Under the congressman’s questioning, the aide to a prominent Washington political figure tried to explain why the term “attack” to describe the forced shutdown of his boss’s computer server was more innocuous than it sounded.

With the fate of sensitive U.S. government information in question, the congressman was having none of it.

“With all due respect, the definition of an ‘attack’ that you have and the definition of ‘attack’ that I have—and I think most people have — are completely different,” the congressman says, his face in a frown and his voice skeptical. 

Another Democratic lawmaker out to get former President Donald Trump over his alleged mishandling of highly classified government documents? No.

The exchange took place not last week but in 2016. The subject of the questioning, at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was an aide to former U.S. Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. And the dogged questioner was Coastal Georgia’s representative in Congress, Earl “Buddy” Carter.

The Republican Carter’s robust endorsement of transparency and the rule of law six years ago in the case of Clinton’s emails was notably absent over the weekend, when the four-term congressman took the unusual step of calling for the impeachment of U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, who approved the FBI’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate last week.

In his weekly newsletter, Coastal Georgia’s four-term congressman called the FBI’s execution of a court-approved search warrant a “raid” and a “political stunt” and blamed President Joe Biden — not Garland, not the Trump-nominated FBI director Christopher Wray, not the Florida federal magistrate judge who signed off on the warrant — of a “level of attack against a potential future political opponent” that is “unprecedented” and “un-American.”

Wade Herring, a Savannah lawyer who is running to unseat Carter in in November, described Carter’s call for Garland’s impeachment as “hypocrisy” and “toadyism”— the latter presumably referring to the congressman’s widely-known loyalty to Trump — and in a statement implored Carter to retract what he called his “false statements” about the Mar-a-Lago search.

‘No one is above the law, including Hillary Clinton’

Asked yesterday by The Current how he squared his appeal for transparency and the rule of law in Clinton’s case six years ago but criticized the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago — and Garland’s approval of it — as “politically motivated,” Carter replied in writing:

“President Trump and his lawyers are cooperating with federal investigators. If he had sensitive information that was a risk to national security, then there would not have been an 18-month delay in action from the FBI. Merrick Garland is picking and choosing who is investigated, likely based on party affiliation, and has lost the trust of the American people.”

During the 2016 investigations into Clinton’s use of a private email server for official communications rather than using official State Department email accounts maintained on federal government servers, Carter set a high bar when it came to how sensitive government information should be handled.

Six weeks after the hearing of the House oversight committee — and just 11 days before the election in which Donald Trump would defeat Clinton — Carter praised FBI Director James Comey for announcing that the bureau would continue looking into the candidate’s use of a private email server for official government communications.

“No one is above the law, including Hillary Clinton,” Carter said in a statement. “I call on the FBI to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation.”

Upon further investigation, the FBI said that while Clinton had been “extremely careless,” she had not acted with criminal intent in her email practices and therefore, no charges would be filed. Two years later, in 2018, the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General said it had found no evidence of political bias in the decision not to prosecute the former secretary of state.

A year later, the State Department, following a three-year investigation, concluded that although more than three dozen individuals had sent classified information that reached Clinton’s email account, it found “no persuasive evidence of systemic, deliberate mishandling of classified information.”

Carter doubles down

Inconsistencies, even hypocrisy, are woven through our political life. But the weekend call by Carter for Garland’s head stands out because of what is at stake: the 2024 presidential election, the nation’s secrets, and the risk that in going to the political barricades for Trump, he risks trivializing a principal central to the constitutional order: No one — not even the U.S. president — is above the law.

What makes Carter’s impeachment demand surprising is partly its timing.

By the end of last week, the fulminations of many Republicans had subsided, as the unsealed court records showed agents had found 11 sets of classified information, including four sets of top-secret documents and seven other sets of classified information, according to a list of items seized in the search and unsealed by the federal magistrate judge on Friday.

One group of documents was described as “classified TS/SCI documents,” an acronym for “top secret/sensitive compartmented information” — one of the highest levels of secrecy that exists in the U.S. government. The Washington Post reported that some of the documents pertained to nuclear weapons. Trump rejected the report as a “hoax.”

Republicans also were reminded that senior U.S. officials previously have been investigated for improperly handling classified information, including David Petraeus, a C.I.A director during the Obama Administration, and Sandy Berger, a national-security adviser during the Clinton Administration. Both men eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges for unlawfully removing secret documents.

Despite precedent and the seriousness of what FBI agents discovered in Mar-a-Lago’s closets, however, Carter, with his call for Garland’s ouster, seems to have doubled down.  

Traditional party planks undermined

It is also striking that Carter’s impeachment call seems to discount, if not disregard, two traditional Republican planks.

The GOP has always prided itself as being more attuned to the global threats facing the U.S. and better defenders of its national security — capacities that are imperiled by the unauthorized disclosure of America’s secrets.

The party has also prided itself for the importance of law-and-order, a bedrock principle of the Republican Party, especially after it turned to the southern U.S. in the mid-1960s to harvest the support of white working-class and middle-class voters as they fled the Democratic Party over race. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush (who can forget Willie Horton?) won election on law-and-order planks.

Carter has yet to explain the political calculations behind his decision to push for Garland’s impeachment.

One hint, though, is that Carter did not use either of his two Twitter accounts to urge it. He opted instead for his weekly newsletter as the vehicle — an indication, perhaps, that with less than three months away from the election, it was intended mainly to appeal to his like-minded constituents in Coastal Georgia, where Trump beat Biden in 2020 by 55%-43%.

Another possible motivation for his attention grabbing, but in all likelihood ill-fated, call for Garland’s impeachment may be his fealty to Kevin McCarthy, who is a shoo-in to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives if, as expected, Republicans win back control of the chamber in the fall vote.

Carter’s declared ambition to be the next chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee depends on McCarthy’s approval. For the sake of his ascent on the congressional and party rungs, Coastal Georgia’s only congressman may have decided there is little to lose and a lot to gain in echoing Trump’s howls of protest about the search. After all, the former president remains the putative head of the party. 

Craig Nelson is a former international correspondent for The Associated Press, the Sydney (Australia) Morning-Herald, Cox Newspapers and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as foreign editor for The...

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