There are dozens of outstanding questions about Donald Trump's bizarre decision to abscond with boxes of unauthorized and classified documents when he left the White House and we don't have any idea why he refused to return many of them when the National Archives and the FBI asked for them back. All we do know is that the FBI was forced to issue a subpoena, which Trump defied, and finally had to get a search warrant to retrieve the documents.
The speculation about his motives run from the former president just wanting to take classified material as a souvenir to show off to his friends or sell as memorabilia to possible blackmail of foreign leaders. (Apparently, presidents get highly classified intelligence on allies and adversaries alike.) The most alarming reporting suggested that the documents contained nuclear secrets. This seemed unlikely until this piece by Josh Kovensky at Talking Points Memo reminded me that Trump has a "special interest" in nuclear weapons, believing himself to be an expert because his uncle taught at MIT. Now it doesn't seem so outlandish. Trump was bragging in his final year that the U.S. had developed some secret new nuclear program at his direction which he couldn't reveal. So, who knows? He may have actually stolen something truly dangerous.
It remains to be seen if the law will catch up to Trump this time. It's coming down on him from several directions but according to news reports Trump is thrilled about the whole thing because it's raising lots of money and it has his supporters up in arms and fired up to fight for him. It also has him at the forefront of the political news which always makes Trump happy. According to NBC News, it's all made him rethink his need to announce his presidential campaign before the midterm elections. As of now, he remains inclined to wait.
The biggest reason for celebration in Trumpworld no doubt is the fact that the search has necessitated that his would-be rivals all back off their plans to challenge him, at least for the moment. Once Trump activated the MAGA cult they had little choice, proving once again that Trump still has a stranglehold on the GOP. Everyone from former vice president Mike Pence to South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Virginia Gov. Glenn Younkin issued shrill denunciations of the FBI after the documents were siezed.
Trump's top rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis who, in another political world would have jumped on the news to condemn Trump as damaged goods, immediately went to bat for him calling the FBI search "another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the regime's political opponents." (If anyone knows about weaponizing agencies against enemies, it's Ron DeSantis.) Polls showed that Trump got a 10 point bounce over DeSantis with GOP primary voters after the FBI search.
Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
The pressure to back up the Dear Leader is so intense that notorious podcaster Alex Jones, clearly out of the loop, rapidly backed down from his ill-timed endorsement of DeSantis over Trump:
It's easy to see why Trump is feeling relieved. Over the summer it appeared that his followers were getting restive and his potential opponents were starting to make their moves. The Mar-a-Lago "raid" changed that dynamic.
Democracy is on the ballot and that's not good news for Donald Trump.
Others, however, aren't so sure this is the big winner Trump thinks it is. One worried friend of Trump told NBC:
"He may get closer to the prize but in reality, he's slipping...It seems like the net is surrounding him more and more, and his ability to dance around these things is going to get more challenging," this ally said. "It's a double-edged sword."
That net is not just the legal problems. Trump believes that it's always better when he's in the news, no matter what the reason, but he never seems to understand that while he may thrill his following, he also motivates the opposition. A new poll released this past weekend shows that the GOP is facing some unexpected headwinds going into the fall election — largely because of the January 6 hearings:
It's certainly possible that the numbers include some Republicans who see the Big Lie about the 2020 election as a "threat to democracy" but the changes in enthusiasm argue that this is primarily attributable to Democrats:
According to the survey, 68% of Republicans express a high level of interest in the upcoming election — registering either a "9" or "10" on a 10-point scale — versus 66% for Democrats.
That 2-point GOP advantage is down from 17 points in March and 8 points in May.
The pollsters consider that to be the result of the Supreme Court's decision to overrule the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in June. But since abortion shows up as the top issue for only 8% of respondents, it's clear that it's not the only reason for the surge in interest. "Threats to democracy" coming in as the most important issue is the big change. Democracy is on the ballot and that's not good news for Donald Trump.
Just as important, with all the "fundamentals" about the economy, President Biden's approval rating etc., Trump's constant attention-grabbing, his legal troubles, his rallies, his endorsements, the drumbeat of Trump, Trump, Trump, has turned the midterm election from a standard referendum on the president to a choice between the undisputed leader of the Republican Party and the leader of the Democratic Party. And while it's true that Biden's popularity numbers are low, Trump's are even worse:
As I've said before, Trump is the gift that keeps on giving — for Democrats. If he'd kept a low profile, cooperated with the FBI and shut his mouth, this election might have been the cakewalk they all expected it to be. But with the hearings and Dobbs and Trump endorsing a crop of fascist weirdos, it looks like it's going to be a real race. If Democrats actually save their majority this fall they should send Trump a case of Diet Coke and a very nice thank-you card.