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analysis

Former U.S. president Donald Trump departs Trump Tower in New York on Aug. 10.Julia Nikhinson/The Associated Press

There is one thing we know for sure about Monday’s FBI search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home: There is a lot we do not know.

The astonishing scene at Mr. Trump’s Florida retreat had elements of a SWAT team raid and left even some of the 45th president’s most ardent opponents breathless with bewilderment and even horror. It raised a passel of questions and prompted few answers. It had overtones – Mr. Trump wasn’t the only one to seize on this analogy – of a banana republic and put the Justice Department as much on the defensive as Mr. Trump himself.

And it had broad political impact, perhaps aiding the Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections (by placing Mr. Trump and his legacy at the centre of the conversation, a boon for a party that would just as soon shift the spotlight away from Joe Biden and inflation) but surely helping Mr. Trump in his efforts to win the 2024 Republican presidential nomination (by turbocharging his base and leaving his putative opponents looking like mere imitators in the anti-establishment cause).

Trump refuses to answer questions in New York civil investigation into business dealings

Mar-a-Lago search just part of one of several Trump probes

But most of all it left Americans of all political orientations mystified. Here are but a few of the questions that have gone unanswered – and remain discomfiting both to broad swaths of the country’s political class and its rebel element:

Would the Justice Department mount a raid that by any measure is an unprecedented breach of a former president’s private domicile simply to ferret out some documents that it was in the process of negotiating for anyway?

This question gets to tactics rather than strategy, but most of all it goes to the most nettlesome element of this episode: judgment. And it raises two of the most beguiling tactical questions: Was this action out of proportion to the quarry that seems to be the object of this search? And were the implications of a spectacle like the one that played out over several hours in Palm Beach, with two federal agencies in opposing roles – the Secret Service tending to the security of a former president and his home, the FBI following the orders of the Justice Department headed by his successor – unnecessarily provocative?

Might the real target of the FBI’s search be something beyond confidential documents that the former president should not possess and, according to the 1978 Presidential Records Act, should be in national repositories for the use of historians and others?

Early reports suggest not. But early commentary, and inescapable logic, inevitably leads to the notion that the Justice Department may suspect, or know, that Mr. Trump has squirrelled away other materials – documents, perhaps, or even physical objects. It also raises the possibility that a mole inside Trumpworld – which, as we have discovered through the Jan. 6 hearings, is not defined by iron discipline or unswerving loyalty – has provided irresistible suggestions that amid the beach chairs and umbrellas stored in the Mar-a-Lago basement are damaging items or evidence.

Did the Justice Department consider the “optics” of this action or the political fallout?

U.S. Attorney-General Merrick Garland was a federal prosecutor but, more important, he was a judge, sitting on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit for a quarter-century. (Barack Obama nominated him for the Supreme Court, only to have then-Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell block his nomination.) He has the soul, and the mind, of a dispassionate jurist, not a political pugilist. As Attorney-General he is charged with acting as an honest broker, not as an agent of the President or guardian of the President’s interests – a job description often honoured only in the breach, as everyone from Robert Kennedy (his brother’s attorney-general) to John Mitchell (Richard Nixon’s) and William Barr (Mr. Trump’s) has demonstrated.

Mr. Garland apparently acted without consulting or even informing Mr. Biden. But the suggestion lingers that this Attorney-General, whose department is considering separate legal action against Mr. Trump – perhaps even charging him with treason for his actions during the Jan. 6 insurrection – may not be overly endowed with political acumen.

The National Review – for two-thirds of a century the voice of U.S. conservatism but for the past seven years a reliable skeptic of Mr. Trump’s motives and methods – argued that “the idea that a law enforcement organization under a sitting president would raid the home of his predecessor, opponent in the previous election, and potential opponent in the next election, has no close parallel in American history.”

Does a Justice Department tasked with enforcing the nation’s laws turn a blind eye to its political climate, especially at a time of severe polarization, high tension and great peril, or does the pursuit of justice trump temporal, and temporary, political conditions?

For a figure steeped in legal precepts, the standard must be: The politics be damned. For anyone else: Tread carefully. If Mr. Garland has even a single white political blood cell running through his veins, he almost certainly must have believed that the prize was greater than the price.

Does this hurt or help Mr. Trump?

On the surface, the notion that he is under severe Justice Department examination would seem to besmirch his image. But these days the surface notions of U.S. politics are much like an iceberg: The key is what lies beneath. And beneath the sight of his home being raided by federal agents is the impression, fostered by Mr. Trump and now assisted by the FBI, that he is a man under siege from a government that has been reflexively resistant to him, determined to thwart him as president, starting in 2017, and destroy him as a presidential candidate for 2024.

The irony of this episode is that Mr. Trump – who Wednesday asserted his right under the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination when questioned under oath in a New York State civil investigation into his business practices – surely has enhanced his standing among his followers and likely has buttressed his position politically as well.

On Tuesday, he released an evocative video foreshadowing another presidential campaign, talking of “the tyrants we are facing,” saying “we are a failing nation” and arguing that under the Biden administration the country has “weaponized its law enforcement against its opposing party.” All the possible challengers to his nomination – including former vice-president Mike Pence, who has broken with Mr. Trump over his Jan. 6 actions but this week said the FBI search raised “deep concern” – have carefully plotted an anti-establishment theme to their campaigns. Now their route to the White House may be blocked by the ultimate self-proclaimed victim of the political establishment.

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