November 26, 2022

JONAH GOLDBERG Tribune Contents

Much has changed since the FBI raided Mar-a-Lago, the country club resort and unofficial repository of classified documents where Donald Trump resides. As early as August, the search was denounced by many right-wingers as an unprecedented outrage befitting a banana republic questioning the legitimacy of the American regime.

“I’ve seen enough. The Justice Department has reached an intolerable state of armed politicization,” Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said at the time. “If the Republicans retake the House of Representatives, we will immediately oversee this department, follow the facts and leave no stone unturned.”

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — now a peddler of pro-Trump kiddie propaganda — insisted that this affront required merely a nomination of Trump by acclamation: “We have to rally around him and just say, ‘He’s the Candidate.'”

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Indeed, there was a brief frenzy about how the search would have Republicans rallying around Trump’s banner. “The FBI just made Donald Trump President!” an NBC reporter gullibly quoted a Trump aide.

But on Friday, when Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the appointment of Jack Smith as special counsel investigating Trump’s possession of classified documents in Mar-a-Lago – the site of that search last August – Republicans’ reaction was muted. Garland also gave Smith a portion of the Jan. 6 portfolio.

Admittedly, if you were only casually following the media coverage, it wouldn’t seem muted. But most Republicans who claim to be outraged by the appointment are the same Republicans who are always outraged at everything. Trump, of course, threw a tantrum. He said that among “the gravest threats to our civilization … none is greater than the arming of the justice system, the FBI, and the DOJ.” Then he explained what he meant by “our civilization”: me.

Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Andrew Biggs, R-Ariz., and other fringe guys had a great day. So does Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who has just published a book on the alleged arming of the Justice Department. He says that this is an example of how the Department of Justice is armed.

But Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy said nothing. Mitch McConnell — who doesn’t love Trump but nonetheless condemned the Mar-a-Lago raid — said nothing.

Some other would-be presidential candidates offered mostly lukewarm criticism. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo feared special advisers were taking too long. Former Vice President Mike Pence told NBC’s Chuck Todd it would have been nice if the Justice Department could have avoided the search of Mar-a-Lago because it was “divisive.”

Over the weekend, stories emerging from the Republican-Jewish Coalition conference in Las Vegas — a grand political pageant for GOP presidential candidates — were not about a unified Republican opposition to the special counsel; They were about how prominent Republican after prominent Republican said it was time for new leadership.

So what has changed? Apparently the midterms ushered in a mood shift of biblical proportions on the right. The data couldn’t be clearer: Overly Trump-leaning candidates, particularly abstainers and other Trump dining candidates, have been a liability for the GOP. “I wasn’t a never-Trumper,” former House Speaker Paul Ryan told ABC’s Jonathan Karl, clearly trying to get the point across to wavering Trump supporters. “But I’m a never-again Trumper. Why? Because I want to win. And we lose with Trump.”

Well, I think there are loftier reasons to oppose Trump than not to win, but being a loser for the party is probably the most effective message for Republicans. That’s probably why Pompeo is embracing it, too.

But besides the president’s ambitions and desire to pry the GOP out of Trump’s captivity, there’s another reason most Republican leaders aren’t rushing to Trump’s defense. They think he’s guilty – because he almost certainly is.

For constitutional reasons, his involvement in the Jan. 6 effort to overturn the election could be too complicated to prosecute – all the more reason he should be convicted in his impeachment trial. But the case of the classified documents is straightforward and exceedingly easy to document and investigate. Indeed, Trump has yet to offer – publicly or in court – a plausible or even consistent explanation as to why he took the documents or refused to return them. That is why most of Trump’s defenses are not about the merits of the case, but about perception or precedent.

It wasn’t clear that Trump had no defense last August. It was also not clear that he had come out of the midterms damaged goods. This clarity explains a lot.

Jonah Goldberg, author of the best-selling book Liberal Fascism and a former National Review editor, is the editor-in-chief of The Dispatch and host of the podcast The Remnant. This column is distributed by the Tribune Content Agency.

Aside from the president’s ambitions and desire to extricate the GOP from Trump’s captivity, there is another reason why most Republican leaders do not rush to Trump’s defense in the case of the classified Mar-a-Lago documents. They think he’s guilty – because he almost certainly is.

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