There has been some suggestion that the US judicial system should rein back its investigations of Donald Trump, or drop them altogether. American social peace, they argue, is more precious than the blind pursuit of justice. If the price of stability is forbearance, so be it. Thankfully, Merrick Garland, the US attorney-general, took an oath to the US constitution, not to the roulette wheel of political risk forecasting. It is entirely plausible that the US Department of Justice’s probes, which stepped up last week with the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida residence, could result in his indictment.
The same applies to other criminal investigations of the former president by attorneys in New York, Atlanta and Washington DC. It is also conceivable that any one of these, or the methods of the investigators themselves, could spark revenge violence by Trump supporters. Trump is already using the trope of his persecution to shore up his 2024 electoral fortunes. These are the possibly unavoidable side-effects of the pursuit of justice. It would send a terrible signal were America’s legal system to cave in to intimidation or fear of unintended consequences.
One of the more outlandish smears against Garland is that he is the spear of a revenge operation by the US deep state on behalf of President Joe Biden. There is not a jot of evidence for this conspiracy theory. Garland has gone out of his way to restore the DoJ’s independence from political interference — a principle on which Biden campaigned.
There is no reason to disbelieve the White House’s statement that it was not informed in advance of the FBI raid. Garland only broke the DoJ’s traditional silence on the investigation last week because Trump had publicised the FBI search and badly mischaracterised it. There is no evidence that material was planted at Mar-a-Lago.
Moreover, reliably pro-Trump media figures had endangered the lives of federal agents by comparing them to the Gestapo. Garland had little choice but to present the DoJ’s side of the story and call on Trump to permit the release of the warrant that enabled the raid.
It turns out that Trump had indeed retained troves of highly classified and top-secret material at Mar-a-Lago, which posed a national security risk and was in potential violation of America’s Espionage Act. We know little of Trump’s motives for why he took the material and what he intended to do with it. It would be irresponsible to speculate. It also turns out that Trump had failed to comply with a grand jury subpoena issued several weeks ago to hand over the documents. This could have been resolved without publicity. Last week’s raid was a final resort.
So where does the Trump investigation drama go from here? There are two possibilities. The first is that this particular investigation peters out. This now seems less likely than the second, which is that there will be sufficient evidence to indict Trump for breaking federal laws. Of course, the DoJ could still decide not to make that unprecedented move. But it is hard to believe that a figure as cautious as Garland would have approved such a momentous step unless he suspected the alleged crimes were serious.
Either way, the US is in for a very bumpy ride. The pressure on the attorney-general to call off the hunt, or to pull back at the last minute, is likely to intensify. Biden will feel it too. The justice department’s ultimate determination should be based solely on the weight of evidence and the rule of law. The strength of a liberal democracy is measured by the independence of its institutions. The world is watching how America’s hold up.