Indignity Vol. 2, No. 66: What did the FBI know that pundits didn't?


Indignity Vol. 2, No. 66: What did the FBI know that pundits didn't?
US-POLITICS-TRUMP - Egrets search for food on the lawn of the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida. Photo: DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images

Unwarranted Speculation

I DON’T KNOW what will happen as a result of the FBI searching Donald Trump's private club and home in Florida, Mar-a-Lago, this week. It was, as everyone made sure to say, an unprecedented thing to have happened. It's hard to have opinions about the significance of something when you don't have any examples to properly compare it to.

At least, it's hard to have worthwhile opinions. The fallback position, generally, is to come up with an old opinion, or a generic one, or an opinion you think could be useful to you, and hope it turns out to apply.

"If DoJ has the goods on Trump, then charge him," the excitable right-wing national security journalist Eli Lake tweeted as soon as the news broke.

"All I can say is the FBI better have the goods," the former George W. Bush administration spokesperson and current 9/11 nostalgia artist Ari Fleischer chimed in.

Nevertheless, with no knowledge about the presence or absence of said goods, both of them ventured strong feelings about what it would mean if the FBI did not have them: "a line of no return" and "a disgrace," in Fleischer's estimation, and "partisan bullshit and an abuse of power," in Lake's ("on the anniversary of Nixon’s resignation," yet, as if the Justice Department had written the search warrant as a commemorative thinkpiece). It was pure, impassioned speculation about the wrongfulness of other people's speculation, a rush to judgment based on a hunch about a rush to judgment based on a hunch.

Rather than focusing on the unknown substance of the FBI investigation, other people focused on the unknowable effects that the unknown substance might bring about. "Trump and his allies made clear they see potential political benefit in the search by the FBI," the New York Times Trump-beat specialist Maggie Haberman tweeted. After more than six years of Donald Trump declaring everything that happens to him, including losing an election, to be a great victory and success, this seemed a little too credulous about the relationship between what the Trump camp says it believes and what it does believe.

Failed Democratic novelty political candidate Andrew Yang, now trying to launch a content-free third party, read the same line of analysis in the Politico Playbook the next morning and tweeted it out to amplify it:

“If they raided his home just to find classified documents he took from The White House,” one legal expert noted, “he will be re-elected president in 2024, hands down. It will prove to be the greatest law enforcement mistake in history.”

A political dilettante quoting an anonymous legal expert offering a definitive electoral prediction was a real mille-feuille of empty certainty. Yet with three days to think it over, David Brooks used his Times opinion column to express the same notion, that Republicans will be inspired by the raid to rally to Trump's side against an oppressive liberal "Regime":

There’s a lot we don’t know about the search at Mar-a-Lago. But we do know how the Republican Party reacted. The right side of my Twitter feed was ecstatic. See! We really are persecuted! Essays began to appear with titles like “The Regime Wants Its Revenge.” Ron DeSantis tweeted, “The raid of MAL is another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the Regime’s political opponents.” As usual, the tone was apocalyptic. “This is the worst attack on this Republic in modern history,” the Fox News host Mark Levin exclaimed.

"The investigation into Trump," Brooks wrote, "was seen purely as a heinous Regime plot."

Again: did Trump's defenders see it that way? Purely? Or did they just decide to describe it that way? Is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis sincerely trying to help strengthen Trump's campaign to overthrow the Regime in 2024, or is he observing the partisan formalities while he waits to climb over a legally entangled Trump and run for president himself? Does David Brooks believe, in general, that the internet is full of people who are not mad about things, but are laughing, actually?

The former president himself does not seem happy to have been raided by the FBI. He is clearly in more legal trouble than any president or ex-president has ever been in before. For all the speculation about what the raid might ultimately mean to the 2024 election or the fate of the republic, the background seemed straightforward: when he left the White House, Trump took papers that the federal government says are federal property; he reportedly resisted efforts to get him to return the papers; federal agents raided his house for the papers.

In the absence of facts beyond those, the noise became its own fact. "More than 36 hours have passed since the FBI showed up at Mar-a-Lago," CNN's journalism-commentary host Brian Stelter tweeted on August 9. "Officials have not explained why. Even though they have very good reasons for staying silent, the criticism is becoming deafening."

Here was the guiding maxim of cable news, ready to be cast in bronze, polished mirror-bright, and placed in the CNN lobby: Even though they have very good reasons for staying silent, the criticism is becoming deafening. By Thursday, Attorney General Merrick Garland heeded the call, stepping in front of the camera to say nothing specific about the investigation, beyond that he had personally approved the warrant.

Thursday night, enough leaks had developed for the Washington Post to report that "[c]lassified documents relating to nuclear weapons were among the items FBI agents sought" (though "sought" was not the same thing as "found"). By Friday, Breitbart had gotten a copy of the warrant—and published it with the FBI agents’ names unredacted—establishing that the investigation addressed, among other things, potential violations of the Espionage Act.

While events keep unfolding on reality's uncooperative timetable, everybody has their own interests to pursue. The Obama-endorsed smarm artist Yascha Mounk hastened to assure everyone that whatever his opinions turned out to be in the end, they would be wise and appropriate ones. Amid perfectly empty bromides, though—"The rule of law applies to everyone" or "Anyone declaring with certainty that it is either appropriate or inappropriate is getting ahead of themselves"—Mounck tipped his hand: "The best way to beat an authoritarian populist is at the ballot box, not by disqualifying him from running."

Here was a vision of tomorrow unburdened by yesterdays. All you need to do to get rid of Donald Trump is to beat him in an election. The FBI may be moving in on Trump, but the mainstream political imagination can't begin to get close to him.


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WE PRESENT INSTRUCTIONS for the assembly of a select sandwich from Salads, Sandwiches and Chafing Dish Recipes, Copyright 1916, now in the public domain for the delectation of all, written by Marion Harris Neil, M.C.A., former Cookery Editor, The Ladies’ Home Journal, author of How to Cook in Casserole Dishes, Candies and Bonbons and How to Make Them, Canning, Preserving and Pickling, and The Something-Different Dish.

1/2 pint (1 cup) shelled peanuts
2 cans sardines
Mayonnaise or boiled dressing
Buttered rye bread

Put the peanuts through a food-chopper and mix them thoroughly with the sardines, pounded to a paste; add sufficient dressing to hold together, and spread between slices of rye bread.

Cut in triangles and serve.

If you decide to prepare and enjoy this sandwich, kindly send a picture to us at

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