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Image: Mar-A-Lago Club
Aerial View of Mar-A-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida on March 1, 2021.mpi34 / MediaPunch

The ‘unprecedented’ argument isn’t the winner the GOP thinks it is

Practically the entire GOP is blaming law enforcement for responding to alleged crimes, instead of the perpetrator who allegedly committed the crimes.


The first official confirmation that the FBI had executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago came, oddly enough, from Donald Trump himself. The Republican issued an odd, 340-word written statement, whining incessantly about a great many things, including modern precedent.

“Nothing like this has ever happened to a President of the United States before,” he wrote, conveniently omitting the word “former.”

Trump and his cohorts have experimented with a great many talking points over the last 10 days — some of which were discarded, all of which are unpersuasive — but the one line that practically every Republican has embraced is that the search of Trump’s property was “unprecedented.”

Rep. Mike Kelly had one of my favorite responses, arguing via Twitter, “For the FBI to raid a private citizen’s home is incredible; but to raid a former President’s home is unprecedented.” Private citizens’ homes are subjected to FBI search warrants all the time; there was no “raid”; and Mar-a-Lago is a private business — but at least the Pennsylvania congressman got the “unprecedented” part right.

Sen. John Cornyn had a related argument yesterday:

“We still don’t have all the facts to decide who is right and who is wrong on the merits of [Attorney General Merrick] Garland’s search warrant of POTUS 45’s home. What we do know is this is the first time in American history that such draconian measures have been employed against a former President.”

It was a notable missive, in part because the Texas Republican left open the possibility that the search warrant had merit, and in part because he described the search as “draconian” for reasons unknown.

But at the heart of the argument was an observation about precedent: The search was a “first” in American history.

The problem is not that the talking point is wrong. On the contrary, it’s the one Republican claim about the entire scandal that’s rooted in fact.

The problem, rather, is that it doesn’t help Trump nearly as much as the GOP likes to think.

The former president stands accused of illegally taking highly classified national security secrets to a glorified country club, and refusing to give them back. Federal law enforcement tried less confrontational means, but left with limited choices, the FBI had to show up at Mar-a-Lago’s door.

Republicans look at these circumstances and marvel at the fact that nothing like this has every happened before. Well, sure. But they’re blaming the wrong parties: The FBI search warrant was “unprecedented” because we’ve never had a corrupt, twice-impeached former president try to keep classified documents that didn’t belong to him before.

Either intentionally or as a result of partisan brain fog, practically the entire Republican Party is blaming law enforcement for responding to alleged crimes, instead of the perpetrator who allegedly committed the crimes.

As New York magazine’s Jon Chait summarized, “While it is factually true that there is no history of a former American president being raided by the Feds, these observations implicitly treat the FBI’s behavior as the source of the historic break. The reason Donald Trump is the first former president to be treated like a criminal is that he is the first former president who is a criminal.”

Every time Trump or one of his allies peddle the “unprecedented” talking point, we’re reminded anew that the former president’s alleged criminal misconduct is unique in the American tradition. If Republicans think this helps Trump, they’re mistaken.