WASHINGTON (AP) — Former President Donald Trump’s indictment on charges of mishandling classified documents is set to play out in a federal court in Florida. But about a thousand miles away, part of Trump’s defense is well underway in a different venue — the halls of Congress, where Republicans have been preparing for months to wage an aggressive counteroffensive against the Justice Department.
The federal indictment against Trump, unsealed Friday, includes 37 counts, including allegations that the former president intentionally possessed classified documents, showed them off to visitors, willfully defied Justice Department demands to return them and made false statements to federal authorities about them. The evidence details Trump's own words and actions as recounted by lawyers, close aides and other witnesses.
The Republican campaign to discredit federal prosecutors skims over the substance of those charges, which were brought by a grand jury in Florida. GOP lawmakers are instead working, as they have for several years, to foster a broader argument that law enforcement — and President Joe Biden — are conspiring against the former president and possible Republican nominee for president in 2024.
“Today is indeed a dark day for the United States of America,” tweeted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, soon after Trump said on his social media platform Thursday night that an indictment was coming. McCarthy blamed Biden, who has declined to comment on the case and said he is not at all involved in the Justice Department’s decisions.
McCarthy called it a “grave injustice” and said that House Republicans “will hold this brazen weaponization of power accountable.”
Republican lawmakers in the House have already laid extensive groundwork for the effort to defend Trump since taking the majority in January. A near constant string of hearings featuring former FBI agents, Twitter executives and federal officials have sought to paint the narrative of a corrupt government using its powers against Trump and the right. A GOP-led House subcommittee on the “weaponization” of government is probing the Justice Department and other government agencies, while at the same time Republicans are investigating Biden’s son Hunter Biden.
“It’s a sad day for America,” said Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the House Judiciary Committee chairman who is a leading Trump defender and ally, in a statement Thursday. “God bless President Trump.”
Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs was more strident. “We have now reached a war phase,” he tweeted. “Eye for an eye.”
Democrats say the Republicans are trafficking in conspiracy theories, with potentially dangerous consequences. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, both Democrats from New York, issued a joint statement Friday urging calm around the Trump case, saying everyone should “let this case proceed peacefully in court.”
Recent Republicans rhetoric “not only undermines the Department of Justice but betrays the essential principle of justice that no one is above the commands of law, not even a former President or a self-proclaimed billionaire,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee.
Key elements of the GOP strategy are to discredit the prosecutors and investigate the investigators — a playbook that Republicans employed during Trump’s presidency as his own Justice Department probed his connections to Russia, and also used in April when Trump was charged in a hush money investigation in New York.
In the days leading to the New York indictment, House Republicans laid out a full-on campaign against Alvin Bragg, the Democratic district attorney in Manhattan who brought the case against the former president.
Charging that the prosecution was “pure politics,” Jordan held a field hearing near Bragg’s New York offices to examine what they said were his “pro-crime, anti-victim” policies. Jordan is also the top Republican on the weaponization subcommittee.
As special counsel Jack Smith was preparing this week to release the indictment, Trump's allies on Capitol Hill were working overtime to prepare the defense of the former president. Jordan issued a series of letters to the Justice Department, demanding documents related to his investigation into Trump’s handling of classified records. Jordan cited the recent report by special counsel John Durham that found that the FBI rushed into its investigation of ties between Russia and Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and routinely ignored or rationalized evidence that undercut its premise.
In the June 1 letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, Jordan requested information about the ongoing investigation in order to “ensure any ongoing investigations are not poisoned by this same politicization.”
Just as the indictment was unsealed on Friday, Jordan sent another letter to Garland, this time laying out testimony from a former FBI official who testified to the committee about the raid at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Jordan wrote that Steven D’Antuono, a former assistant director at the FBI’s Washington Field Office, told the committee the Justice Department “was not following the same principles” as previous raids.
Defending Trump also has the potential to ease tensions among House Republicans as they face their own troubles on Capitol Hill, after a conservative-led revolt over the recent debt ceiling deal divided the party this week and halted most legislation from passing on the floor.
But even if Republicans are able to shape public perception of the probes, there is one thing they cannot do — control the outcome of Trump's trial. The former president is at great legal risk, no matter what the public believes, under two indictments — and potentially more as prosecutors in Georgia and Washington investigate his actions leading up to the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Still, some Republicans maintain that the multiple indictments could help Trump improve his standing in polls of Republican voters and solidify the impression that the government is conspiring against him.
Republican Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina told CNN she believes the indictment “handed Donald Trump the nomination” in the 2024 GOP primary.
And as the House panel has ramped up its efforts to defend the former president, the word “weaponization” has taken root among Trump’s Republican allies. Nearly every GOP lawmaker used the term — as did a member of Trump's legal team hours before the charges were unsealed to the public.
“It puts a stamp of reality on something that really is unreal in terms of the weaponization of the Department of Justice,” said James Trusty, one of Trump’s lawyers, on ABC Friday morning. Trump announced later in the day that Trusty was leaving his team.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas tweeted that “the weaponization of our Department of Justice against enemies of the Biden admin. will do enormous damage to the rule of law & have a lasting impact.”
Cruz’s GOP colleagues in the Senate were more muted, with Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and others who have criticized the former president declining to weigh in on the indictment.
Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the only GOP senator to vote to convict Trump in both of his impeachment trials, was a rare voice of criticism. While Romney stressed that Trump is entitled to presumption of innocence, he said he believes the charges are serious and Trump brought them on himself.
“These allegations are serious and if proven, would be consistent with his other actions offensive to the national interest,” Romney said.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Rep. Jim Jordan is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, not the Senate Judiciary Committee.