Aug 15, 2022

The Mar-a-Lago search (an update).

The Mar-a-Lago search (an update).

Plus, a question about armed IRS agents.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

The Mar-a-Lago search and what we know. Plus, a question about armed IRS agents.

Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort. Photo:Flickr/Formulaone 

On Friday...

We published a subscribers-only post exploring the question of which party is more extreme. This edition got a lot of positive feedback, and I wanted to plug it again here. Whether you're a subscriber or not, you can read it by clicking here (non-subscribers will be prompted to subscribe part-way through the piece).

Quick hits.

  1. Author Salman Rushdie will recover after being stabbed on stage at a speaking event in New York state. Rushdie authored "The Satanic Verses" in 1988, which some Islamic sects considered blasphemous. In 1989, the Supreme Leader of Iran called for Rushdie's death by issuing a fatwa. A 24-year-old suspect is in custody. (The attack)
  2. Brittney Griner appealed her conviction on drug charges in Russia, her defense team said. (The appeal)
  3. A United Nations ship departed Ukraine with grain shipments for East Africa, the first chartered by the UN since the war began. (The shipment)
  4. The Taliban retook control of Afghanistan one year ago today. Here’s an update on where things are. (The update)
  5. New York City health officials identified polio in wastewater samples, suggesting likely local circulation of the virus. (The virus)
  6. BONUS: Congress is on recess until September, the president is on vacation, and the vice president is in Hawaii.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Today's topic.

The Mar-a-Lago search. Since we first covered the search on Wednesday, significant information has been released that makes the story worth following up on.

On Monday, August 8th, the FBI searched former President Trump's Mar-a-Lago home in Florida. A federal magistrate judge in Florida approved the warrant for the search, which means FBI agents had to show probable cause that a crime had been committed, evidence of which was still at Mar-a-Lago. Attorney General Merrick Garland said he "personally" approved the search. According to a search warrant released on Friday, the FBI agents removed 20 boxes of items, binders of photos, an executive grant of clemency for Roger Stone and a handwritten note.

There were 11 sets of classified documents, among 25 boxes overall, including some marked as "top secret," the government's highest ranking for classified documents, according to The Wall Street Journal. Those documents are meant to be available only in special, secure government facilities.

The search was part of a long-running investigation into whether White House records were taken to Mar-a-Lago. The Presidential Records Act dictates that such documents must be turned over to the National Archives at the end of a president's term. In January, the National Archives retrieved 15 boxes of documents, and it appeared negotiations on turning over such documents were friendly. However, some of those documents ended up being classified, which prompted the Justice Department to intervene.

There is no criminal penalty for violating the Presidential Records Act, but there were three criminal laws cited in the warrant. One was the 1917 Espionage Act, which prohibits the mishandling of national defense documents and materials. Violations of the Espionage Act carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison; however, a maximum sentence is seldom handed down.

The second law cited was related to obstruction of justice, and the code specifically criminalizes efforts to interfere with federal investigations by destroying or falsifying documents. The third law cited makes it a crime to conceal or destroy government records and penalizes violators with a three year maximum sentence. This law also has provisions that disqualify violators from serving in federal office. However, there is a great deal of Constitutional debate about whether violating this law would prohibit someone from running for president.

Trump and his allies have claimed that he had declassified all of the documents taken in the search. However, federal regulations lay out a very specific written process to make such declassification legally effective, so there should be a paper record. It is so far unclear if Trump followed that process with the documents in question. Additionally, each of the three laws cited in the warrant can be violated by mishandling unclassified documents.

The Washington Post cited anonymous sources who claimed that the FBI was looking for documents related to the U.S. nuclear program. The New York Times reported that a lawyer for Trump signed a written statement in June asserting all material marked as classified and held in storage at Mar-a-Lago had been returned to the government.

President Trump, meanwhile, has said the FBI took material protected by attorney-client privilege and has requested it back. The Justice Department says it has a "filter team" in place to review material before it gets to investigators and return any that fit that criteria. An investigation could take months to conclude.

In the wake of the search, threats against the FBI have spiked both online and off. A pro-Trump veteran was killed in a shootout with police in Ohio after attempting to enter an FBI office in Cincinnati. Armed protesters showed up outside the FBI office in Phoenix. The synagogue of Judge Bruce Reinhart, who approved the warrant, had to cancel services following online threats against the judge.

Below, we're going to take a look at some reactions to the latest from the right and left. Then, my take.

What the right is saying.

  • The right is mixed on the search, with some calling for more details, while others say it is an open attempt to keep Trump from running in 2024.
  • Some say Trump should be held to similar standards as Hillary Clinton, and the bar is high for any criminal prosecution.
  • Others argue that Biden is weaponizing the Justice Department to keep Trump from winning the 2024 race.

In The Dispatch, David French said to "apply the Hillary Clinton rule" to Donald Trump.

"Here we have two people at the apex of American politics: one a former secretary of state and then-presumptive Democratic nominee for president, the other a former president and now-frontrunner for the Republican nomination," French wrote. "Both of them possessed immense classification authority (by executive order, Clinton had power to classify and declassify State Department information up to the 'top secret' level; as president, Trump possessed even greater authority). Both Clinton and Trump’s conduct implicated the same statute, 18 U.S.C Section 793. That statute imposes substantial criminal penalties on anyone who ‘willfully’ or through 'gross negligence' removes national defense information from its proper place of custody... The DOJ should go forward with the same rule it applied to Hillary Clinton, including the same level of deference.

"Any other result wouldn’t simply be unjust—insofar as it would refuse to treat similarly-situated people similarly—it would be profoundly destabilizing," he said. "There cannot be one set of standards for Democrats and another for Republicans. Would applying this same standard mean Trump, too, should not face prosecution? Well, not necessarily. We can’t yet conclude that Trump and Clinton’s misconduct is equivalent, and the reason why may relate not to the mishandling of defense information, but rather to obstruction of justice. The available reporting indicates that Trump didn’t simply remove clearly marked classified material from the White House, he also retained much of that material in spite of repeated requests that it be returned, retained some of that material in defiance of a subpoena, and then ultimately treated the material as his personal property."

In The Federalist, John Daniel Davidson said the 2024 election "is being rigged in plain sight."

"First, consider the FBI raid. No serious person believes that a documents dispute was the real purpose of the raid. The idea that the FBI would search the home of a former president and potential 2024 GOP candidate over an ongoing (and not uncommon) disagreement over presidential records with the National Archives is absurd on its face. In his brief and self-congratulatory press conference Thursday, Attorney General Merrick Garland said he personally authorized the search on Trump’s home, that the Justice Department 'does not take such a decision lightly,' and that it always seeks to use a 'less intrusive means as an alternative to a search, and to narrowly scope any search that is undertaken.'

"But if that were true, it more or less rules out the theory that the FBI was looking for classified documents," Davidson wrote. "The disagreement between the National Archives and Trump has been ongoing for months, and Trump’s lawyers have been cooperating with the relevant authorities. Raiding Trump’s private residence over that — and in the process triggering a political crisis — makes zero sense. As some expert observers have pointed out, including my colleague Margot Cleveland, a far more plausible explanation is that the FBI was perhaps on a fishing expedition, looking for evidence that could implicate Trump in the Jan. 6 riot. It’s no secret that Democrats and the Jan. 6 Committee want Garland to charge Trump with 'seditious conspiracy' in hopes of making it impossible for Trump to run in 2024. In that case, a documents dispute with the National Archives would be nothing more than a flimsy pretext to get into Trump’s residence and look for incriminating evidence related to Jan. 6."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said the details released did not settle anything.

"The list of seized documents included no details," the board wrote. "But someone leaked to the Washington Post that among the seized items were 'classified documents relating to nuclear weapons.' That sounds ominous, which may have been the point of the leak, and it fed the revival of perfervid media speculation that Mr. Trump is a foreign agent looking to sell the secrets. Let’s stipulate that mishandling classified documents is bad practice and can be criminal. The FBI had cause to be concerned if it had reason to believe that secrets were improperly taken away or stored in Mar-a-Lago. It wouldn’t be the first time Mr. Trump was ill-disciplined about secrets.

"But it has been 18 months since Mr. Trump left the White House, so why the sudden urgency that required Monday’s full-scale search? If the documents were serious nuclear secrets, you’d think the Justice Department would have demanded their return as soon as that was known. And if such documents are floating around Mar-a-Lago, why tell the world via a leak in the Washington Post?" the board asked. "The warrant also mentions U.S.C. 793, also known as the Espionage Act, which the press is flogging as the big story. But that law has rarely been employed over decades, and it is intended to prosecute individuals who transmit secrets to foreign agents or governments. Charging Mr. Trump under the Espionage Act merely for keeping at his residence classified documents that he claims were declassified would be a gross prosecutorial overreach."

What the left is saying.

  • The left says the search was justified, and that Trump's excuses are contradictory.
  • Many say the law must apply to Trump just as it does to anyone else, and hope he faces consequences if he took classified documents.
  • Some say Trump's defenses don't hold up to any scrutiny.

In Slate, Ben Mathis-Lilley criticized Trump's excuses point by point.

"On Thursday night, the Washington Post reported that 'classified documents relating to nuclear weapons' were among the items that agents were looking for. While the average voter may not be concerned about whether former presidents are following federal archiving guidelines to the letter, nuclear secrets are a different matter," he said. "As has been noted for years, moreover, Mar-a-Lago is a working business whose guests don’t have to pass background checks, and, apparently, some of the documents that were retrieved were chilling in a regular old storage room by the pool... Trump has released a statement asserting that 1) the material taken from him was declassified, 2) the Department of Justice could have gotten access to it by asking him directly, and 3) Barack Obama also took classified material with him—“to Chicago”—after leaving office.

"The first claim has not yet been backed up by any sort of paper trail, and as Slate’s Fred Kaplan explains, there is already reporting available that indicates that even if the Trump White House attempted to declassify the documents taken in the raid, the process was not completed—and, further, that he could still be criminally liable for violating laws regarding sensitive information even if it had been," he wrote. "The second claim is undermined by reports that the DOJ issued a subpoena to Trump covering the materials in question, and met with his representatives, earlier this year before ultimately applying for a search warrant. The third has been addressed by a National Archives and Records Administration statement, which notes that it maintains and controls presidential archives, including those associated with Obama’s library in Chicago, and asserts that Obama-era classified materials are in fact held 'in the Washington, D.C. area.'"

In The New York Times, Michelle Goldberg wrote about the "absurd argument" against making Trump obey the law.

"The Atlantic’s Tim Alberta described feeling 'nauseous' watching coverage of the raid. 'What we must acknowledge — even those of us who believe Trump has committed crimes, in some cases brazenly so, and deserves full prosecution under the law — is that bringing him to justice could have some awful consequences,' he wrote. In some sense, Alberta’s words are obviously true; Trumpists are already issuing death threats against the judge who signed off on the warrant, and a Shabbat service at his synagogue was reportedly canceled because of the security risk," Goldberg wrote. "On Thursday, an armed man tried to breach an F.B.I. field office in Ohio, and The New York Times reported that he appears to have attended a pro-Trump rally in Washington the night before the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

"The former president relishes his ability to stir up a mob; it’s part of what makes him so dangerous. We already know, however, that the failure to bring Trump to justice — for his company’s alleged financial and his alleged sexual assault, for obstructing Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation and turning the presidency into a squalid influence-peddling operation, for trying to steal an election and encouraging an insurrection — has been disastrous," she said. "What has strengthened Trump has not been prosecution but impunity, an impunity that some of those who stormed the Capitol thought, erroneously, applied to them as well. Trump’s mystique is built on his defiance of rules that bind everyone else. He is reportedly motivated to run for president again in part because the office will protect him from prosecution. If we don’t want the presidency to license crime sprees, we should allow presidents to be indicted, not accept some dubious norm that ex-presidents shouldn’t be."

In The Washington Post, Matt Bai said we may never know the contents of the documents, but we can see Trump's defense already.

"These documents can’t be classified, Trump and his allies are saying, because he unilaterally declassified them at some point, even if the feds still say they’re classified," Bai wrote. "It’s like he carries around a magic declassification wand. He’s Harry Potter in the House of Treason. Let’s get a few things straight. If you’re president, as I understand it, you do have the right to declassify whatever documents you want. But there’s a process for doing so. You’re supposed to submit those documents to the appropriate agencies for review, and then they must be formally categorized as declassified. This should go without saying, but since we’re not exactly killing it on basic civics these days, let me add that former presidents can’t declassify anything.

"That would be like Bill Clinton trying to retroactively issue a pardon," Bai said. "By the way, if you were wondering just how desperate the once intellectually vibrant conservative movement has become, consider one Charles Stimson of the Heritage Foundation, who told NBC News that 'there’s a rich debate about whether or not a document is declassified if a president has decided but not communicated it outside of his own head.' Really. And where’s this rich debate on presidential telepathy taking place, exactly? The 'Stranger Things' fan site?... In Trump’s worldview, he acquired the office and the generals and the state secrets, just as he’d once acquired the Eastern Air Lines’ shuttle, and this whole idea that he was privileged to serve was a bunch of deep-state nonsense. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that he saw himself as an American Putin — elected, perhaps, but governing at the will of some stronger current than the public’s fleeting favor."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paying subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

To recap the shifting story of former President Trump: First, he claimed he was cooperating with government agents who entered his home, and they could have just asked for whatever documents they wanted. Then, after a warrant suggested the FBI had recovered classified material, Trump claimed the agents had planted evidence. Then he claimed that all materials at Mar-a-Lago had been declassified due to a "standing order" to declassify documents. Then he claimed the material was protected by attorney-client privilege, and he wanted it back. Then, he claimed that high-profile Democrats (like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton) had also mishandled classified documents but faced no consequences (there is no evidence Obama did any such thing; Clinton is obviously a different matter).

None of this really fits together. It's typical of Trump, who is well-known for "blitzing" the media with whatever ideas or excuses come to mind anytime he missteps, as if he's testing talking points in real-time before settling on one. The result among many Republicans is sometimes rather funny, where their talking points have to match his, but since the talking points shift so rapidly and unexpectedly they are often caught flat-footed (many were still hammering the "unjustified raid" talking point after Trump had long moved onto "I declassified everything").

The most specific defenses Trump has put out have also been some of the weakest. Yes, a president can declassify documents. But as conservative columnist Philip Klein noted, the idea that Trump had some kind of standing order to declassify all documents is "patently absurd." It would mean every document Trump ever took to Mar-a-Lago was automatically declassified, which would be an even more egregiously dangerous situation than the current one.

Trump, of course, knows all this. He literally signed a law that increased the penalties and fines for removing or retaining classified documents and made it a felony. That same law could now put citizen Trump in a whole lot of hot water.

I also find the comparisons to Hillary Clinton a bit wanting. No matter how you feel about the outcome (there are good arguments she should have been prosecuted), Clinton's case was fundamentally different. She was accused of transmitting classified documents on a private email server. Trump, as best we can tell, is being accused of taking physical documents from the White House to his private residence and then lying to investigators that all those documents had been handed back over. Clinton faced one charge; Trump appears to be facing three. He also appears to be under scrutiny for obstruction of justice.

Again, regardless of how you feel: Stories about her email server first broke in 2013 and continued until — well, apparently, now. The media frenzy was so obsessive and nonstop that "But, her emails" became an actual meme. It lasted for three years leading up to the 2016 election. One could argue it has lasted for nine years and is ongoing. Clinton was investigated and cleared by the FBI and the Justice Department Inspector General. She was also investigated by numerous partisan congressional committees and the State Department. Reporting on her activities was extensive, and we know very clearly what happened. As far as we know, Trump's investigation is only just beginning, and we still know very little about what documents were in his possession or why.

Of course, Clinton also paid a very obvious price: Many pollsters believe James Comey's public updates on the investigation are one big reason she lost the 2016 election. And remember: We're just beginning week two of this fracas; we stand to get a lot more information before we can start saying that Clinton got off and Trump got screwed. If we want the “Hillary standard,” as David French said, that’s nearly a decade of news coverage and a half dozen different entities investigating this for years on end.

Now, that's not to say that nothing is amiss here. I'd say the most plausible theory, based on currently available evidence and Trump's public statements, is that he had highly sensitive documents in his possession and had not been forthright with the FBI or DOJ about what those documents were. And I don't think the FBI would risk this predictable blowback without a very strong case, and I think Merrick Garland's reputation as a careful, risk-averse law enforcement official is well-earned. Hence, the search and seizure being signed off on by his office.

However, I also think it is plausible to suggest there was some "fishing" going on here. Trump, obviously, is in hot water for several other reasons. Perhaps he gave the FBI an easy excuse to search his property and rifle through his stuff, and the FBI — wanting to shore up its investigation into January 6 — took the opportunity to seize as much evidence as it could. Pretending this isn't plausible would require ignoring a hundred years of the FBI doing exactly that to anyone they chose, from prolific politicians to drug dealers. Obviously, we'll only know if that's the case when we see how the FBI uses this evidence to prosecute what crimes (if any). But that could be many months away.

As Michelle Goldberg said, Trump shouldn't be prosecuted for politics. Obviously. But he also can't be spared because of politics, either. We've seen serious consequences — criminal, political, and forthcoming — for mishandling classified documents, whether it was one single document or thousands: from Reality Winner to Edward Snowden to Julian Assange to David Petraeus to Sandy Berger and, yes, Hillary Clinton. Trump can't and shouldn't be above such scrutiny either.

There's still a lot we don't know, and I do think it looks a lot worse for Trump today than it did five days ago. But it's still far too early to feign his victimhood or declare his guilt.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I have read that the IRS just spent $750,000 on ammunition and additional monies on guns. Does the IRS have its own internal police force? If so, for what purpose? Whom does it report to? And then, who does that person report to? How is this armed force deployed? What are the citizens' rights if confronted with them? Are there any other non-military, non-police federal government agencies that have their own internal armed forces?

— Anonymous, Topton, Pennsylvania

Tangle: Yes, the IRS has its own police force in its criminal investigation division. It's called the IRS Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI). It was established in 1919, and yes, they have guns. Those special agents — there are about 2,200 of them — tend to investigate crimes like money laundering and cybercrime. They are the agents currently investigating Russian oligarchs and seizing yachts. Yes, they spent about $725,000 on ammunition this year (which was actually less than some recent years). None of this is really new, for whatever it’s worth. The agency is pretty famous for seizing Al Capone and even solving the Lindbergh kidnapping.

The agency operates at the discretion of the IRS, which is a bureau within the United States Department of Treasury, which functions under the executive branch of the federal government. I’m not a lawyer, but if you are ever confronted by an IRS-CI agent, your best course of action is not to say a word and call a lawyer. IRS-CI have some of the highest conviction rates in federal law enforcement.

And yes, there are many other non-military, non-police federal government agencies that are armed. Basically every major federal agency has a unit of armed special agents. Even the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Postal Service and the Department of Transportation, just to name a few. You can see a full list here.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

A story that matters.

School districts across America are doing everything they can to recruit more teachers, according to Axios. Burnout, low pay and ever-increasing demands have caused a massive teacher shortage. Now, financial incentives and suspensions of licensing requirements are ramping up across the country to court teachers. Des Moines Public Schools are offering a $50,000 incentive to keep school staff around. Florida is issuing temporary teaching certificates to veterans who haven't earned bachelor's degrees. A Dallas school district is setting aside $51 million for salary increases. Axios has the story.


  • 27%. The percentage of Americans who now say they view both the Republican and Democratic parties unfavorably, according to Pew.
  • 18%. The percentage who said that in 2018.
  • 4%. The percentage who said that in 1994.
  • 49%. The percentage of voters who "strongly" or "somewhat" approve of the FBI search of Trump.
  • 37%. The percentage who "strongly" or "somewhat" disapprove.
  • 13%. The percentage who said they didn't know or had no opinion.

Have a nice day.

Tom Gorzycki hasn't been a working barber for 23 years, but that hasn't stopped him from dishing out haircuts to neighbors. The 87-year-old set up a makeshift salon in the basement of his senior living co-op. Now, he's offering "free" haircuts to residents every Tuesday, but with one ask: to make a donation to Arm in Arm in Africa, a Minnesota-based organization that supports poor communities in South Africa. The organization provides food, health care and educational opportunities, and Gorzycki says he's raised more than $10,000 in five years. The Washington Post has the story.

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