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Republicans Are Rooting for Civil War

The distrust Trump sowed is bearing bitter fruit.
August 10, 2022
Republicans Are Rooting for Civil War
The Confederate battle flag flies at the South Carolina state house grounds July 8, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. S (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Executing a valid search warrant, FBI agents arrived in the morning to search the office. The word “unprecedented” was on everyone’s lips. They seized business records, computers, and other documents related to possible crimes. An enraged Donald Trump denounced the FBI and the Justice Department, saying not that they had abided by the warrant issued by a federal judge, but rather that agents had “broken into” the office.

The year was 2018, and Trump was livid about the FBI’s investigation into his longtime attorney/fixer, Michael Cohen.

At the time, many observers, including me, assumed that the investigation would yield bushels of incriminating documents about Trump. Cohen was his personal lawyer, after all, the guy who wrote the hush-money checks to porn stars and presumably had access to many of Trump’s dodgy or downright illegal acts. It didn’t turn out that way. Yes, Cohen was prosecuted and pleaded guilty to eight counts of criminal tax evasion, campaign finance violations (that was the Stormy Daniels piece), and other frauds. But Trump himself? Nothing. He skated while his faithful minion became a guest of the Bureau of Prisons in Otisville, New York. It was soon thereafter that we learned from Cohen that Trump keeps few records, shuns emails, and speaks not in commands but in Mafia-esque insinuations. Trump doesn’t give direct orders, Cohen testified, he “speaks in code and I understand that code.”

So, there may be less than meets the eye in those crates the FBI carted off from Mar-a-Lago on Monday. Or it could be a motherlode of incrimination. We don’t know, we can only speculate. But what is not open to doubt is that the Republican party, which seemed to be flirting with post-Trumpism just a few weeks ago, has now come roaring back as an authoritarian cult. Trump has not changed. But he has changed Republicans.

Consider 2018 again. When the FBI searched Cohen’s office, Trump was Trump. He raged like a banshee. He declared that it was “an attack on our country” and a “disgraceful situation.” He keened that “attorney client privilege is dead” and implied that he might fire then-Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Some Fox News bobbleheads treated the story as more evidence of a conspiracy to hurt the Dear Leader, but the network in general downplayed the event, devoting less air time to it than either CNN or MSNBC. Clearly that was intended to soothe the Trump partisans in the audience, but it was a far cry from the knee-jerk partisanship we see now.

As for the electeds, well, some Trump flunkies on Capitol Hill were echoing his complaints, but most were keeping silent while prominent Republicans were sending strong signals that firing Mueller would be out of bounds. The prevailing tone in Republican ranks was that the investigations, including Mueller’s, must be permitted to proceed according to the rules. Any interference would be unconscionable. Sen. Chuck Grassley, for example, told the Washington Post that it would be “suicide for the president to . . . talk about firing Mueller.” And Sens. Thom Tillis and Lindsey Graham teamed up with their Democratic colleagues, Sens. Chris Coons and Cory Booker, to propose the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act.

That was then. Four years later, the FBI has executed another warrant, this time to Trump’s office, and the Trump troops have leaped into battle mode. Betsy McCaughey, former New York lieutenant governor and New York Post columnist, tweeted, “The FBI is established by federal law. Its powers were increased under the Patriot act. What Congress creates Congress can destroy. When Republicans take back Congress, they should abolish the FBI, shut every field office, fire all staff, and start anew. #Trump #FBI #Newsmax.”

Rep. Paul Gosar was even more eager. “I will support a complete dismantling and elimination of the democrat brown shirts known as the FBI. This is too much for our republic to withstand @charliekirk11 @JackPosobiec @kelliwardaz @KariLake @andybiggs4az @GOPLeader @DonaldJTrumpJr.”

Anthony Sabatini, a Florida state representative and candidate for Congress, was prepared to dismantle the whole federal structure: “It’s time for us in the Florida Legislature to call an emergency legislative session & amend our laws regarding federal agencies. Sever all ties with DOJ immediately. Any FBI agent conducting law enforcement functions outside the purview of our State should be arrested upon sight.” That would go well.

Sen. Josh Hawley tweeted that “At a minimum, Garland must resign or be impeached. The search warrant must be published. [FBI Director] Christoper Wray must be removed. And the FBI reformed top to bottom.”

Trump is free to publish the warrant anytime he wishes. But Hawley presumably learned that at Yale Law School.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene chants, “Defund the FBI.”

Newt Gingrich suggests that the feds might have planted evidence at Mar-a-Lago.

The party that backed the blue and disdained the defund-the-police crowd now flips. Gingrich is channeling Johnnie Cochran. Trump may be an ignoramus and a clod, but he has the capacity to turn people inside out.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the likely next speaker of the House, tweeted a threat to the attorney general:

Now, as a substantive matter, McCarthy’s tweet is meaningless. The House of Representatives, along with the Senate, already exercises oversight authority over the Justice Department. The Judiciary Committee asks the attorney general to testify regularly. That’s how the system works. And if McCarthy is truly concerned about “following the facts,” Merrick Garland has nothing to fear. But the importance of the tweet is not its substance but its tone—the call for vengeance. McCarthy displays zero interest in whether Trump actually committed a crime. The clear message is “You’ve gone after our leader so we’re coming for you.” The merits of Garland’s actions are irrelevant. The facts are irrelevant. It’s war.

For some in the wooly precincts of the MAGA right, the call to arms was literal. As Vice reported, some Trumpists were explicit: “‘Civil War 2.0 just kicked off,’ one user wrote on Twitter, with another adding, ‘One step closer to a kinetic civil war.’ Others said they were ready to take part: ‘I already bought my ammo.’” Steve Bannon, who was pardoned for bilking Trump supporters who thought they were building a wall, declared that “This is war” and called the FBI the “Gestapo.”

Trump is a sick soul who cannot imagine a world in which people act on principle or think about the welfare of others. While in power, Trump wanted to use the FBI to punish his political opponents (“Lock her up”) and reward his friends (“Go easy on Michael Flynn”). He projects his own corrupt motives onto others and assumes that the FBI investigation is nothing but a Democratic power grab. It would be pathetic if he had not dragged an entire political party into the fever swamps with him.

This experiment in self-government requires a minimum amount of social trust to succeed. With every tweet that spreads cynicism and lies, with every call to arms that welcomes civil conflict, Trumpist Republicans are poisoning the nation they so ostentatiously claim to love.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].