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By The Editorial Board | The Wall Street Journal
Pages from the affidavit by the FBI in support of obtaining a search warrant for former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. – PHOTO: JON ELSWICK/ASSOCIATED PRESS
The redacted 38-pages add to the evidence that the FBI search really was all about a dispute over documents.
A federal judge on Friday released a heavily redacted version of the FBI affidavit used to justify the search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home, and we can’t help but wonder is that it? This is why agents descended on a former President’s residence like they would a mob boss?
It’s possible the redactions in the 38-page document release contain some undisclosed bombshell. But given the contours of what the affidavit and attachments reveal, this really does seem to boil down to a fight over the handling of classified documents. The affidavit’s long introduction and other unredacted paragraphs all point to concern by the FBI and the National Archives with the documents Mr. Trump retained at Mar-a-Lago and his lack of cooperation in not returning all that the feds wanted.
A separate filing making the case for the redactions, also released Friday, focused on the need for witness and agent protection from being publicly identified. That filing also contains no suggestion of any greater charges or a larger investigation than the dispute over his handling of the documents.
As always with Mr. Trump, he seems to have been his own worst enemy in this dispute. He and his staff appear to have been sloppy, even cavalier, in storing the documents. Classified records found in boxes were mixed in with “newspapers, magazines, printed news articles, photos, miscellaneous print-outs, notes,” and presidential correspondence, the affidavit says. This fanned suspicion that important documents were still floating around the house, where bad actors hanging around the Mar-a-Lago resort might pilfer them.
The affidavit also contains references to comments by Mr. Trump and his associates that didn’t tell the truth about what was classified or what he had turned over to the National Archives before the search. This appears to have frustrated the bureau enough that it felt he might be guilty of obstruction of justice by his lack of cooperation. To put it another way, the FBI thought Mr. Trump was behaving badly, as he so often does.
But that didn’t mean the FBI and Justice Department had to resort to a warrant and federal-agent search that they knew would be redolent of criminal behavior. They had to suggest probable cause of criminal acts to get their extravagant warrant, which they knew would create a political firestorm.
Instead they could have gone to a district court and sought an order for the proper handling and storage of documents. It surely would have been executed. If Mr. Trump then failed to comply, he could have been held in contempt. On the evidence in the warrant and the affidavit, and even based on the leaks to the press so far which all focus on the demand for documents, the search on Mar-a-Lago was disproportionate to the likely offense.
It’s hard to believe that a dispute over documents would yield a criminal indictment. Attorney General Merrick Garland would have to explain to the public why Mr. Trump’s behavior was so much more nefarious than other cases of mishandled classified documents. That includes former national security adviser Sandy Berger, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. And Hillary Clinton, who got off with a sanctimonious lecture from then FBI director James Comey.
We aren’t defending Mr. Trump’s behavior in any of this. He brings much of his trouble on himself. But his political enemies make it worse when they break political norms themselves. They also help Mr. Trump by making him into a political martyr. If you’re going to indict a former President, you’d better have him dead to rights on something bigger than mishandling documents.
Author: Frances Rice