Former U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday tried to turn the news of an FBI search of his Florida estate to his benefit, citing the investigation in text messages and emails soliciting political donations from his supporters.
The unprecedented search of the home of a former president marked a significant escalation of the federal investigation into whether Trump illegally removed records from the White House as he was leaving office in January 2021. Trump continues to publicly flirt with running again for president in 2024 but has not said clearly whether he will do so.
Trump tried to paint the search of his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach as a politically motivated move by President Joe Biden’s administration even as the former president plays a key role in Republican primaries ahead of the November midterm elections that will determine control of the U.S. Congress.
“As they watch my endorsed candidates win big victories and see my dominance in all polls, they are trying to stop the Republican Party and me once more,” Trump said in a fundraising e-mail on Tuesday. “The lawlessness, political persecution, and Witch Hunt, must be exposed and stopped.”
His Republican allies in Congress vowed to launch an investigation of the search itself, if they recapture majorities in the House or Senate in the November midterm elections.
Trump launched his Save America political action committee days after losing the 2020 election to Biden. It has more than $100-million in the bank, a formidable war chest.
Trump on Monday announced the search of his club in a statement, saying that a “large group of FBI agents” had carried it out. The FBI’s headquarters in Washington and its field office in Miami both declined comment.
The FBI earlier this year visited Trump’s property to investigate boxes in a locked storage room, according to a person familiar with the visit. FBI agents and a Trump lawyer, Evan Corcoran, spent a day reviewing materials, the source said.
Corcoran did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The search is only an investigative step and does not mean that Trump will face automatically criminal charges, or that he would be would be found guilty of any wrongdoing.
But it is a criminal offence to conceal or destroy government records, and the Government Records Act says a person convicted of violating that law will be barred from holding federal office, in addition to a prison term of up to three years.
Legal experts says it is unclear if that provision is constitutional. The U.S. Constitution sets forth the qualifications for being a president, Senator or U.S. representative, and previous Supreme Court rulings have held that Congress cannot limit the list of eligible officeholders.
That means if Trump were to be convicted he would likely challenge any attempt to disqualify him from serving in office again, perhaps to the Supreme Court where conservatives form the majority and he has appointed three of the current nine justices.
“It is not certain that the bar set forth in the Government Records Act is constitutional,” Epner said. “It is absolutely there and it would be in all likelihood something that would end up being litigated.”
The documents probe is one of several investigations that have focused on Trump since he left office, weeks after his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in an unsuccessful bid to overturn his election loss. Trump continues to falsely claim that the election was stolen through widespread voting fraud.
Trump remains the Republican Party’s most influential voice, though recent polls have shown a growing number of Republican voters supporting Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as a potential 2024 candidate.
The search, like any of a private residence, would have to be approved by a judge, after the investigating law-enforcement agency demonstrated probable cause that a search was justified.
It almost certainly would also be approved by FBI Director Christopher Wray, a Trump appointee, and his boss, Attorney General Merrick Garland, who was appointed by Biden. A White House official said Biden was not given advance notice of the search and referred queries to the Justice Department.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.