Democrats and other opponents of former President Donald Trump are clamoring for the Justice Department to lock ’em up a week after the FBI’s unprecedented raid of Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home.
They want criminal charges filed against the former president and his close associates that would lead to their arrests and the banishment of Mr. Trump from public office.
Legal experts and former prosecutors say Attorney General Merrick Garland will decide whether to seek charges against the former president by presenting a case to a grand jury.
Some view the surprise raid on Mr. Trump’s home in Palm Beach, Florida, as an indication that Mr. Garland is accelerating a case to charge Mr. Trump with wrongfully taking classified and top-secret material from the White House.
“We should know in a matter of days or weeks,” Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor and president of West Coast Trial Lawyers, told The Washington Times. “You don’t wait around months or years if you’re going to move forward with the prosecution.”
The anti-Trump faction is clamoring for Mr. Garland to prosecute the former president. Some adversaries say Mr. Trump took the classified documents for nefarious purposes.
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“DOJ should fully investigate, and charge accountable individuals, up to and including Donald J. Trump,” said Rep. Elaine Luria, Virginia Democrat. “In the United States of America, no one is above the law.”
The intense pressure from the Democratic base means Mr. Garland must charge Mr. Trump or leave office, Republican strategist and George W. Bush White House aide Scott Jennings said recently on CNN.
“He has to be indicted, or Merrick Garland has to resign,” Mr. Jennings said.
The warrant justifying the Aug. 8 search of the former president’s residence and offices at the private Mar-a-Lago club, including Melania Trump’s wardrobe closet, cited three statutes that Mr. Trump may have violated under the Espionage Act. Federal law bars the unauthorized retention of national security information that could benefit a foreign adversary or harm the U.S. All three charges are felonies.
The warrant referred to a law prohibiting “gathering, transmitting or losing defense information,” which is punishable by a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
A second statute listed on the warrant carries a three-year prison sentence for anyone who “willfully and unlawfully conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates, or destroys, or attempts to do so, or, with intent to do so takes and carries away any record, proceeding, map, book, paper, document, or other thing.”
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Anyone convicted of the charge “shall forfeit his office and be disqualified from holding any office under the United States.”
The warrant also cited a law banning the destruction, mutilation or concealment of records or documents belonging to the government, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Democrats and Trump opponents seized on the third charge. They said it would disqualify Mr. Trump from running for president in 2024 or, at the very least, tie up his candidacy with drawn-out court battles against those who say he should not be on the ballot.
Constitutional scholars rejected the idea that Mr. Trump would be prevented from running for the White House again because a statute can’t alter the qualifications listed in the Constitution for presidential candidates.
Still, Mr. Trump’s opponents almost certainly would try to block him from the ballot.
“The idea that a candidate would have to litigate this during a campaign is in my view a blockbuster in American politics,” Marc Elias, a top attorney for the Democrats, said on Twitter.
Mr. Rahmani said Mr. Garland appears to be pursuing dual criminal investigations of Mr. Trump more aggressively.
In addition to the FBI seizure of records from Mar-a-Lago, the federal government is ramping up an investigation into Mr. Trump’s actions leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol and whether he tried to interfere with the certification of the presidential election results and Joseph R. Biden’s victory.
Other Republicans could be swept up in criminal charges. They include lawmakers and top aides who met with Mr. Trump to discuss strategies for examining election irregularities.
The FBI this month seized the cellphone of Rep. Scott Perry, Pennsylvania Republican and close Trump ally. Federal agents also raided the home of Jeffrey Clark, a former assistant attorney general who tried to help Mr. Trump challenge election results in key swing states, including Georgia.
Although the Jan. 6 case against Mr. Trump may be less concrete, legal experts said the FBI raid of Mar-a-Lago provides immediate proof of a crime.
The FBI said it seized top-secret and classified material among the boxes at Mar-a-Lago.
Mr. Trump said he was authorized to have the documents and had declassified the material under his authority as president. Legal experts have disputed his argument.
“There’s definitely a case to be made,” Mr. Rahmani said. “Crimes have been committed by the former president. But it requires both a crime and a prosecutor who’s willing to charge the crime. If you asked me weeks ago, I would say there’s probably little chance that Merrick Garland is that prosecutor. I just didn’t think he had the stomach for it.”
Mr. Garland has stepped up the Jan. 6 investigation this summer, most recently by issuing subpoenas to Mr. Trump’s White House legal team, which fought his efforts to overturn state presidential election results.
Then came the raid of Mar-a-Lago.
“Obviously, things have moved forward much more aggressively,” Mr. Rahmani said.
Mike Davis, a former law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and founder and president of the conservative Article III Project, said he suspects the FBI raided Trump’s residence and offices because the Jan. 6 probe has failed to produce incriminating evidence despite weeks of public hearings in the House and the Justice Department investigation.
“They have been pursuing this for 18 months, and they have nothing,” he said.
Mr. Davis predicted that the Justice Department will charge the former president over the classified material found in his residence, even though Mr. Trump said he was authorized to declassify the documents before leaving office.
“They’re going to try to contort the Espionage Act to go after Trump for nonclassified records,” Mr. Davis said. “They may be able to get the Democrat-stacked D.C. Circuit Court to go along with that, but the Supreme Court is not going to go along with that.”
Kenneth Gray, a retired FBI agent who now teaches at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, said Mr. Garland and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray are under tremendous pressure to deliver results from the Mar-a-Lago search. Still, he said, the warrant must justify the arrest or the situation could develop into an even bigger political firestorm.
“Doing an arrest and not having the evidence to make the case will be a total disaster,” Mr. Gray said. “The FBI and Justice Department are between a rock and hard place. There is a lot of pressure to have something come of this, but if they don’t have the goods to make an arrest, they can’t make an arrest.”
Mr. Davis and other Republicans have warned that charging Mr. Trump with a crime will only bolster his popularity with his base.
Dozens of Trump supporters have been camping out on the causeway leading to Mar-a-Lago. Also, the FBI is investigating why a man tried to break into its Cincinnati field office before police fatally shot him as threats against the bureau increased after the raid.
On Monday, Mr. Trump told Fox News Digital that he had offered the Justice Department to “do whatever I can to help the country” to lower the anger among his supporters over the FBI’s raid of his Florida home.
He said he had not heard from Justice Department officials whether they would accept his offer.
• Jeff Mordock contributed to this report.