After the FBI searched Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort and residence on August 8, the former president’s media allies had the opportunity to pause and consider the possibility that it might be part of a legitimate inquiry. Instead, they rushed to support the former president’s loud and incendiary claims that the FBI, the Justice Department, and President Joe Biden were conspiring against him in a partisan witch hunt.
That decision keeps looking worse as the Justice Department unveils new evidence about its investigation into Trump’s retention of government documents, including highly classified materials seized during the search. A Tuesday court filing by the Justice Department debunked several talking points Trump’s defenders in the right-wing press have offered over the past few weeks — but the former president’s propagandists show little sign of changing course.
Numerous Fox News personalities, for example, denounced the search on the grounds that the bureau should instead have subpoenaed the documents sought by federal officials. They argued that the former president would have willingly turned over whatever they sought and that getting a search warrant was an unnecessary escalation motivated by anti-Trump animus.
“Last night's raid of the former president's home had nothing to do with the retention of classified materials. You can handle missing records with a subpoena. You don't come kicking the doors in,” as Fox host Will Cain put it. “Everyone knows what this is really about. Finding something, anything, they can use to keep Donald Trump from running for president.”
But the DOJ filing indicates that the search came only after monthslong efforts to recover all the documents in Trump’s possession by other means. That included a grand jury subpoena served on May 11 requesting “any and all documents or writings in the custody or control of Donald J. Trump and/or the Office of Donald J. Trump bearing classification markings.”
In response to the subpoena, the filing explains, Trump’s team provided the government dozens of documents with classified markings; Trump lawyer and former OAN host Christina Bobb attested that all documents responsive to the subpoena had been returned following a “diligent” search of the premises; and the FBI subsequently developed evidence that this was not true and additional classified documents remained at Mar-a-Lago and that some “government records were likely concealed and removed” from the storeroom in which they had been held. This led the FBI to seek and receive a warrant to search Mar-a-Lago, which uncovered a trove of additional documents bearing classification markings that had not been turned over as required by the earlier subpoena.
The filing includes a photo of documents with classification markings seized in that search.
So it was for many other talking points that Trump and his associates had promulgated and his media allies subsequently trumpeted. The Trump passports taken in the search and promptly returned, which his defenders portrayed as a “huge violation of the Fourth Amendment”? They had been mixed up with classified and government documents in Trump’s desk drawer and taken as “relevant evidence,” the filing states. The dubious notion that everything was fine because Trump had declassified all the documents while president, something he could supposedly do at will? According to the filing, Trump’s lawyers “never asserted that the former president had declassified the documents.”
Again, Trump’s propagandists had the option to wait for facts like these to come out. Instead, operating with remarkably little information beyond the public statements of the notoriously untruthful former president, they careened from one dubious talking point to the next.
In their quest to protect Trump, right-wing media figures have smeared the FBI as “the East German Stasi in the Cold War” and the Nazi “Gestapo,” and gone after the magistrate judge who signed off on the warrant. They’ve portrayed the search as “the worst attack on this republic in modern history” and a “preemptive coup” to prevent Trump’s reelection. They’ve warned that their viewers are next, as Biden is “at war with the American people.” They’ve presented a justification for political violence — one echoed by Trump’s own veiled threats. While they disingenuously complain about descriptions of “semi-fascism” in the GOP’s pro-Trump ranks, the former president’s supporters are targeting FBI offices and threatening federal officials.
The ongoing deflation of their inflammatory talking points does not seem to be generating a shift in behavior. Instead, Trump’s media allies are largely standing by him and searching for new defenses for his actions. On Wednesday morning, Fox hosted Lara Trump, the former president’s daughter-in-law and a network contributor who has repeatedly used her post to mislead about the search, to downplay the DOJ filing as “more of the same.” On Fox & Friends, Kristi Noem, the Republican governor of South Dakota, suggested that the FBI might have planted the classified documents it seized from Mar-a-Lago, while network host Dan Bongino speculated that the documents marked “TOP SECRET/SCI” weren’t actually classified.