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The Memo: How the Trump saga is impacting the political landscape

The battlelines have been drawn as the saga of former President Trump and the FBI enters its second week.

Democrats are thrilled at the prospect of comeuppance for a figure who, as they see it, has dodged accountability for numerous past misdeeds. Republicans see a former president targeted for partisan reasons.

But two bigger questions also demand answers: how the investigation is affecting the political landscape right now, and what kind of impact it will have on November’s midterm elections.

First and foremost, Trump is back center stage, not just because of the FBI search on Aug. 8 but because of every new development that has followed — including the assertion from investigators that they found highly classified information at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago estate, and the revelation that he is being scrutinized for at least three possible crimes.

Trump’s renewed prominence has all kinds of ramifications.

It makes him the main focus of political news and debate at a time when many Republicans would have been happy to campaign on other issues, including inflation, crime and immigration, as the clock ticks down toward November.

Yet, at the same time, the controversy inflames Trump’s base, likely spurring fundraising efforts that had begun to lag and perhaps making some supporters more likely to turn out to vote.

For President Biden, too, the investigation into Trump is a double-edged sword. 

It helps Biden’s efforts to make the midterms, at least in part, a referendum on the GOP’s decision to tie itself so closely to Trump. But it also stomps on the news of the current president’s recent successes, including passing several key pieces of legislation.

Biden is expected to sign the landmark Inflation Reduction Act at the White House Tuesday — and there’s a very real prospect it will be a sideshow to the latest twists in the Trump drama.

On Monday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) argued against releasing the affidavit that buttressed their request for a search warrant for Mar-a-Lago. A new DOJ court filing claimed that such a release could “alter the investigation’s trajectory, reveal ongoing and future investigative efforts, and undermine agents’ ability to collect evidence or obtain truthful testimony.”

Meanwhile, the former president alleged that investigators conducting the search of his Florida resort had stolen three passports belonging to him, only one of which he said had expired.

Democrats believe the whole chain of startling events gives them a political advantage, not least because of the way Trump has remade the GOP in his own image.

The Republican nominees in several Senate races won their primaries by emphasizing their loyalty to him, and even some potential 2024 rivals for the party nomination have rallied to his side.

“The bottom line is that Democrats have a lot of ammunition against any Trump-aligned Republicans going into the fall,” said Democratic strategist Basil Smikle.

Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University, said that the drama “complicates matters a great deal” for Republicans now and in November.

“This looked like a good election for Republicans,” said Lichtman, who back in 2006 contested the Democratic Senate nomination in Maryland.  

“Biden’s approval ratings were low, Americans were unhappy with the economy — there was lots for Republicans to run on. And the worst case for them is not to be running on any of those things, but to instead be running on Trump’s grievances.”

Those with a more sympathetic view of the former president, however, contend that conservative grievances can have a power of their own.

According to this theory, the search and subsequent events have caused a closing of GOP ranks behind Trump, bolstering his preeminence within the party.

Barry Bennett, a senior adviser to Trump’s first campaign in 2016, argued that Attorney General Merrick Garland had, knowingly or otherwise, played into Trump’s hands. 

“The attorney general has managed to do something that no one has been able to do, and that is turn Trump into a victim,” Bennett told this column. “My guess is [Trump] has raised millions off of it.”

Bennett, who is these days sometimes critical of Trump, said that the search has slowed any erosion of Trump’s position within the party.

“I don’t know that it necessarily builds support,” Bennett said. “What it does is, it slows the half-life in terms of the deterioration of his support.”

But there are other complications to consider.

The initial reaction to the search among the most fervent Trump loyalists, inside and outside of Congress, was naked fury against the FBI. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) called for the bureau to be defunded, in a clear echo of the “defund the police” slogan favored by some campaigners for racial justice.

Such calls, though, don’t sit easily with a GOP more used to casting itself as the law-and-order party.

Even as the new developments come thick and fast, however, one overarching fact is clear.

Trump, for good or ill, is the central figure in the nation’s politics once again.

Todd Belt, the director of the political management program at the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, summed it up.

“Like anything involving Trump, it sucks all the oxygen out of everything else,” he said.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags 2022 midterms Allan Lichtman Barry Bennett Biden Donald Trump FBI Joe Biden Mar-a-Lago FBI raid Merrick Garland
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