GOP contorts itself in defense of Trump as new FBI search details emerge

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While some GOP lawmakers acknowledged Friday that a scenario in which Trump withheld nuclear-related documents would be problematic, House Republican leaders are still rallying behind him and suggesting without evidence that President Joe Biden sought to weaponize DOJ against a political rival.

Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the House GOP Conference chair, accused Biden and his appointees of “complete abuse and overreach of [their] authority” and “targeting their political opponents,” adding that Trump is Biden’s “likeliest” opponent in the 2024 presidential election.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who warned Garland this week of aggressive GOP oversight efforts following a likely takeover of the chamber this fall, reiterated that the attorney general “has a lot of explaining to do.”

But other GOP national security hawks were notably more restrained. As new information emerged about the circumstances behind the FBI search, the contrast grew starker between Republicans advancing a knee-jerk defense of the former president and those who are simply calling for additional disclosures from DOJ.

Among the senior Republicans acknowledging that it’s possible the presence of highly classified information at Mar-a-Lago would be a genuine national security concern was Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.

Responding to reports that the documents contained information related to U.S. nuclear weapons, Turner still said his opinion on whether the search was justified “depends on what the nuclear information is.” Turner said earlier this week that the only grounds for a search of a former president’s home would be the existence of a serious national security threat, but he declined to go that far on Friday.

“You can say ‘nuclear weapons.’ But there are things that are highly, highly classified, there are things that are not extremely classified but are nonetheless classified,” Turner said, adding that he’s skeptical “anything that just has the umbrella of nuclear weapons in it … would rise to the level of an immediate national security threat.”

Turner was also one of several Republicans who’d lambasted DOJ earlier this week to reorient his criticism from the decision to search Mar-a-Lago to the process the department used: “There were many other options available to them … besides raiding Mar-a-Lago and spending nine hours there.”

Some Republicans are leaving open the possibility that Trump acted inappropriately. In an interview, Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), an Intelligence Committee member, said it was important for the panel to glean additional information and acknowledged that mishandling of sensitive classified information would be a serious violation.

“I mean, if he had actual Special Access Programs — do you know how extraordinarily sensitive that is? That’s very, very sensitive. If that were actually at his residence, that would be a problem,” Stewart said. “But we just don’t know that. So let’s find out.”

“When you get to compartmentalized classified spaces, it gets more serious,” added Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a centrist and former FBI agent, encouraged his GOP colleagues to “be responsible and measured right now” in how they’re responding to the Mar-a-Lago search.

Republican leaders also expressed support for rank-and-file FBI agents and condemned Thursday’s attack on an FBI building in Ohio. That attack was perpetrated by a man who was at the Capitol during the riot by Trump supporters on Jan. 6, 2021, and was reportedly motivated to attack FBI employees because of the search warrant on the former president’s residence.

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats remained circumspect. Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not yet commit to any congressional investigations, saying she had no more information than was publicly available.

But she added that “if the nature of these documents is what it appears to be, this is very serious,” seemingly referring to reports that the documents were linked to nuclear information. “There are laws against the improper handling of this material. There are laws against that. We have to recognize that.”

House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) — whom Republicans called on to join in their inquiries to the FBI — suggested that the circumstances surrounding the Mar-a-Lago search warrant could be an area of inquiry for his panel.

“The protection of classified information, and particularly the protection of sources and methods, is an issue of the highest priority for the Intelligence Committee, and as we learn more, we will responsibly discharge our oversight responsibilities,” Schiff said in a statement.

Ahead of the search warrant’s release, Trump repeatedly posted on his Truth Social platform to downplay reports that potential nuclear-related information may have prompted the Mar-a-Lago search.

“Nuclear weapons issue is a Hoax, just like Russia, Russia, Russia was a Hoax, two Impeachments were a Hoax, the Mueller investigation was a Hoax, and much more. Same sleazy people involved,” Trump wrote, tying his latest exchange with law enforcement to longstanding and oft-repeated grievances.

He later posted a baseless claim that former President Barack Obama had held onto classified material related to nuclear weapons after leaving office, using Obama’s middle name of Hussein. The National Archives and Records Administration affirmed in a statement later Friday that the records Trump had referred to were not classified and are not under Obama’s control, in accordance with the Presidential Records Act.

Members of the pro-Trump House Freedom Caucus had scheduled an event of their own Friday morning to blast the DOJ moves this week but later canceled it, citing scheduling conflicts.

Olivia Beavers, Nicholas Wu, Sarah Ferris and Jordain Carney contributed to this report.

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