The Memo: What the latest dramatic twists mean in the Trump-FBI saga

The 45th president of the United States is under investigation for potential violations of the Espionage Act.

That one potent fact was the most explosive bombshell on Friday as the saga of the FBI investigation into former President Trump took several new turns.

The story has sidelined every other piece of news in the political world this week. The starting gun was fired when Trump himself confirmed early reports of a search of his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida on Monday. The pace of developments has not eased since.

Trump being Trump, even news of possible crimes committed by him had a downside for Democrats. The passage of a major piece of legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, long sought by President Biden and his party, became a sideshow to the Trump-centric main event.

Political insiders of every stripe are wondering what to make of the most recent discoveries — and where the story goes from here.

The possible crimes

We now know the FBI search of Trump’s estate was premised on an investigation of three potential offenses. 

One of those possible charges had been widely predicted: it pertains to the concealment or removal of official documents.

Another covers the destruction, alteration or concealment of records "with the intent to impede, obstruct or influence" an investigation — an intriguing charge given the number of other probes directed at Trump. 

The biggest shock came with the inclusion of a third possible offense under section 793 of Title 18 of the U.S. Criminal Code.

The language of the statute is complicated, but its main thrust is that it is a criminal offense for someone to misuse, mishandle or fail to guard national security information that they believe “could be to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation.”

What that means, exactly, in relation to Trump is so far unknown — though it appears on its face plausibly consistent with a Thursday evening Washington Post scoop that asserted investigators were looking for information about nuclear weapons.

The things we don’t know

The feverish speculation that has gripped Washington is partly the result of the extraordinary nature of an FBI search of a former president’s home — something that has never happened before. 

But it is also a consequence of a situation in which many key details have been revealed in part, but not entirely.

The revelation about the Espionage Act came with the release of two documents Friday — the search warrant for Mar-a-Lago and the inventory of items seized. 

The previous day, Attorney General Merrick Garland had announced at a brief press conference that he wanted those documents unsealed. His request met with no opposition from the former president and his legal team.

Importantly, however, neither the Department of Justice nor Trump’s team expressed any wish to make the affidavit that underlies the search public. 

That document would give much more insight into investigators’ thinking, since it made their case to a federal magistrate for believing that a crime or crimes had been committed.

The inventory is key nevertheless. It asserts that among the items seized were numerous instances of classified material, including “various classified/TS/SCI documents” — an abbreviation that refers to one of the highest levels of classification: Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information.

The list also included such intriguing entries as “Info re: President of France,” “Handwritten note” and “Leatherbound box of documents.” An executive order granting clemency to longtime Trump ally Roger Stone was also among the items taken.

The broader view

The 30,000-ft view is one in which every new tidbit becomes ammunition in the nation’s increasingly bellicose partisan wars. 

The past week has seen Trump critics gleeful at what they imagine to be his imminent indictment, if not imprisonment; and his diehard supporters just as adamant that he is the victim of a nefarious plot by the ill-defined “Deep State.”

Trump is arguing that the information in his possession at Mar-a-Lago was already declassified. That claim is sure to be scrutinized and tested.

The usual coterie of his staunchest allies is rallying around. Late Friday, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) told reporters at the Capitol that she was on her way to file articles of impeachment against Garland. She accused the attorney general of using his powers “to politically persecute Joe Biden’s enemies.” 

The current moment is only likely to become more febrile with that kind of rhetoric. It's dangerous enough as is.

On Thursday, a man was shot and killed by law enforcement in Ohio after allegedly trying to breach security at the FBI office in Cincinnati.

The man was identified as Ricky Shiffer. A social media account in that name had encouraged attacks on the FBI. Another post, on the day of the Mar-a-Lago raid, alluded to a crossing of the rubicon against which citizens should rise up.

"We must not tolerate this one," the post said. "This time we must respond with force."

One account bearing Shiffer's name also appeared to indicate its author had been in or around the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

As for Trump, he faces legal dangers on several fronts. He repeatedly pleaded the Fifth Amendment earlier this week during a deposition in a civil case in New York. At least three other criminal probes could endanger him.

Legal experts say that, when it comes to the Mar-a-Lago matter, charges could be months away if they are pressed at all. 

The former president has skated away from trouble many times before. He remains, in spite of it all, the favorite to win the GOP nomination in 2024, should he enter the race.

But right now, the former president is once again sailing in uncharted waters.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Five questions that hang over the Jan. 6 committee’s public hearings

The biggest moment of the Jan. 6 House Select Committee’s existence is about to arrive. 

On Thursday evening, the panel will hold the first of its televised hearings. The event will take place in prime time and be broadcast by almost every major network and news channel. 

For some, it will be the most dramatic congressional investigation since the Watergate hearings a half-century ago. 

Others — committed supporters of former President Trump, in particular — will likely tune out the hearings. 

Here are five big questions that have yet to be answered. 

What will we learn that’s new about Trump? 

Democrats are promising explosive revelations about the former president’s role in fomenting the attack on the Capitol. 

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) on Tuesday promised in a CNN interview, “We’re going to see how much Trump was involved. Trump ran this show. He ran it from the time he lost the election in November, and he did it with his son, or sons, and all of his henchmen up there.” 

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the committee, told The Washington Post in a Monday interview that the panel had “found evidence about a lot more than incitement here.”  

Raskin added, “I think that Donald Trump and the White House were at the center of these events. That’s the only way of really making sense of them all.” 

Ironically, the main difficulty Democrats may face in making the case against Trump is the vast amount that is already known. 

Trump was, after all, impeached by the House only one week after the insurrection, becoming the only president in history to be impeached on two separate occasions.  

At a rally at the Ellipse near the White House, immediately before the assault on the Capitol, he told supporters, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” And he also told them that President Biden, if certified as the election’s winner, would be an illegitimate president. 

There have also been subsequent media leaks about other things the panel may have uncovered — including, recently, the suggestion that Trump was sympathetic to the demands of some of his supporters to “hang Mike Pence,” then the sitting vice president. 

There could be more shocking evidence to come. But the knowledge already in existence sets a high bar. 

Can the panel incriminate the Republican Party more broadly? 

The committee famously features just two Republicans — Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), who serves as vice chair, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) — both of whom are vigorous Trump critics. 

That leaves the wider GOP in the panel’s crosshairs, especially if it can pin culpability for specific misdeeds on other members of the party. 

No fewer than 147 Republican members of Congress voted to invalidate the election results in some shape or form on the evening of the insurrection, with debris still littering the Capitol’s hallways.

Yet, at that time, senior members of the GOP were willing to acknowledge Trump’s culpability. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in February 2021 said on the Senate floor that Trump was “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.” In a recorded call with colleagues later obtained by two reporters for The New York Times, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called Trump’s actions “atrocious and totally wrong.” 

But McConnell voted to acquit Trump on the impeachment charge in the Senate and McCarthy made his peace much more publicly, traveling to Mar-a-Lago to meet Trump. Last week, Trump endorsed McCarthy for reelection to the House. 

The GOP would far rather talk about the issues bedeviling Biden than Jan. 6.  

But if the committee can make a compelling case with fresh and additional evidence, Republicans may have little choice. 

Can the Democrats put on a show? 

For good or for bad, the theater of politics matters. 

So, one question will be how compelling Democrats can make the hearings. 

The first hearing is likely to be the most important of all, much as the first presidential debate in a series tends also to be the most vital.  

All three major broadcast networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, have said they will shelve their regular programming and replace it with live coverage of the Thursday hearing. So too have CNN and MSNBC. Controversially, Fox News will not air the hearing live, instead confining such coverage to Fox Business. 

Conservatives have taken umbrage at the decision by the committee to turn to a former president of ABC News, James Goldston, to help make Thursday’s presentation as compelling as possible.  

Axios, which first reported Goldston’s involvement, wrote that he was “busily producing” the hearing “as if it were a blockbuster investigative special.” 

We’re about to see the results. 

Do the hearings change the political agenda? 

There is little doubt that Thursday’s hearing will eclipse almost all the political news out of Washington. For that night at least, it will be the only show in town. 

But how long will that effect last? 

Trump allies have promised “counterprogramming” to push back on the narrative being advanced by the committee. 

House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) is kicking off that effort Wednesday, at a morning news conference with House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and ardent Trump allies Reps. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).  

Stefanik told Fox News that she and her colleagues were “pushing back against lame-duck Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi’s sham political witch hunt.” 

More broadly, the White House has spent months on the defensive, embattled by a host of problems including inflation, high gas prices, an infant formula shortage and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The hearings will give Democrats a chance to put the GOP on the back foot — but for how long? 

Can the panel shift public opinion? 

Politically, this is the biggest question of all. 

Many independent experts, and even some liberals, aren’t at all sure the answer is yes. 

For all kinds of reasons, opinions around Jan. 6 have calcified.  

While Democrats see Trump’s culpability as self-evident, many Republicans seem willing to dismiss anything the panel uncovers. 

Meanwhile, a politically segmented media environment combines with the bias-reinforcing dynamics of social media to deepen those divisions. 

That doesn’t mean the committee is wasting its time. New evidence regarding Jan. 6 is important by its nature. 

But it may not be enough to change many minds. 

The Memo: Navarro drama ramps up stakes for Jan. 6 hearings

The drama surrounding the work of the Jan. 6 committee ramped up Friday with the news that former Trump adviser Peter Navarro had been indicted on two charges of contempt of Congress. 

The charges, each of which carries a maximum penalty of a $100,000 fine and one year of jail time, stem from Navarro’s refusal to cooperate with the House panel’s inquiries.

The new twist comes as the panel moves to the cusp of beginning public hearings. The first such event is due for Thursday.

Navarro, who on Friday initially announced his intention to defend himself, blasted the committee’s work and the manner in which he was arrested.

During his court appearance, he complained, “Who are these people? … This is not America. I mean, I was a distinguished public servant for four years, and nobody ever questioned my ethics. And they’re treating me in this fashion.”

Shortly afterward, speaking to reporters, he said he had been “intercepted” en route to Tennessee and placed in handcuffs and “leg irons.” He also sought to suggest his plight was simply an outgrowth of his support for former President Trump.

“They are not coming for me and Trump. They are coming for you,” he said, going on to detail the approximately 74 million people who voted for Trump at the 2020 election.

In fact, Navarro has been at the fore of propagating false theories of election fraud. He was also the leading proponent of a strategy known as the “Green Bay Sweep,” which was intended to reverse the election’s result.

Navarro’s next court appearance is scheduled for June 17, by which time the public hearings of the Jan. 6 panel will be well underway.

The effectiveness of those hearings will be judged according to two quite different criteria — the substantive information that is uncovered and the likely political effect.

On one hand, the importance of an investigation to look at such a serious assault on American democracy seems self-evident. 

Back in April, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the committee, promised that the public hearings would “really blow the roof off the House.”

“This was not a coup directed at the president,” Raskin added in his remarks at a Georgetown University event. “It was a coup directed by the president against the vice president and against the Congress.”

On the other, there is deep skepticism, even among those who are supportive of the committee’s work, that the hearings will move the political needle.

That skepticism is rooted in the reality that there is plenty already known about the insurrection. 

Trump was impeached 17 months ago for his role in inciting the riot. Given that a significant minority of the overall population — and a large majority of Republicans — continues to hold a favorable view of the former president, there is no obvious reason to believe the hearings will change their mind.

“Nothing they come up with is going to shift Trump or Trump’s base,” said Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University who authored a 2017 book making the case for the then-president’s impeachment. 

“Look at all the things that have come out, and, if anything, Trump’s approval has ticked upward, not downward.”

Lichtman argued that critics of the former president are being overly optimistic in believing that the impact of the forthcoming hearings could be analogous to the Watergate hearings in 1973 and 1974 that transfixed the public and culminated in former President Nixon’s resignation. 

In today’s hyperpolarized media and political environment, he added, Trump and his supporters will simply “say it’s a witch hunt” — and largely escape political consequence.

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, took a similar view. 

“The hearings will give a lot more depth and sense of intentionality in terms of what the public knows,” he said. “Having that on the record and having more knowledge is a good thing. Whether it affects anything politically is pretty dubious. So much of it happened in front of everyone’s eyes.”

Democrats can at least hope that the hearings will focus public attention on Trump, the insurrection and the complicity of other Republicans in it. Such subjects are more favorable terrain for President Biden’s party than current troubles such as inflation, soaring gas prices and a baby formula shortage.

But Republicans will go all-out to blast the committee, just as Navarro did on Friday. 

The only other person indicted for refusing to comply with a subpoena in similar circumstances — former Trump chief strategist Stephen Bannon — used his initial court appearances in a similar way, promising that his charge would end up being “the misdemeanor from hell for Merrick Garland, Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden.”

With Navarro and Bannon indicted and the public hearings looming, another act in the insurrection drama is about to begin.

But most of the public has already made up its mind as to who are the heroes and the villains.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.