Los Angeles Times

Why the Mar-a-Lago search could knock out Trump

- HARRY LITMAN @HarryLitma­n

Why now? What explains the thunderous revelation that the FBI — doubtless with the approval of those at the highest levels of the Department of Justice — executed a search warrant on Monday at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence? The apparent focus was documents the former president removed from the White House.

A very plausible answer is that a charge related to mishandlin­g official documents could swiftly and cleanly serve as the basis for a satisfacto­ry resolution of the pox on the country that is Donald Trump.

A more straightfo­rward, prosaic answer to why the warrant was served is that the Department of Justice has assembled evidence of probable cause that evidence of a crime would be found at Trump’s Florida home.

But of course when the suspect is a former president of the United States, the straightfo­rward answer is just the beginning.

As the Justice Department is keenly aware, searching Mar-a-Lago constitute­s a highly dramatic investigat­ive move against a former president, much more dramatic than anything that occurred during Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal.

The Justice Department and the FBI have crossed the Rubicon, and they know it. It’s near certain that Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland would have had to sign off on such a move.

The majority of those who are the subjects of federal warrants wind up getting charged with federal offenses. That is, Monday’s warrant and the search unequivoca­lly lock Trump and the government he used to lead in an arch-antagonist­ic posture, playing for the highest of stakes and for keeps.

It might seem puzzling, even disappoint­ing, that the Justice Department and the FBI would have chosen to throw down the gauntlet for a crime — “concealmen­t, removal, or mutilation generally” of official documents — that is far from the most serious of those we think the former president may have committed, such as obstructio­n of justice, fraud against the United States and, most dramatical­ly, seditious conspiracy.

But a charge of mishandlin­g or destroying official documents is no petty offense — not under the federal code (which provides for a prison sentence of up to three years) and not in the culture of the Justice Department, which takes it very seriously.

In Trump’s case, no surprise, the potential offense appears to be particular­ly brazen and damaging. Fifteen boxes of material that should have been turned over to the National Archives were removed from Mar-a-Lago earlier this year, including true historical documents that belong to the American people, such as the letter President Obama left for Trump, and material reportedly marked classified.

Further, a documents charge, as presidenti­al accusation­s go, would be relatively easy to prove and would sidestep issues of 1st Amendment-protected political activity that Trump no doubt would claim if he were indicted in relation to, say, his incendiary speech at the Ellipse on Jan. 6.

And most important, there’s this: Anyone who “willfully and unlawfully conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterate­s, falsifies or destroys” official documents “shall be” disqualifi­ed — barred for life — from holding future federal office.

If Trump were convicted of this charge, the plain meaning of the law would permanentl­y take him out of commission as a candidate for president, and all talk of his 2024 candidacy would be dead in the water. Likewise all the support and polarizati­on that the mere possibilit­y of another Trump presidency raises.

There is a possible constituti­onal challenge to the disqualifi­cation provision — a Supreme Court case that holds that Congress cannot add to the enumerated qualificat­ions for office in the Constituti­on — but it’s worth considerin­g that Garland has hit on a grand resolution of the huge political, cultural and legal problem that Trump’s malfeasanc­e and norm-busting actions have created.

If the search produces evidence of mishandlin­g of documents, the Justice Department could agree to a modest jail sentence, or perhaps none at all, and decline to pursue the laundry list of other charges the former president might have faced; Trump in turn could agree to not challenge the disqualifi­cation provision.

Those who yearn to see Trump in an orange jumpsuit without his fake tan and put away for years would be frustrated. At the same time, the former president could hardly emerge as a potent MAGA martyr.

Trump would be duly punished. Were he exiled from office, it would remove at a stroke the most dangerous and polarizing aspect of his continued defiance of the rule of law. To adapt the words of President Ford when he pardoned Nixon, Monday’s Mar-a-Lago search could well be the beginning of a fitting and broadly — if not universall­y — accepted end to our latest “long national nightmare.”

With a documents charge, Garland may have hit on a grand resolution of the huge problems Trump’s malfeasanc­e has created.

 ?? Lynne Sladky Associated Press ?? THE FBI searched former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate on Monday. The apparent focus? Documents he removed from the White House.
Lynne Sladky Associated Press THE FBI searched former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate on Monday. The apparent focus? Documents he removed from the White House.

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