(The Hill) — The FBI’s search of former President Trump’s estate in Florida is a political thunderbolt that on Tuesday had a number of Republicans thinking it could boost his standing in a future presidential race.
Trump seized on the raid to rally his supporters, while Republicans across the political spectrum offered support for the former president — including potential rivals for the 2024 nomination.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called it an “escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies,” while former Vice President Mike Pence said it “undermines public confidence in our justice system.” He demanded, “a full accounting” of the matter.
Critics of Trump also offered worries that the surprise search could help the former president.
One of the most high-profile remarks came from a former Trump and Pence staffer who has emerged as a major critic of Trump over his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
“This, I’m hoping, goes beyond simply not complying with some archiving laws, or DOJ [the Department of Justice] just handed Donald Trump the Republican nominee and potentially the presidency,” Alyssa Farah Griffin, the former official, said on CNN.
“If it’s seen as some sort of massive overreach and not something incredibly serious, this is a very good day for Donald Trump,” she added.
It was far too early on Tuesday to know for sure how much the FBI raid signaled legal jeopardy for Trump, or just how the political reverberations would be felt in the November midterm elections and beyond.
But the news scrambled a political scene in which Democrats had dared to feel more optimistic about their chances in the midterms after a series of legislative victories culminating in Sunday’s passage of a massive climate, tax and health care bill.
In recent months, Trump had also seemed to be weakened by relentless attacks from the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, which had revealed damaging testimony from Republicans about Trump’s actions on that day.
Various polls still indicated that Trump was a favorite to win the GOP nomination, while suggesting DeSantis was closing in as a real rival.
Monday’s raid, which was reportedly focused on classified material taken from the White House, outraged Republicans and quickly shifted the focus in Washington back to Trump.
The FBI has never before executed a search warrant on the residence of a former president, let alone one who has publicly floated a possible comeback campaign for the White House against the man who defeated him.
Saul Anuzis, a longtime Republican consultant and former Michigan GOP chair, said the Florida raid could help Trump recreate the success he saw during his 2016 White House bid, when he rallied voters around a message that he was the only person who could cleanse Washington of rampant corruption and abuse of power.
“If you look at why Trump was as successful as he was in 2016, it’s that people thought he was the one guy willing to go to Washington and take on the swamp,” Anuzis said.
The raid was a remarkable step for federal investigators looking into Trump’s actions, and some voices on Tuesday argued it could actually offer an opening to Trump’s GOP rivals.
“The logjam of Republican candidates waiting to see if Trump was going to run just burst. There’s no need for them to wait anymore,” Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor, said. “The FBI raiding Trump’s beloved Mar-a-Lago rips the 2024 Republican primary wide open. The Trump era is over, and it’s anybody’s ball.”
Trump has openly spoken about the possibility of launching another White House bid, saying in an interview last month that he was only weighing whether it was better to make a formal announcement before or after November’s midterm elections.
Sources downplayed any potential benefit of announcing his candidacy immediately in the wake of the FBI search, but some Trump allies indicated the former president was as committed as ever to running again.
“One thing I can tell you: I believed he was going to run before. I’m stronger in my belief now,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters in South Carolina on Tuesday after speaking to Trump earlier in the day.
But top Republican officials have also sought to dissuade Trump from mounting another presidential bid before the 2022 midterm elections, fearing that a campaign could distract from the GOP’s plans to focus on economic issues like inflation this year and bolster Democrats’ efforts to tie the broader party to Trump and his many controversies.
Democrats immediately seized on the news as yet more proof that Trump is unfit to govern. But they are also aware that the raid on the former president’s private residence has the potential to backfire.
One longtime Democratic strategist warned that if the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search fails to turn up any evidence of a serious offense, it could energize the GOP’s ultra-conservative base and potentially erode Democrats’ support among moderates wary of government overreach.
“If there’s nothing significant here and it appears to be political persecution, you’re going to have a huge backfire that motivates the Trump base and the conservative base, and also has some unintended consequences with moderates,” the strategist said.
“I think it’s a very dangerous political situation with regard to backfiring among a broader audience.”
Still, while Republicans once again fall in line behind Trump, some in the party are aware of the risks of nominating Trump for a third time, especially if he’s under the cloud of an investigation or an indictment stemming from Monday’s raid.
Multiple polls in recent weeks have found roughly half of Americans already believe Trump should face criminal charges for his actions around the Jan. 6 riot. He’s still facing investigations in Georgia and New York, as well.
A New York Times poll released last month found that despite Biden’s approval ratings sinking to 33 percent, he still led Trump in a hypothetical 2024 match-up, 44 percent to 41 percent.
“It certainly helps [Trump] in the primary and hurts him for the general,” said Sam Nunberg, a former adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign. “It’s the typical conundrum.”