WASHINGTON - Republicans sought Tuesday to turn the FBI's search of Donald Trump's Florida home into a rallying point, positioning the former president in his political comfort zone as a partisan target and victim, while effectively suspending the party's efforts to focus on other issues heading into the midterm elections.
The immediacy with which Republicans closed ranks and focused on the political ramifications of the search of Mar-a-Lago - without a full understanding of the direction of the FBI's investigation or the potential criminality that could be uncovered - underscored Trump's role as keystone of the party, the single figure upon whom its elected leaders and midterm candidates depend most heavily for support.
Some party officials tried to channel conservatives' rage about the search of the former president's winter home into productive energy for the coming midterms. Within hours of the news that Trump's home had been searched, the Republican National Committee texted an urgent appeal about the search to supporters asking for cash to "take back Congress."
Trump also sought to capitalize financially. His political committee, Save America, followed Tuesday morning with a fundraising text message suggesting that the FBI search was proof of a corrupt "radical left." It added: "Return the power to the people! Will you fight with me?"
And in Ohio, J.D. Vance, the Republican nominee for Senate, who has struggled to match the fundraising strength of his Democratic opponent, Rep. Tim Ryan, emailed supporters an appeal about the FBI search that included two siren emojis and a request to donate and "Join the Trump Strategy Team," although the money went to the Vance campaign.
Republicans largely ignored the possibility of any wrongdoing on the former president's part and the fact that law enforcement agents would have had to show probable cause that a crime had been committed in order to obtain a search warrant. The search appeared to be focused on material that the former president had brought with him from the White House, according to multiple people familiar with the investigation.
The Republican rush to judgment amounted to a sharp reversal from their quick condemnation of Hillary Clinton, Trump's 2016 rival, during an FBI investigation of her personal email system during her time as secretary of state. (Clinton, for her part, was selling "But her emails" hats Tuesday, in reference to that inquiry.)
From comparisons to Nazi Germany to warnings that the nation was on the brink of becoming a "banana republic" or "Third World country," Republicans drew from a short list of dire-sounding metaphors intended to maximize outrage among voters by contending, without knowing what investigators cited as their probable cause, that the pretext for the FBI search was little more than a mere records retention violation. Their words mostly echoed a statement from Trump on Monday evening.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., who is overseeing his party's Senate races this year, sounded nearly every one of those themes in an interview Tuesday on Fox News in which he made comparisons to the Nazi secret police, communist Russia and Latin American dictatorships.
"This should scare the living daylights out of American citizens," Scott said.
Other top Republicans demanded answers from the FBI and threatened investigations of the Justice Department should the party capture control of the House. And a group of House Republicans headed to Bedminster, New Jersey, for a previously scheduled dinner with Trump on Tuesday that abruptly turned into an opportunity for a symbolic show of solidarity.
The search also prompted Trump's potential rivals in 2024, including Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, to fall in line and question the FBI's action. But even Trump's critics in the party, such as Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Mich., said the unprecedented search of a former president's home required a public justification from the Biden administration.
The speed with which Republicans have rallied around Trump threatened to drive the former president directly into the spotlight of the 2022 elections, something many party leaders had hoped to avoid.
Republicans have sought to focus on rising inflation and President Joe Biden's poor approval ratings as key midterm issues, and have been divided over whether a presidential campaign from Trump would present an unhelpful distraction. In Kentucky on Tuesday, Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, sidestepped a question about the search, before issuing a statement Tuesday evening echoing other Republicans' calls for "a thorough and immediate explanation."
But the FBI's decision to execute such a fraught and politically high-stakes search warrant further dimmed the hope of some Republican strategists working on key House and Senate races that the 2022 midterms could stay focused on the Democrats.
Yet again, it was Trump dominating the news.
Fox News aggressively reported the search, featuring overhead camera shots from above Mar-a-Lago and multiple interviews with Trump family members, including his son Eric and daughter-in-law, Lara, and former administration officials, such as Stephen Miller, his chief policy adviser, and Steve Bannon, a chief strategist.
"A dark day for our republic," Sean Hannity, a Fox News host, said to open his prime-time show Monday night. "The Department of Justice, the rule of law, what looks to be potentially a shocking overreach - we'll find out in due time - that will have serious ramifications potentially for many, many years to come."
With right-wing media amplifying the fury directed at the Biden administration, the wide-ranging show of unity was the latest sign of Trump's exhaustive reordering of the Republican Party, which he has transformed largely into a promotional vehicle for his own political brand.
The significance of the intense loyalty he has exacted from Republicans was reflected in Trump's calculations Tuesday that a search of his home by federal investigators would have positive repercussions inside his party. Meeting with advisers Tuesday, Trump was angered by the FBI's search but insisted it would help him politically, according to one. Still, he dismissed a push from some of his advisers to fly back to Mar-a-Lago and immediately announce a new presidential campaign, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
Other allies of Trump argued for a "Draft Trump" effort, an idea Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., had floated shortly after Trump left office, a person familiar with the discussions said.
Trump is weighing an increasingly likely third bid for the White House, which could come in an unusually early announcement in part to try to shield himself from a stream of damaging revelations from investigations into his actions before and after the 2020 election.
By casting Trump as political prey instead of a criminal target, Republicans are also providing him some cover from his previous statements that an active FBI investigation should disqualify anyone from running for president. Trump repeatedly made that argument in 2016 against Clinton over the investigation of her use of email.
The Republican response also had the effect of portraying Trump as a victim, a position he has repeatedly used to tap into the economic frustrations and institutional grievances his supporters have laid at the feet of the political establishment. From the campaign trail as well as the White House, he has consistently portrayed any criticisms, attacks and investigations as direct threats to his political supporters, not just to him.
"If I announced that I was not going to run any longer for political office, the persecution of Donald Trump would immediately stop," Trump said at a campaign rally in Arizona last month. "They would go on to the next victim."
Top Democrats have, so far, mostly defended the search.
"No person is above the law. Not even the president of the United States. Not even a former president of the United States," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on NBC's "Today Show," adding that it would be "interesting" to learn what was in the warrant.
One Democratic outlier was Andrew Cuomo, the disgraced former governor of New York, who decried the FBI's move absent more information.
"DOJ must immediately explain the reason for its raid & 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 & legitimacy of January 6 investigations," Cuomo, whose own tenure as governor drew Justice Department scrutiny, wrote on Twitter.
Donald Trump Jr. seized on Cuomo's comments to scold Republicans who hadn't yet denounced the FBI search. "Let this sink in guys," he wrote on Instagram. "Andrew Cuomo comments on this before some GOP Senators did."
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the minority leader, promised an investigation into the Biden administration's top attorney. "Preserve your documents and clear your calendar," McCarthy warned Attorney General Merrick Garland, adding that "such an assault could only take place in broken, Third World countries."
On the campaign trail, several Republicans who were endorsed by Trump in their primaries sought to rev up small donors who remain mostly loyal to the former president. There appeared little risk to sticking by Trump's side, at least before anything more serious had emerged from the FBI's investigation.
Blake Masters, the Republican Senate nominee in Arizona, called the search "politically motivated," writing on Twitter, "When street crimes go unsolved but opposition leaders are hounded by federal police, you're living in a third world country."
In Pennsylvania, another Senate battleground, Republican nominee Mehmet Oz took a more cautious approach in his public-facing messaging. Americans, he wrote on Twitter, "have every right to be upset & demand answers," stopping short of denouncing the search itself.
Oz's fundraising emails were less circumspect. "NEFARIOUS CORRUPTION" read one Tuesday afternoon, asking for money to "fight with Trump."
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