Rarely in the annals of public controversy has so much certainty been expressed in the face of such great ignorance. With very few exceptions, the Republican Party has coalesced around Donald Trump and expressed the fierce conviction that the Department of Justice’s decision to serve a search warrant on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence was a grotesque abuse of power.
There’s a notable problem with this conclusion: The American public still hasn’t seen the search warrant. Trump’s lawyers have it, and they’ve described it in vague terms, but they have not released it. One of his attorneys, Christina Bobb, appeared on Real America’s Voice (an obscure far-right media network) and said that the warrant sought “classified documents, evidence of a crime as far as classified documents go,” and “presidential records.”
This disclosure—which corroborates disclosures by anonymous sources in the immediate aftermath of the search—tells us little of real value. The term classified documents encompasses a wide range of material, from documents that are relatively benign to documents that, if released into the wrong hands, could inflict real damage to the national security of the United States.
During my military career, I handled thousands of classified documents. More than once, I read an email or reviewed a document and wondered why it was stamped secret. Overclassification is a real problem in the military, and we keep confidential many documents that the public could see without consequence.
At the same time, I’d review other documents and immediately understand the reason for caution. Their disclosure could compromise military operations and cost lives. And I didn’t have access to anything like the sensitive documents that the president sees.
In short, Americans shouldn’t really know what to think about the search. We can hope that the momentous decision to search the former president’s residence met appropriate legal standards and merited the DOJ’s historic intervention. We can fear that the warrant represented either a politicized attack or an unnecessary law-enforcement escalation of a politically perilous investigation. But we simply can’t know if the DOJ’s actions were appropriate until we see their legal and evidentiary support.
A copy of the warrant won’t resolve the dispute, but it can help the public understand what’s at stake. The DOJ doesn’t release warrant applications (and the present application is reportedly under seal), but it does release the warrant itself—to the owner of the property its agents search. And that warrant will typically detail both the items sought and the federal criminal statutes relevant to the search.
Trump isn’t just the former president; he’s the current front-runner for the 2024 GOP nomination. He’s the once and potentially future president of the United States. And he holds in his hands a document that’s extraordinarily relevant to his fitness for office. A responsible politician would release that information to the public. Yet a “source close to Trump” told NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard, “No, we’re not releasing a copy of the warrant.”
The reason is obvious. Holding on to the warrant might be bad for the country—leaving us largely in the dark, fighting furiously over hypotheticals—but for now it’s very good for Trump.
To understand why, it’s important to understand how Trumpism thrives. Trumpism as a cultural and political movement depends a great deal on both the extraordinary loyalty of his supporters and the overreaction of his opponents. Each phenomenon feeds on the other.
The loyalty was apparent from the moment Trump confirmed the search. Without knowing anything about the reason for the search, the right exploded with rage. Trump didn’t have to rebut any allegations, excuse any embarrassing revelations, or even do anything more than express outrage at his alleged mistreatment; the right still rallied to his side.
Why release a document that might complicate the matter? As that same source told Hillyard, there is a “complete circling of the wagons” around Trump. He doesn’t need to be transparent to preserve his base.
At the same time, the refusal to release the warrant feeds frenzied speculation on the left. What is he hiding? How bad is it? That speculation, perversely enough, is good for Trump. Right-wing media outlets pick the most improbable allegations and use them to reaffirm the Republican contention that the left is unhinged. And the wilder they perceive the left to be, the more Trump’s supporters on the right see him as the only leader truly prepared to fight the enemies of the republic.
Make no mistake, recent examples of irresponsible speculation abound. The infamous Steele dossier, for example, led countless Americans to believe that Trump was a fully compromised Russian asset. The truth—that Trump campaign officials and allies had improper contacts with Russian officials and assets, and lied about those contacts—was bad, but it was never as lurid as the dossier claimed.
The result was a right-wing public that was inoculated against even the worst revelations in the Mueller report. If they weren’t as bad as the wildest allegations had implied, then—in their minds—Trump had won.
A similar dynamic may be unfolding now. Trump doesn’t have to release the warrant to maintain his support. The GOP is standing by his side. In fact, it’s locked arms so emphatically that it might cause possible Republican presidential contenders to think twice before deciding to challenge Trump.
At some point, Trump could still release the warrant, even if the GOP doesn’t waver. As bitter past experience dictates, conduct that is unacceptable but not quite as severe as Trump’s loudest critics had speculated is seen by his partisans as a complete exoneration. If the warrant rebuts the worst allegations, Trump wins.
We’re left with a grim bottom line: For Trump to be transparent is in the public interest, but that’s not his primary concern. He might let us see the warrant, but not when it’s good for the country. He’ll let us see it when it’s good for Trump, because “good for Trump” is the only standard that truly matters for the man and the cult he has made.