The 45th US president, who lost the White House after just one term and left Washington DC in disgrace in January 2021 following the deadly Capitol riot, predictably denounced the agents’ actions as evidence of a Democratic Party-led conspiracy to stop him launching a fresh tilt at the presidency in 2024.
Outside of MAGA circles, however, the development is believed to be part of the Department of Justice’s (DoJ) investigation into the removal of classified presidential records from the White House following Mr Trump’s departure from the Oval Office on 20 January 2021. The National Archives and Records Administration (Nara) requested the probe launch back in February.
David Ferriero, then archivist of the United States, wrote to House Oversight Committee chair Carolyn Maloney to say that the Nara had “identified items marked as classified national security information” within 15 boxes retrieved from Mar-a-Lago and was “in communication” with the DoJ because their unauthorised possession constitutes a violation of US criminal law.
Mr Trump’s son Eric Trump moved quickly to dismiss the incident on Monday evening, insisting on Fox News that his father was simply in the habit of keeping “press clippings” and souvenirs from his long and eventful career in the public eye, while loyal supporters rallied at the gates of the former’s president’s Palm Beach residence to express their support.
This is what the reaction has been to Monday’s events, what might happen next and what the consequences could be for Mr Trump’s still-undeclared but long-mooted bid for the Republican nomination.
What has been said?
The DoJ has so far not commented publicly on the raid and when The Independent asked whether Mr Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, or anyone in the West Wing had been informed about it in advance, a White House official said: “We did not have notice of the reported action and would refer you to the Justice Department for any additional information.”
Pundits have since suggested that, although attorney general Merrick Garland’s sign-off would not technically be required to obtain a search warrant, it is unlikely that such a dramatic intervention would be mounted without his approval.
In addition to the dismissals of his family and Mr Trump’s own furious statement, in which he alleged corruption, declared (accurately) that “Nnothing like this has ever happened to a President of the United States before” and likened the US to a third-world country, Republican House minority leader Kevin McCarthy has leapt to his defence, pledging a revenge investigation into Mr Garland should the GOP win back the lower chamber in November’s Midterm elections.
Attorney General Garland: preserve your documents and clear your calendar. pic.twitter.com/dStAjnwbAT
— Kevin McCarthy (@GOPLeader) August 9, 2022
How does the raid relate to other probes into Mr Trump?
Monday’s developments arrive on the heels of a series of developments in the DoJ’s probe into the former president’s push to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election and the events leading up to the 6 January 2021 attack on the US Capitol by a mob of his aggrieved supporters.
In June, federal agents searched the home of Jeffrey Clark, the former DoJ official whom Mr Trump briefly considered installing as acting attorney general on the condition that Mr Clark throw the department’s weight behind his false claims of election fraud.
Multiple ex-Trump administration officials have meanwhile testified before grand juries in Washington that are investigating the 6 January attack and a scheme by Mr Trump’s allies to submit fake electoral college certificates to the National Archives.
In his statement last night, the ex-president claims to have been “working and cooperating with the relevant Government agencies” and denounced the raid as “not necessary or appropriate”.
Will Mr Trump be charged?
It’s possible, depending on what the agents recover from Mar-a-Lago.
Bradley Moss, a veteran DC lawyer who specialises in national security law, told The Independent earlier this year that Mr Trump lost any authorisation he might have had to possess classified materials at noon on 20 January 2021 – the moment Mr Biden was sworn in as his successor.
Marc Elias, a Democratic elections lawyer who served as general counsel for Hilary Clinton’s campaign in 2016, has meanwhile taken to Twitter to point to Section 2071 of Title 18 of the United States Code, which makes it illegal if someone with custody of confidential government records “willfully and unlawfully conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates, falsifies or destroys” them.
Interestingly, the raid on Mar-a-Lago coincides with the publication of photos by New York Times journalist Maggie Haberman purporting to show scrunched-up fragments of presidential documents in a toilet bowl that Mr Trump is alleged to have attempted to flush away, an act that risks violating the Presidential Records Act, which requires him to preserve them.
The images, showing notes that appear to be written in the ex-president’s trademark Sharpie scrawl (which you might call from a certain amended hurricane map), were published by Axios and uncovered by Ms Haberman during research for her forthcoming biography of Mr Trump, entitled Confidence Man.
NEW IN AXIOS: Trump denied flushing documents as president, as I learned during reporting last year for CONFIDENCE MAN. A Trump White House source recently provided PHOTOS of paper with Trump’s handwriting in two different toilets via @mikeallen https://t.co/wv6rrupO1n
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) August 8, 2022
“I sat in an airplane with him, watched him go through documents – throw some away, rip some up, and put some in his pocket,” she said.
What does it mean for the 2024 presidential race?
The same code alluded to by Mr Elias states that a person found to have tampered with government documents shall “be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both; and shall forfeit his office and be disqualified from holding any office under the United States”.
While that would appear to rule out Mr Trump in the event that he were to be charged and convicted, Mr Elias added in a second tweet that such an eventuality might not ultimately disqualify him from seeking the presidency again, because he would inevitably mount a legal challenge. However, doing so would force him to litigate the matter while campaigning, which could well count against him at the ballot box.
Yes, I recognize the legal challenge that application of this law to a president would garner (since qualifications are set in Constitution). But the idea that a candidate would have to litigate this is during a campaign is in my view a "blockbuster in American politics."
— Marc E. Elias (@marceelias) August 9, 2022
Convictions under Section 2071 were earlier hotly discussed by legal experts and lawmakers during Ms Clinton’s presidential campaign following allegations that she erased material from a private email server she had used during her tenure as secretary of state under Barack Obama.
But several legal scholars have drawn attention to a Supreme Court ruling that suggests Congress cannot change the eligibility criteria for who can be president.
They noted that the US Constitution allows Congress to disqualify people from holding office if impeachment proceedings are being carried out but not in other circumstances.
But former federal prosecutor Harry Litman backed Mr Elias’s argument, commenting: “The records provision they’re investigating carries the penalty that someone convicted ‘shall forfeit his office and be disqualified from holding any office under the United States’. So this could be the whole enchilada in terms of DoJ resolution.”
Even aside from the issue of whether or not he mishandled government documents, Mr Trump could yet face repercussions from the House select committee investigating the Capitol riot, which is due to conclude its public hearings this month.
The panel is ultimately expected to produce a report this autumn outlining its conclusions and, although it does not itself have the power to bring charges, it could make recommendations to the DoJ, a development that, theoretically at least, could lead to Mr Trump or his allies facing a criminal charge.