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Week in politics: FBI investigates Trump for potential breach of the Espionage Act

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

The week that began with an unprecedented search of former President Trump's home ended with something even more shocking. The search warrant indicated the FBI was investigating a possible violation of the Espionage Act. Joining us to discuss this and other political events from the past week is NPR's senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Good morning, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Daniel.

ESTRIN: The unsealed warrant suggests that whoever was responsible for bringing those documents from the White House to Mar-a-Lago could have violated the Espionage Act and two other criminal statutes. What are the implications for Trump?

ELVING: Let's take this one step at a time and be cautious, because there's been a lot of loose talk and the stakes here are very high indeed. We have now the unsealed warrant for the search and the attachments to that warrant. So we know that highly restricted documents were removed from the White House. This is not a technicality or a marginal violation. Removing this information from what they call a secured compartmented information facility is a serious matter, and it can be a serious crime. That is why this search was conducted after repeated efforts to retrieve the information by less drastic measures had failed, measures that included lengthy negotiations and even a subpoena.

Now, let us note that we have seen no charges filed in this case, not as yet. We know the former president has said that it's all another witch hunt, and it's all OK because he declassified this material himself before leaving office. But that is not how it works. He cannot do that with a wave of his wand. So as it stands, the material is as classified as ever and is sensitive, and the former president is going to need another explanation for what's going on.

ESTRIN: But if this incident does lead to criminal charges, will that bring an end to the partisan split in this country? Couldn't Trump's backers downplay these laws and say they're essentially recordkeeping errors and that the Democratic administration just, you know, used them as a means to get at the former president?

ELVING: We have heard Republicans saying that, and they are likely to continue, but that position becomes less tenable as more facts come to light. Bookkeeping errors are one thing. Lawless use of information relating to national security is another. And if indeed, it does relate to nuclear weapons, that is an entirely different matter, politically speaking. Now, in all likelihood, many of these Republicans know that. Yes, they all pushed back on the earlier reports of the search last week and denounced it and echoed Trump. But the preponderance of information we have seen in the last 24 hours is more serious than we might have imagined. This is not like the Russia investigation from five years ago or the Ukraine military investigation three years ago. This is new and potentially more damning than that.

ESTRIN: Wow. Now, speaking of Trump's hold on the Republican Party, Washington State Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler has lost that state's primary. She was one of 10 Republicans in the House who voted in favor of impeaching Trump. So how has the rest of that cohort done?

ELVING: Not well. For starters, four of the six retired rather than seek another term. Trump was not the only factor in those decisions - I should say - four of the original 10 retired rather than seek another term. They had other reasons besides Trump, but he did matter. And of the remaining six, two have won their primaries. Three have lost their primaries. That leaves just one - the most important of all - Liz Cheney has her primary next week in Wyoming, and her vote for impeachment was only one of her perceived sins against Trump. She is also vice chair of the committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol. And often she's been the tip of that panel's spear in the public hearings. Her primary on Tuesday - her polls show her well behind her Trump-endorsed challenger. So watch that concession speech she makes next week. She has vowed to continue her fight against Trump beyond this year, which could include a challenge to him or one of his acolytes in 2024.

ESTRIN: Briefly, Ron, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has her primary next week also. What are her chances?

ELVING: This is actually a double-header in Alaska on Tuesday. It's a primary and also a special election to fill out the nonexpired term. Now, name recognition aside, Palin is not viewed favorably by most Alaskans, according to polls. There are two other candidates. And Alaska has a new ranked-choice voting system in place that lets voters rank the candidates in order of preference. So Palin will be the first choice on many ballots, but she's likely to be the last on many, as well. That makes it harder for her to emerge the final winner.

ESTRIN: NPR's Ron Elving, thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Daniel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.