If the former president withheld classified papers, it could cost him his political future… and possibly lead to civil war.
The FBI carried out a raid on former US President Donald Trump’s Florida residence on Monday. It is not clear which specific investigation the search warrant is related to, however CNN claims to have heard from familiar sources that it relates to Trump’s handling of presidential documents.
For his part, Trump has described the event as an “assault” that demonstrates “dark times for our Nation.” Just like the former president, Republican-aligned media like Fox News are also portraying the event as political persecution by the administration of President Joe Biden against his likely 2024 opponent. But whether this campaign-style embellishment really describes what took place at Mar-A-Lago or not, it is indeed unprecedented.
First of all, American presidents are never held accountable for anything. The 1982 Supreme Court decision Nixon v. Fitzgerald established the concept of absolute immunity where presidents enjoy complete civil immunity from any litigation brought about by actions undertaken while holding the office of the President. Likewise, the Department of Justice has gone a step further for decades, holding a policy that no president can be indicted while holding office – though the Court and the Constitution are silent on this.
Trump must have done something after leaving office, since a Court apparently believes he withheld government documents earmarked for the National Archives after leaving office. That would be a crime, most probably falling under the category 18 US Code § 2017 – Concealment, removal or mutilation generally. And it appears FBI agents were looking for those documents.
One part of this US Code is crucial: that a person found guilty “shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both; and shall forfeit his office and be disqualified from holding any office under the United States.”
Essentially, if the FBI actually found withheld government documents held by Trump – that he took with him after he was no longer president – then he could be barred from running for office ever again. The fact that the FBI executed a no-knock raid on his residence, especially with the serious political risks and consequences, implies that these suspicions must have been very well-founded. That is to say that the chances of them having found something is actually quite high.
Of course, if that happens and Trump gets charged and convicted of this crime then he will accuse these charges of being trumped up (mind the pun) and so will his followers. Note that most Republican voters don’t even believe the results of the 2020 presidential election are legitimate and at least 120 Republican nominees across the country don’t believe President Joe Biden was democratically elected.
So imagine this as a scenario: Whether Trump wins again in 2024, or even before the election takes place, he gets charged and convicted, becomes barred from holding office and possibly languishes in prison for a few years. His team puts out brazen statements, as they already have, accusing the US government of political persecution and rallying their supporters to mobilize against the state. Depending on your interpretation of the ongoing January 6 committee hearings, that’s also something they’ve already done.
This is why some folks on social media, as well as some journalists, are accurately saying that the US could be on a collision course for civil war now. The country is already so divided politically that Republicans and Democrats essentially live in different universes. Trump being sent to prison and barred from office could be what breaks the camel’s back.
My personal view is that if the laws of this country are to mean anything, then the powerful must be held accountable. I understand the concept of absolute immunity; if the president were afraid of making hard decisions that could get them prosecuted or face civil penalties then they couldn’t perform their duties. Still, I believe, as Noam Chomsky once famously said, that all post-war US Presidents are war criminals – and that’s why I believe they should absolutely be held accountable.
Going a step further, I also believe that they should be held accountable for the very-obviously corrupt activities they conduct, like what Trump could supposedly be doing with his government documents. No one should be above the law because a two-tier legal system automatically undermines the supposedly universal values it is designed to protect. Everyone should be equal under the law.
That being said, about one-half of the country is extraordinarily misinformed and would not accept any legal proceedings against Trump as legitimate. This would prompt many of them to organize, radicalize and even mobilize against the government. Heck, one Florida lawmaker is already calling on his state to cut ties with the Department of Justice and arrest unauthorized FBI agents.
With the widespread availability of firearms in the US, it would not be hard to imagine extremist groups expanding their reach and even new ones popping up. This could easily spill over into a civil war scenario. That’s no exaggeration.