WASHINGTON — Republicans struggled to come together on how to respond to the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago as it emerged Friday that federal law enforcement officers had recovered top secret files from former President Donald Trump’s Florida home.
They were divided over whether to attack the nation’s top law enforcement agencies and how aggressive to be in those attacks.
Publicly, Trump’s allies continued an aggressive push to portray the former president as a political target while sending urgent-sounding fundraising appeals to supporters. But privately, some advisers around Trump, unsure about what the FBI might have recovered, began quietly cautioning fellow Republicans to dial down their statements.
On Capitol Hill, a group of conservative Republicans known as the House Freedom Caucus — many of whom dined with Trump at his Bedminster, New Jersey, club Tuesday and denounced the FBI search as a sign that the Biden administration was turning the country into a “banana republic” — canceled a news conference scheduled for Friday morning. They had planned to further attack the Department of Justice.
That decision, publicly attributed to a scheduling conflict, came after a gunman’s attack on an FBI office in Cincinnati on Thursday afternoon and as more details emerged about Trump’s possession of classified documents.
Instead, the Republican lawmakers addressing the media Friday were members of the House Intelligence Committee, who delivered a more nuanced message, saying they remained supportive of law enforcement and underscored their desire to maintain the FBI.
Still, they said that tough questions remained for Attorney General Merrick Garland about his decision to take the bold step of ordering a search of the former president’s home, and they promised to hold the Justice Department accountable.
Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, the ranking Republican on the committee, denounced comments from fellow Republicans, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who have called on Congress to “defund the FBI” before having a full understanding of what officers were seeking. (Greene has begun wearing a “Defund the FBI” hat.)
Another House Republican, Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, went so far in the immediate aftermath of the search as to write on Twitter, “We must destroy the FBI.” (Gosar avoided the FBI search Friday, devoting his Twitter account to other subjects.)
By contrast, Turner said pointedly Friday: “We support our men and women in uniform. And we request that anybody who’s made outrageous statements like that, that you question them and not us.”
After a federal judge unsealed the warrant authorizing the search of Mar-a-Lago and an inventory of items removed from the property by federal agents, Republicans followed different strategies in responding. The documents showed the FBI had retrieved 11 sets of classified documents, including four sets of top secret documents, as part of an inquiry into potential violations of the Espionage Act and two other laws.
While the Republicans said they all stood by Trump, some embraced a toned-down response.
“I’m not for anything that’s critical of law enforcement,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. “On the other hand, this is a very unusual situation, and the DOJ and the FBI ought to come up here and answer questions. It just seems to me this was excessive and over the top.”
Cole said he was “willing to listen” to what the Justice Department had to say.
Not so for Greene.
On the Capitol steps, Greene told a flock of reporters she planned to march into the building to introduce articles of impeachment against Garland, whom she accused of “political persecution” of Trump.
“The whole purpose of this is to prevent President Trump from ever being able to hold office,” she said.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a staunch ally of Trump, similarly brushed off questions about Trump’s handling of top secret documents, citing the former president’s claim that he had declassified the documents retrieved by the FBI.
“Come on, he’s the ultimate classifier and decider,” Jordan said. “Everyone knows this is ridiculous. Everyone knows it.”
Those comments were a far cry from Turner’s message hours earlier, when he told reporters: “The issue of the handling of classified information is an issue that, of course, our committee deals with and that we’re very concerned with.”
For their part, Democrats — whose intraparty tug of war over whether and how to reform police departments has been used against them by Republicans to portray the party writ large as wanting to “defund the police” — seemed to welcome the opportunity to turn the tables.
“While the other side wants to defund the FBI, we want to fund our kids’ future,” Rep. Tim Ryan, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Ohio, said on the House floor while debating a spending measure Friday.