The FBI doesn’t just raid homes on a whim: to obtain a search warrant, the agency needs to show a judge evidence that a crime may have been committed.
Those search warrants typically aren’t made public in order to protect the privacy of targets. After all, the investigation could ultimately turn up no wrongdoing.
But there was nothing typical about Monday’s unprecedented FBI raid of former president Donald Trump’s mansion in Florida, and the Justice Department should make as much public about the reason for its actions as possible. Of course, it’s unlikely that any explanation Attorney General Merrick Garland offers could satisfy the former president’s outraged supporters. But the gravity of the moment still calls for the utmost transparency.
Trump is the subject of several interconnected federal and state investigations, both criminal and civil, but the raid appears to stem from an inquiry into whether he illegally retained or mishandled secret national security documents after leaving the White House. A magistrate judge in Florida, federal Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart, signed the warrant. The FBI reportedly broke into Trump’s safe and removed about a dozen boxes of material.
The former president himself should have received a copy of the warrant after the raid and a list of any items removed. He could certainly release those documents on his own.
But if he doesn’t, federal prosecutors in Florida could also ask a judge to unseal the warrant — which would, at the least, outline what crimes authorities believe Trump may have committed.
Doing so, or finding some other avenue to inform the public about why the department took such an extraordinary step, would be the right move. A decision to seek a warrant to raid the office of a former president — something that has never occurred before in American history — would likely have been approved by Garland himself. Given Garland’s reputation for caution, it seems unlikely he would have gone along with the request without strong evidence of a very serious crime. Releasing such details would answer Trump defenders who have accused the department of targeting Trump for political reasons.
Investigating, and potentially prosecuting, a former president is not a sign that America is becoming a third-world banana republic, as Trump has suggested. Just the opposite: failing to follow the evidence where it leads would be a betrayal of the rule of law. But it’s also reasonable to expect the Department of Justice to be scrupulous when it targets high-profile officials; if the tables were turned and Trump’s DOJ had just raided Barack Obama’s office, his supporters would be raising concerns about political prosecutions too.
Since this is a first, the FBI and DOJ should be mindful that they are setting precedent. Indeed, one way to guard against politically motivated prosecutions in the future would be to create the expectation that officials have to explain themselves in detail if they target a future former president.
Trump is also under federal investigation for his role in fomenting the Jan. 6 insurrection, and by Georgia officials for trying to subvert the state’s presidential election in 2020. On Wednesday, he invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination in a deposition related to a civil inquiry in New York into his business practices. He and his supporters have tried to cast all those efforts as politically motivated witch hunts.
As disingenuous as they are, those accusation still resonate with millions of Americans. After the Monday raid, protesters rushed to Trump’s seaside mansion to wave flags supporting him. For many Trump voters, the sight of the FBI searching the home of the former president is deeply concerning. In such a highly polarized political climate, it may be hard to convince them that the DOJ is acting appropriately. But Garland should still try.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.