Shame on me.
I like to think I don't surprise easily, especially when it comes to imagining the depths to which the former president and his cronies and enablers will descend to protect themselves and preserve their power. But the aftermath of the FBI's execution of a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago has surprised me. It has also left me deeply concerned about what the country must now endure and where we may be headed.
I should not have been surprised. In retrospect, it all makes sickening sense.
When news broke of these events — first commented on, it should be noted, by Donald Trump himself — it was clear that they would reverberate dangerously across America's fractured political and social landscape. You had to know that Trump himself would lie and play to his well-practiced persona of misplaced victimhood. And you had to know that others would rally around him. But the amount of negative blowback and the number of high-level officials helping gives special pause.
Among things striking about this threat to the Trump bubble is that instead of the charge being led by elected officials or others easily stigmatized as "the enemy," this was the FBI. Law enforcement: the very people lauded by the Republicans when it suits their political interests. "Back the blue," and all. How would they spin this one?
The first round of defense was to fall back on the familiar language of a "partisan witch hunt." It is the usual lie, as they cry foul without any evidence, about how the Biden administration is out of control in persecuting its political enemies. Just because we have become used to this level of projection and hypocrisy from a group of cynical political actors who really did seek to turn the Department of Justice into their own tool for holding on to power, doesn't mean we should become inured to the danger of this rhetoric.
But they didn't stop there. They have now moved on to attacking the FBI itself and the very mechanisms of justice in the United States. It is tiresome to outline all the different instances and all the different people who have participated in this concerted attempt to protect Trump by baselessly attacking what took place at Mar-a-Lago. But when the likes of South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham suggests the FBI planted evidence and Florida Senator Marco Rubio attacks the magistrate judge who signed off on the warrant, we are seeing something even more perilous than before.
These are two men who back in 2016 clearly understood and articulated the dangers that Donald Trump posed to American democracy. Now they are not only devout defenders of his presidency, but they are complicit in undermining what appears to be a careful execution of the process of justice. They seek to delegitimize any investigation of Trump, no matter its merits.
As Trump pleaded the fifth over and over again in a civil case in New York, as he refuses to release what was in the Mar-a-Lago search warrant, and as we can see in a long history of contempt for any legal accountability in his business and political career, the safe assumption of all these investigations is that with so much smoke, there is likely fire. Nevertheless, even if Trump is eventually indicted, he will continue to be entitled to a presumption of innocence and a day in court. That's how American justice is supposed to work.
Now, as many have pointed out, there are legitimate concerns in America about the overreach of law enforcement. For as long as I have been a reporter, there have certainly been instances where police officers have searched residences illegally. Most often, those who have felt the brunt of these perversions of the law have been the marginalized members of society. And in these cases, these same people who are defending Trump, as well as Trump himself, have shown no concern. They have often applauded rough and unlawful actions from police as long as they were targeting people different from themselves.
We should be very clear. Those rushing to defend Trump are not carefully refuting what is alleged against him. In the case of what was taken from Mar-a-Lago, we don't even know what that was (but Trump does). Rather, these kneejerk objections set the stage for a blanket assertion that, in effect, Trump is above the law. Under this dangerous reasoning, there can be no legitimate investigation into anything he might have done. And, to continue the tortured "reasoning," anyone who seeks to hold Trump accountable under the laws that govern our nation is a political operative acting as part of a wide-ranging "Deep State" conspiracy.
This is a kind of lunacy, of course, and deeply destabilizing to American democracy, but it is not a fringe position within the "Party of Trump." A version of this mania is now being publicly stated by Republican elected officials who often are portrayed in the press as the more responsible ones. The rot engulfs almost the entire party.
When we add to this the mounting evidence being uncovered by the January 6 committee, a clear and chilling picture emerges. Large swaths of the Republican Party do not believe the law should apply to its leaders. And they do not believe that there can be a fair election in which their candidate loses. This is, at its very essence, a repudiation of the ideal of America as a democratic republic ruled by law. We all should be careful here. This does not apply to all Republican elected representatives and certainly not to all Republican voters. Nor does it apply to any and everyone who questions the FBI's actions. But as we are seeing with the overall general reaction to the FBI's search, this undermining of confidence in our institutions is far more widespread and far deeper than we might have first feared.
To my colleagues in the press covering this moment, I respectfully suggest that it is essential that we wrestle with this truth and not seek to minimize the escalating dangers our country faces, especially as much of the recent rhetoric from Trump and his army of defenders is stoking the prospects of violence. There are not two equal sides to this story. The political implications of all of this, what it might mean for the midterms or President Biden's approval rating, pale next to what this means for the future of American democracy.
Despite all that we are facing, I remain optimistic and hopeful for the future of our nation. I believe that these multiple investigations into Trump will get to truths that America desperately needs to hear. No one pursuing them is going to be frightened by what's being said on Fox News. And while there may always be a percentage of the country that backs Trump and the politicians who have rallied around him, this is not where the majority of this nation is.
We should not forget that Donald Trump was repudiated by voters in 2020 after only one term in office. A record number of Americans went to the polls to say they did not like who he was or what he represented. We know even more now. So, will the repudiation of Trump and his ideology continue, even increase? We, the people, are now in the process of finding out.
In the meantime, travel on this passage figures to be rough, rocky, and more dangerous than many of us may have thought. That makes it all the more important that those who are pursuing justice remain steady in their mission and true to the most noble values of the nation they serve.
© 2022 Dan Rather