The Mar-a-Lago Dumpster

“If we do not maintain justice, justice will not maintain us.”

–Francis Bacon, Irish-English artist, 1909-1992

The federal government is striking back hard against former president Donald J. Trump, potentially charging him with obstruction of justice or other crimes related to the FBI seizure of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago Florida estate.

Quite a difference in the Feds’ attitude toward Trump since the Democrats took back the White House and Congress. The Republicans let him get away with all sorts of possible violations of the law. Now, this is what happens when sane adults run the federal government, when someone like Merrick Garland and not Trump apologist William Barr is attorney general.

Law enforcement by the Democrats under President Joe Biden is treating Trump as if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue, illustrating Garland’s repeated admonition that no one is above the law. Trump said when running for president in 2015 that he could shoot someone on that busy street, a positive symbol of New York City, and still remain popular. We’ll see, as he used to say.

The latest development in the Trump saga – and it is a long-running saga, worthy of a soap opera – comes from The New York Times. Reporter Charlie Savage dug deeper into the FBI affidavit authorizing the judge-approved search of that seaside home and golf resort and found that Trump may have committed crimes.

The heavily censored affidavit, 38 pages, said there was “probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction will be found at” Mar-a-Lago. That means prosecutors found evidence that efforts were made “to impede the recovery of government documents,” the Times said.

It also means that the twice-impeached Trump may be in the worst legal trouble he’s ever encountered. This is very serious legal stuff, far from allegedly cheating subcontractors while a real estate developer or possibly ignoring laws against running his private businesses while president.

He will need a top lawyer, but they may be hard to come by because he’s fired so many of them and some reportedly have refused to work for him, maybe because he has a reputation for being a terrible boss. Should he call Saul?

Noting that Barr in 2019 said Trump was cleared of obstruction suspicions despite episodes recounted in the report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III as part of his Russia investigation, Savage wrote, “This time, however, the Justice Department is not overseen by a Trump loyalist.”

The search warrant said there were criminal laws that were being investigated, including obstruction of justice and violation of the Espionage Act in connection with keeping highly classified documents that by law should be in possession of the National Archives.

Obstruction is such a serious offense that the maximum penalty is 20 years in prison. That’s twice as long as the prison time for conviction for espionage.

Investigators have focused on Section 1519, the Times noted. The law is included in the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, reforms enacted after the financial scandals involving Enron, Arthur Anderson and Worldcom, it recalled.

The government has tried since May 2021 to retrieve the documents. It finally did get 15 boxes of them in December 2021 after seven months of stalling by Trump and his associates. Two huge questions in the whole affair are why Trump wanted them and why they were so important to him that he refused to surrender them when asked.It was like trying to take away a cherished stuffed animal from a little kid. And this was a president of the mightiest, wealthiest country in the history of the world. His election was a horrid, historic mistake.

Why risk getting in trouble with the intelligence and law enforcement communities that he has scorned? He fired an FBI director, an acting FBI director, an attorney general, an acting attorney general, a deputy attorney general and a U.S. attorney.

It’s a safe bet he’s not much liked in that hulking FBI building on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue.

Those boxes contained 184 documents labeled with classifications, including 25 marked “top secret,” the affidavit said. Archives agents believed more documents were missing and made a criminal referral to the Justice Department Feb. 9.

And so the FBI found another 11 boxes of documents during their search despite Trump’s associates ensuring the Archives that all of them had been returned, the Times reported. Incredible.

Republicans, who slammed the FBI for its “invasion” of Mar-a-Lago and echoed Trump’s charges that the government was conducting a “witch hunt” against him, have been silent since revelations contained in the search warrant and the affidavit have been disclosed by the mainstream media.

It’s like the entrance of a teacher in a noisy classroom has a way of restoring good, polite, quiet behavior, hands folded on desks.

Most of Trump’s very vocal defenders may have scurried off what they may view as a big hole in the hull of a onetime ship of state. Trump has teased repeatedly at rallies that he may run for president in 2024. He may shut up about that now.

It may be too early to assess the FBI investigation’s impact on the 2024 election. But it could reverberate negatively against Republicans running for office in the November midterms. We’ll see.

Trump is deluged with other investigations against him. They include the House’s months-long Jan. 6 probe into his part in the storming of the Capitol; and two involving the business practices of the Trump Organization in New York that may not focus on him directly.

Perhaps more serious, Trump is under a grand jury investigation in Georgia’s Fulton County in connection with his alleged attempts to change the electoral process so that it would look as if he got more votes than Biden. He has been accused specifically of asking for 11,780 votes to be changed in his favor.

Trump is “at substantial risk of possible state charges predicated on multiple crimes,” the Brookings Institution said in an analysis.

Biden took advantage of the latest scandal embracing Trump, charging in a campaign-style speech in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., that Trump’s Republican Party has turned toward “semi-fascism.”

“The MAGA Republicans don’t just threaten our personal rights and economic security,” Biden said. “They’re a threat to our very democracy.” True enough.

So, some of Trump’s close associates and allies should be careful. Many have been elected or are seeking office in electoral positions nationwide allegedly to try to ensure the former president succeeds at what he failed to accomplish in 2020 by possibly monkeying with election outcomes.

The eyes of the Justice Department are now wide open.

Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.