting Page included a lengthy declaration that laid out investigators’ basis for believing that Page was an agent of the Russian government and knowingly engaged in clandestine intelligence activities on behalf of Moscow, officials said.

The next day, the New York Times kicked the story forward by citing “a government official” who confirmed that the FISA court had obtained a warrant against Page “based on evidence that he was operating as a Russian agent.”

Within a few days after that, Politics Insider — the same outlet telling us today about the import of the warrant — ran a piece by intel community spokescritter Natasha Bertrand called, “We just got a huge sign that the US intelligence community believes the Trump dossier is legitimate.” The article deployed the circular logic that drove years of Trump-probe stories. We have evidence of an investigation, therefore the investigation must have evidence:

The FBI reportedly used the explosive, unverified dossier detailing President Donald Trump’s alleged ties to Russia to bolster its case for a warrant that would allow it to surveil Carter Page, an early foreign-policy adviser to Trump’s campaign. It’s a key signal that the FBI had enough confidence in the validity of the document to work to corroborate it and present it in court.

It’s impossible to overstate how much mischief and inaccuracy was spread by one Washington Post report about the FISA court approval, which makes it all the more incredible that the paper won the Pulitzer Prize for its Russia coverage. The Entous/Nakashima/Barrett piece not only gave reporters license to tie Trump to an “agent of a foreign power,” it soon enough became a key element of one of the most egregious press errors of the period, i.e. that the Steele dossier had been verified.

Former CIA officer John Sipher, another of the dozens of former intelligence officers who magically became press regulars in the last 6-8 years, took issue with real journalist Bob Woodward’s assessment of the Steele reports as “garbage.” Writing in Just Security in a piece republished for SlateSipher said “the fact that the FBI reportedly sought to work with him and to pay him to develop additional information on the sources suggest that at least some of them were worth taking seriously.” He quoted another retired “senior intelligence officer” who said, “From my experience, there is nobody more miserly than the FBI. If they were willing to pay Mr. Steele, they must have seen something of real value.”

This trick of talking about what evidence must have existed was used over and over. When Devin Nunes, then the House Intelligence Committee chief, came out with a memo suggesting the FISA process in the Page case had been corrupted, critics piled on, explaining that the process precluded such a possibility. Denouncing the “desperate, devious, dishonest Nunes memo” as having offended “reason,” the Daily News thundered that “though the FISA court operates in strict secrecy, the standards for a successful surveillance application are known to be extraordinarily stringent.”

Unnamed government sources and news outlets kept arguing that because the FBI would have had to corroborate information from the Steele dossier before using it in something as consequential as a FISA application, it must have done so. Therefore, Nunes was wrong and a dick. The Daily Beast used this logic to argue the FBI would have been “derelict” to not use the Steele material, because verification is “a technical requirement in a FISA application.”

Many outlets, like Vox, noted that only the accusers had seen all the evidence, and the mere proles among us had not: “Law enforcement officials and Democrats who’ve seen the underlying intelligence,” they wrote, “emphasize that the dossier allegations were only part of the justification for the Page surveillance.” Callum Borchers in the Washington Post went the “FBI must have more” route:

It is wrong to say that this “Western intelligence source,” presumably Steele, formed the foundation of an article in which at least three other sources featured more prominently… And it is hard to see how the article could have been a big factor in obtaining a warrant because it contained little, if any, information that the FBI did not already possess or which was not in the public domain.

Lest anyone need reminding about how all of these stories turned out, the Justice Department Inspector General found that “inaccurate information” and a host of other corrupted procedures were used to produce the “probable cause” in Page’s FISA warrant. Michael Horowitz, the IG, also found “the FBI did not have information corroborating the specific allegations against Carter Page,” and added, for the benefit of commentators like Borchers who insisted the Steele material was not, well, material, that it actually “played a central and essential role in the FBI’s… decision to seek the FISA order.”

Last night, the usual network suspects (CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, etc.) were essentially unwatchable. Nobody asked crucial questions. Reporters across the industry spent the night doing what I did, calling every name in their phone directories in an effort to find out what was going on. Following the regular press I soon realized they were getting the same answers I was: the raid was over a records issue, likely (though not definitely) unconnected to January 6th, perhaps involving a missed deadline.

Some suggested the raid was linked to Trump’s reported habit of tearing up presidential documents, and others wondered if there was a tie to a report yesterday in Axios by Times star writer Maggie Haberman, that ripped documents had been discovered clogging White House toilets after Trump’s departure.

The instant reporters got hold of that limited information (and the top outlets seemed sure enough that “Focus Said to Be on White House Files” was in the Times lead headline), they should have been asking: is there anything weird about dozens of FBI agents executing an Entebbe-style raid of the home of a former president over a records issue?

Do we recall anything so dramatic in cases involving people like Bill Clinton’s former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger (who was stuffing classified documents down his pants)? How about when Dick Cheney claimed an exemption to classification procedures and one of his aides, Leandro Aragoncillo, admitted in court to stealing classified info to pass on to coup plotters in the Philippines? For Christ’s sake, one of the core principles of the Trump-era media is that the press erred in over-covering Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified information. Do these news outlets think audiences won’t notice the difference in attitude?

I am not and never will be a Donald Trump supporter. If and when he runs for president, I’ll go through the long list of reasons I have for feeling that way. But as a journalist it’s become impossible to believe that the endless investigations of Trump over the last six years have become anything but a permanent feature of his political opposition. That truth begins with the Trump-Russia scandal, which we now know was a hoax pursued as a real crime by a compromised police apparatus, after being concocted by Democrats. One of the officials involved in that mess was kind enough last night to tweet his “opinion” on the Mar-a-Lago raid:

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When Marc Elias — the former top attorney to the Hillary Clinton campaign, who oversaw another lawyer indicted for lying about his role in concocting Trump-Russia stories — tells us outright that the “bombshell” angle now is that the charge in question could result in Trump’s automatic disqualification from the 2024 elections, we should sit up and listen. It was already straight out of the Papa Doc/Mobutu playbook when Joe Biden was quoted in the New York Times saying he wanted his Attorney General Merrick Garland to hurry up and prosecute Trump, but using federal cops to disqualify the current poll leader of your opposition on a records technicality is pure fingernail-factory politics, I’m guessing scarier to many observers than the repeal of Roe v. Wade.

Of course Trump should be investigated. I doubt there are many outside his voting base who would be surprised to learn he’d committed a probably serious crime (I’ve been waiting for years for a case to emerge out of Trump University or the Trump Soho deal). However, unless yesterday’s events are tied, quickly, to an attempt by him to prevent Biden’s 2020 certification, or an effort to game the electoral system ahead of 2024, or some other devastatingly serious crime, this is absolutely going to play as the crudest harassment. I worry particularly about the reported presence of counterintelligence agents at the raid, raising the specter — which numerous sources told me is theoretically possible — of parts of this investigation remaining secret. If any of this happens, the Biden administration will have achieved the impossible, turning Donald “Grab ‘Em By the Pussy” Trump into a victim.

Moreover, they’ll have guaranteed that the next Republican who wins the White House, if such a thing is allowed again, will tug at every rein of power to prevent ever having to leave and risk this kind of prosecution. Ask anyone who grew up in autocratic societies how that dynamic works. There has to be more than what we’re hearing, or else yesterday — otherwise a beautiful summer Monday — will go down as an infamous crossroads, a day we passed a point of no return.

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