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The politics of the search of Mar-a-Lago

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The FBI search of former President Donald Trump's Florida home was unprecedented. And as you might expect, it is stirring up a political firestorm. After the search last night, Trump called in to a rally for Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor who's now running for Congress.

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DONALD TRUMP: Another day in paradise. This was a strange day. You probably all read about it.

SUMMERS: Well, I certainly did. And to help us all make sense of the politics of that search and what it could mean, NPR's senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro is here. Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there, Juana.

SUMMERS: So searching the home of a president or a former president - it's a pretty big deal.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, it's an extraordinary step by the Justice Department. And there will likely have to be some further explanation of what the FBI was looking for or seized. And we know very little about that. You know, the Trump family says it was about documents for the National Archives, but we don't know that for sure. Or if there was more that they were looking for, we haven't seen the warrant.

And you'd think it's pretty serious that there would be a compelling reason for a judge to authorize this kind of a warrant. But we don't know and, you know - though that's not stopping Republicans from jumping to conclusions. They're accusing the Justice Department of playing politics here. You know - and yes, this is unprecedented, but so is Trump. We've never seen a president do what he's done or tried to do with power.

SUMMERS: Former President Trump is the subject of multiple investigations, both at the federal and at the state levels, and yet he is still heavily signaling that he will run again for president in 2024. What could all of this mean for his political future?

MONTANARO: Well, first, like with most things Trump, it's firing up the bases of both parties. Democrats are glad that Trump, in their view, is finally getting what he deserves, but Republicans overwhelmingly rallying around Trump at a time when Democrats have had some momentum recently. And Republicans think this could motivate their voters. For example, there are primary elections today. And in Wisconsin, a Trump-backed candidate for governor, Tim Michels, was using this to try and get out the vote. Here's what he told reporters.

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TIM MICHELS: It's scary to wake up this morning and see that the government has raided the house of the former president. If they can do it to the former president, they can do it to anybody, and that is very concerning. What can you do about it today? Today you can go vote and let your voice be heard.

MONTANARO: Trump has built his political brand off of grievance and his own victimhood. It helps him motivate voters, helps him raise money. And Republican strategists expect him to do the same with this. They think it'll actually boost him just when his once-ironclad grip on the Republican Party had appeared to be loosening after that first round of January 6 committee hearings.

SUMMERS: OK. So their view is that Trump could actually benefit from this. But is there a chance that this could actually wind up hurting him?

MONTANARO: You know, I think it's really going to depend on what the FBI was looking for or got out of this search because, frankly, Trump has had a string of bad news lately - court losses, more investigations, his image being dented by that January 6 committee. So it's possible, when all the dust settles on this, that Republican base voters will think that Trump is just too much of a risk. And that's in addition to the fact that if he were to win the presidency in 2024, he'd be 78 years old, politically weaker than a first-term president because he'd only be able to serve one more term.

SUMMERS: We've already heard a great deal of reaction from elected officials. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy wants to investigate the Justice Department's moves here. What do you make of the response among Republican electeds?

MONTANARO: Well, really just shows how much Republican elected officials don't want to upset Trump's base despite any potential wrongdoing. Now, not every Republican is jumping to rally around Trump. Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, for example, put out a statement tonight saying that the country deserves a thorough and immediate explanation of what led to the search, and he said that Attorney General Garland should already have provided answers and is calling on him to do so immediately. That's in line with other more moderate Republicans, like Maryland Governor Larry Hogan.

Now, the House is a different story. With Republicans there, it's all MAGA all the time. And you can bet that if they do take over the House this fall, they're going to launch investigation after investigation into the Biden administration, whether it's about this raid, Hunter Biden's laptop or anything else. But the Republican reaction overall shows once again they're more faithful to Trump than to key U.S. institutions that are vital to democracy.

SUMMERS: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thank you.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.