The FBI’s stunning search of former President Donald Trump’s Florida home was legally justifiable to the judge who approved it, but the move could be viewed as an abuse of power so damaging to the bureau’s credibility that it may never recover, former agents told The Washington Times.
“The FBI has been at a tipping point since the Comey-McCabe false Russian collusion investigation,” said Kevin Brock, a former FBI assistant director of intelligence. “That could be cited as an isolated operation that didn’t affect the FBI’s credibility, but now there has been a cascade of events that have pushed the FBI to the precipice in the minds of half the country.
“I don’t know if they can come back from this, I just don’t,” he said.
Agents on Monday searched Mr. Trump’s home at his Mar-a-Lago estate and private club in what appears to be part of an investigation into whether classified documents were sent there instead of the National Archives as required when Mr. Trump left office.
Thomas J. Baker, who spent 33 years as an agent and served as an instructor at the bureau’s training academy in Quantico, Virginia, said the raid was legally sound but an abuse of power.
“They had a federal judge sign off on it. The Justice Department, the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of Florida approved the affidavit, so it was legal, but that doesn’t make it right,” he said. “There are a lot of things that happen that are legal but still an abuse of authority.”
The search marks a dramatic escalation of the legal investigations into Mr. Trump and unprecedented law enforcement scrutiny of a former president.
Few answers were provided Tuesday to questions about what prompted the FBI to send 37 armed agents to Mr. Trump’s home or what investigators hoped to find.
More than 24 hours later, the Justice Department and FBI remained silent about the reasons behind the raid.
The White House was also mum. At a bill signing, President Biden did not answer questions about the search that reporters shouted at him.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre insisted that Mr. Biden wasn’t given a heads-up about the action against his possible opponent in the 2024 presidential election.
“It would not be appropriate for us to comment on any ongoing investigations,” she told reporters, stressing the independence of the Justice Department.
She did say that Mr. Biden was not given advance notice about the raid and has not been debriefed since it occurred. However, she declined to say whether Mr. Biden spoke with Attorney General Merrick Garland late Monday or Tuesday.
“The president learned about this just like you all did — through the public reports, and we learned about this just like the American people did,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said. “We did not know about this, and we had not been briefed. We learned about this as you all were reporting it.”
Republicans demanded that Mr. Garland and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, who was appointed by Mr. Trump in 2017, explain themselves. They accused the two of “weaponizing” the Justice Department for political gain and demanded that they immediately brief Congress.
Mr. Wray testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week and took heat from Republican lawmakers who accused him of failing to root out political bias inside the bureau.
Former Vice President Mike Pence tweeted that Mr. Garland “must give a full accounting to the American people as to why this action was taken and he must do so immediately.”
Rep. Michael Turner of Ohio, the top Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, called on Mr. Wray to brief lawmakers on the justification for the raid.
In a letter to Mr. Wray, Mr. Turner said he was “unaware of any actual or alleged national security threat” posed by any documents in Mr. Trump’s possession.
“Congress deserves immediate answers from you as to the actions you ordered,” he wrote.
Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene, Georgia Republican, took it a step further by tweeting, “Defund the FBI.”
Democrats hailed the raid as a long-overdue step in holding Mr. Trump accountable for what they say is rampant wrongdoing.
“Donald Trump should be in jail. I’m glad to see the FBI taking steps toward accountability,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, Washington Democrat.
Rep. Ted Lieu, California Democrat, said it would be a “horrible precedent” for the Justice Department not to investigate someone because they happen to be a former president.
“No one is above the law,” he tweeted.
The armed agents swarmed Mar-a-Lago around 9 a.m. on Monday and left around 6 p.m. At least three private attorneys for Mr. Trump showed up shortly after the raid started, according to on-the-ground media reports.
Mr. Trump confirmed the raid Monday night and decried it as “political persecution.” He said federal agents broke into a safe while carrying out the search.
The search is said to be related to 15 boxes sent to Mar-a-Lago as Mr. Trump was leaving office. Those boxes were reported to contain several pages of classified documents. Under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, those materials must be turned over to the National Archives when a president leaves office.
Mr. Trump returned the boxes in January after several months of requests by National Archives officials, who repeatedly threatened to take serious action. In February, National Archives officials referred the case to the Justice Department for investigation.
Republicans have long accused the FBI of being a politicized tool for Democrats to sabotage Mr. Trump and other political opponents.
After heavy-handed raids of the homes of Trump associates Roger Stone and Paul Manafort and a former FBI lawyer’s guilty plea to forging a document to justify surveilling a member of Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign, the FBI hasn’t been able to shake off accusations of political bias.
Those accusations rose again over the past few weeks after whistleblowers within the FBI and Justice Department said top agents sought to undermine the Hunter Biden investigation by falsely labeling evidence in the case as “disinformation.” Hunter Biden, the president’s son, is under investigation by the U.S. attorney in Delaware for his taxes and business dealings but has not been charged with a crime.
The raid on Mr. Trump’s home could further cement the idea that the FBI is a politically partisan agency, former agents warned.
The former agents said the FBI would have needed to convince a judge it had probable cause that a crime had been committed and that evidence would be found at Mar-a-Lago.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart signed off on the search warrant, The New York Post reported, citing sources. He was elevated to a magistrate judge in 2018 and donated roughly $2,000 to Barack Obama’s election campaign and $500 to Jeb Bush’s campaign when Mr. Bush ran against Mr. Trump in 2016.
An approved search warrant doesn’t necessarily mean prosecutors have concluded that Mr. Trump committed a crime, which raises questions about whether the raid was an overreach.
“If this has to do with records retention and destruction, that law is very rarely investigated or prosecuted. It seems unusual that it merits a search warrant by 30 armed agents commencing early in the morning,” Mr. Brock said.
One of the biggest mysteries from Monday’s raid is who at the Justice Department and FBI signed off on the search. The search of a former president’s home likely would have required approval from top officials at the Justice Department and the FBI.
Mr. Baker said that, legally, the search warrant doesn’t have to go as high as the FBI director and attorney general, but it is likely they were briefed ahead of the action.
Even high-profile investigations that don’t involve political figures, such as journalists, require approval from the FBI director and attorney general, he said.
“It would be hard for me to believe that an investigation of a former president and potential presidential candidate was approved at a lower level,” he said. “It would also be hard for me to believe that this suddenly sprang up over the weekend. This has all the earmarks of an investigation subjected to hours and hours of deep conversation.”
• Joseph Clark contributed to this report.