GOP reacts to Trump search with threats and comparisons to 'Gestapo'
Republican condemnations of an FBI search at former president Donald Trump's residence widened and intensified Tuesday as lawmakers and candidates likened the investigation to "Third World" political persecution and even Nazi rule - underscoring Trump's grip on the party and raising concerns about stoking the kind of anti-government fervor that preceded the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
Lawmakers throughout the party continued to cast the search at Trump's Mar-a-Lago golf club, without evidence, as the act of a tyrannical regime, using terms like "dictatorship" and "banana republic." Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the federal government has gone the way of "the Gestapo." The New York Young Republican Club issued a statement calling for the arrest of anyone involved in the search or other alleged persecutions, suggesting the suspension of normal legal processes if needed "to secure our Republic from the insidious monsters that have wrenched it from the American People's control."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R, who has clashed with Trump, was silent much of Tuesday before issuing a more tempered response, calling for a "thorough and immediate explanation" of what led to the search. Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, R, in a radio interview called a search of Trump's safe "fair game" and said he would not jump to conclusions. But even prominent Republicans who have at times distanced themselves from Trump - including some who could challenge him for the presidential nomination in 2024 - joined the former president's suggestions of a politically motivated probe.
Former vice president Mike Pence, who has been jockeying with his onetime running mate for influence in the party, said "the appearance of continued partisanship by the Justice Department must be addressed." Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, R - who like Pence is considered a potential presidential candidate - denounced a "stunning move by the DOJ and FBI" and tweeted, "Selective, politically motivated actions have no place in our democracy."
The search was related to an investigation into the handling of classified documents, two people familiar with the probe told The Washington Post on Monday. One person said it was a court-authorized search in an investigation of how documents, including top-secret ones, were taken to Mar-a-Lago instead of the National Archives when Trump left office. The Presidential Records Act requires the preservation of memos, letters, notes, emails, faxes and other written communications related to a president's official duties.
Some longtime Republican critics of the party's direction under Trump saw the overwhelming and virulent GOP response as part of a dangerous loyalty to the former president over the law. Online statements denouncing the FBI's action have drawn a slew of comments declaring or anticipating "civil war."
People are "ready to fight . . . and the silence by some in the GOP, and the capitulation by others, does nothing to abate that type of rhetoric," said Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee who has been an outspoken critic of Trump. He said the most extreme rhetoric in response to the Mar-a-Lago search should be taken seriously.
"We saw what happened on January 6," he said. " . . . So all of this noise about, let's suspend habeas corpus, we're going to defund the FBI - this is all projection, all projection of how they would handle this situation if they were in power."
Others in the party dismissed suggestions the GOP reaction could fan extreme responses. "That's like saying everyone who has a 'Save the Planet' bumper sticker is going to blow up an oil tanker," said Rory McShane, a Republican strategist. "There's extreme rhetoric on both sides of the political spectrum."
RNC spokeswoman Danielle Alvarez suggested questions about party members' rhetoric are a distraction.
"It's outrageous that instead of asking tough questions of the White House and DOJ and demanding they answer for this abuse of power, the media is spending their time filtering through every single Republican reaction and asking if we agree," Alvarez said in a statement.
Many of the party's top leaders are among those most forcefully criticizing the FBI. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Calif., on Monday told Attorney General Merrick Garland to "preserve your documents and clear your calendar," saying that if Republicans take control of the House he will hold federal oversight investigations into the Justice Department.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, lashed out at McCarthy in an interview Tuesday. "Kevin McCarthy shoots his mouth off and creates a very dangerous situation by whipping up a bunch of radical people," he said. "Why? Because he's looking for some short-term political benefit by kissing up to Donald Trump. It's dangerous and irresponsible."
"Responsible adults stand back and find out the facts and measure their words carefully when there's a federal criminal investigation," he said.
Asked about the search at an event Tuesday, McConnell declined to weigh in, saying he was there to talk about the recovery from flooding in Kentucky. But later he issued a statement saying Garland and the Justice Department "should have already provided answers to the American people and must do so immediately."
Representatives for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee also did not respond to requests for comment.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa, ranking Republican of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was more measured than many in his party Tuesday, calling for "transparency" on Twitter.
"Transparency brings accountability & if the FBI & DOJ aren't transparent about raiding a former presidents home they risk further damaging their credibility," he wrote.
Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee had a darker message, telling people on Twitter that "Democrats raise your taxes then send the FBI to raid your house." Earlier they warned: "The IRS is coming for you. The DOJ is coming for you. The FBI is coming for you. No one is safe from political punishment in Joe Biden's America."
The dire tone was echoed Monday and Tuesday by GOP candidates in high-profile races. Adam Laxalt, the GOP nominee for Senate in battleground Nevada, tweeted, "We don't live in a 3rd world country." Blake Masters, the Republican Senate nominee in Arizona, said that "Everyone knows this was politically motivated. And that should terrify us all."
Maryland Republican gubernatorial nominee Dan Cox on Tuesday called the FBI search "criminal" and said that if elected, he would use the full force of government - including the state police and Maryland National Guard - to oppose President Biden's administration.
Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the GOP in New Hampshire, said the heated responses from candidates are "another reminder that when something happens that gives Republicans around the country an opportunity to show fidelity to Trump . . . you see almost all of them jumping at it." He expressed particular alarm at the notion - furthered by the New York Young Republican Club - that "we can just sort of suspend parts of the Constitution because we feel like it."
In its statement Tuesday, the organization said political persecutions called for more retribution than voting people out of office. Its list of purported wrongs included "the Big Steal" of the 2020 election and the "Fedsurrection" on Jan. 6, 2021, a reference to the false claim that federal agents - rather than Trump supporters - were behind the storming of the Capitol that day.
"Anyone involved in the listed political persecutions should be arrested and prosecuted with expediency, and in cases of extreme undue resistance, we recommend consideration of the suspension of the writ of Habeas Corpus," the statement read. A writ of habeas corpus is an order that brings someone before a court to determine if their detention is legal.
Cullen said he saw echoes of Trump's calls to jail his former Democratic rival for the presidency, Hillary Clinton, and his supporters' chants of "lock her up."
"If we can just disregard these kinds of civil liberties over what really amount to political disagreements, where does that end?" he asked, warning of a slide toward lawlessness and adding, "The French Revolution didn't happen in a day."
Many Republicans criticizing the investigation previously called for Clinton to be investigated - and pointed this week to the lack of charges against her as evidence of a double standard. Then-FBI Director James Comey said in 2016 he found no reason to charge Clinton, a former secretary of state, after an investigation into her use of a private email server.
A GOP strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be more candid also shared deep concerns about what could come next.
"If the president is prosecuted for crimes committed while in office, I am very concerned that this country could erupt in civil war," the strategist said.
Susan Benesch, faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, said when it comes to "dangerous speech . . . what matters most is how the language was understood by the people most likely to react. And on January 6, we learned that there were all too many people in this country ready to react with violence, because they saw it as necessary."
Jason Roe, a former executive director of the Michigan GOP, said there are "legitimate concerns" about the rhetoric stoking unfounded vitriol against the government. But he mostly shared Republicans' outrage at the search, suggesting the backlash "makes Trump stronger than he's ever been."
The Washington Post's Annie Linskey, Erin Cox and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.