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Analysis

The FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago: What it means and doesn’t mean

A police officer outside former president Donald Trump's home at Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla.GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images

Call it the August surprise. The FBI raid on former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida on Monday may be one of the most consequential moments for his political future, the future of the Republican Party, and, well, the future of America. That’s all according to people talking on cable news after the news broke.

The raid of a former president’s property is big news.

But in reality, the singular moment that was the raid probably doesn’t uniquely mark anything for the history books. After all, federal agents had already been to the property before, possibly looking for the same materials. And this is one of many criminal investigations looking at Trump.

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As the dust settles, here is what the raid means and doesn’t mean, based on the facts as we know them:

What it doesn’t mean: This is the central legal problem that could bring Trump down

The context in this situation is important. This probe, which seems to be about Trump’s not following the Presidential Records Act, is just one of several criminal investigations into Trump’s conduct. Note that Trump was in New York when this raid went down, where he was preparing to testify in a matter about his family foundation.

In fact, the web of different criminal investigations into Trump can be hard for even the most avid news consumer to follow. Here is a quick breakdown:

  • A House committee and, reportedly, the Department of Justice are investigating his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
  • The District of Columbia attorney general is looking into potential fraud at the presidential inaugural committee.
  • The Manhattan district attorney, the New York attorney general, and the Westchester County (N.Y.) district attorney are all separately looking into fraud at the Trump organization.
  • The Fulton County (Ga.) district attorney is in front of a grand jury looking at whether Trump criminally interfered with the 2020 presidential election in that state.
  • The US Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating whether Trump broke the law in the way he, in post-presidency, announced how he would take his private social media company public.
  • Finally, there is this matter that led to Monday’s search. It suggests he took material meant for the National Archives. While it’s unclear what exactly the raid was about, Trump’s assertion in a statement that federal agents got into a safe, where he reportedly kept the material, signals that this is what the matter was about.

Any of those investigations listed above could be what gets Trump convicted of something. Obviously, some are bigger violations than others.

What it does mean: Whatever they were looking for in Mar-a-Lago must be important

In a lengthy statement Monday night, Trump said, “Nothing like this has ever happened to a President of the United States before.” He is right about that.

A search warrant on a former president’s property is unprecedented. That fact no doubt raised the stakes for the federal prosecutors and agents who asked for the warrant, and the judge who signed off on the order no doubt had to pause to consider the consequences. But apparently, the evidence of criminal activity was big enough to overrule these factors.

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What it doesn’t mean: That a conviction on this matter could prevent him from running for president again

One line of thought making the rounds on social media Monday night was that among the penalties for violating the Presidential Records Act is that a person, if convicted, can never hold federal office again. That is, indeed, in the law. Republicans once got excited about this fact when they felt it meant that Hillary Clinton couldn’t run for president in 2016 if she was illegally using a private server during her tenure as secretary of state and not properly recording e-mails for preservation in the National Archives.

But while it is the law, the Constitution is pretty clear about the only qualifications for a person to run for president. And the Constitution supersedes any law passed by Congress. Trump could have been prevented from becoming president forever if the Senate had convicted him on impeachment charges. But they didn’t do it either time he was impeached.

What it doesn’t mean: This will impact the midterm elections

People will endlessly debate how even the most minor event will impact the midterm elections, now just three months away. While the Trump raid will likely be in the news for the next few days, there is no evidence that this raid will cause independents to suddenly sour on Trump (they already have) or that Democrats will get more fired up (the Jan. 6 committee probe and Supreme Court abortion ruling will have more impact) or that Republicans will be more motivated to vote (polls say that they are already more motivated than Democrats).

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Sure, candidates for office might be asked for their take on the Mar-a-Lago raid, but already the statements issued show the same partisan pattern as anything stirred up by the Jan. 6 committee all summer. There’s no softening yet of that divide, even though the leader of the Republican party increasingly seems in legal peril.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.