WASHINGTON – Monday offered a chance for Republicans to back away from embattled former President Donald Trump. Instead, they doubled down in their support.
The GOP that for decades has stood by law and order dramatically condemned the FBI for the search of the former president's Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida as House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy vowed to retaliate against Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Justice Department.
"When Republicans take back the House, we will conduct immediate oversight of this department, follow the facts, and leave no stone unturned," he said in a tweet Monday night. "Attorney General Garland, preserve your documents and clear your calendar."
McCarthy has been working to solidify his MAGA bona fides since April, when reporting revealed he had said Trump should have resigned after the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021. Since then, he has courted the former president's approval as he hopes to be the next House speaker if Republicans win majority control of the chamber in November.
He wasn't alone. Several other House Republicans joined the chorus to defend Trump, while the former president and his protegés running for office raised money off the search.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a top leader of the conservative Freedom Caucus and ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, told his Twitter followers to watch him on Fox News on Monday night: "Reacting to the unprecedented raid of President Trump's home with @IngrahamAngle tonight. You won't want to miss it."
On the show, he called for Garland and Trump-appointed FBI Director Chris Wray to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Friday.
The messages on the House Judiciary GOP Twitter account were more intense, and some House Republicans called for defunding the FBI.
The Justice Department and FBI had not commented on the search as of early Tuesday evening.
Search deepens GOP shift
The statements are a further migration from the pre-Trump era of the Republican Party and a hair-trigger response from members of the GOP who want to keep their bonds with the former president, according to Mike Cornfield, an associate professor of political management at George Washington University who studies political rhetoric.
Republicans have been the party of law and order since the 1970s, with those three words mentioned in nearly every major GOP campaign since that time, he said.
"They remain committed to that slogan when it comes to border control and Democrats and the children of Democrats, such as Hunter Biden, but otherwise it's a selective application of the principle," Cornfield said.
The House Judiciary GOP account questioned whether the FBI had "better things to do than harass the former PRESIDENT?" and warned, "If they can do it to a former President, imagine what they can do to you."
Rep. Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House Republican, called it a "brazen weaponization of the FBI by Biden's DOJ against his political opponent." He reiterated McCarthy's point that House Republicans "will hold them accountable next year."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who has been on the receiving end of Trump's ire multiple times, issued a statement late Tuesday evening: "The country deserves a thorough and immediate explanation of what led to the events of Monday. Attorney General Garland and the Department of Justice should already have provided answers to the American people and must do so immediately."
Other Republican senators were fiery in their responses.
"At a minimum, Garland must resign or be impeached," Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley said in a statement. "The search warrant must be published. Christopher Wray must be removed. And the FBI reformed top to bottom."
GOP voters see search as 'political sham'
That sounds amenable to Pam Lombardi, a 58-year-old Republican voter in Panama City, Florida, who called the search a "political sham."
"They've been going after Trump for six years and nothing has come of it," she said. "Nothing will come of this, either."
But despite some voters and party leaders challenging the country's top law enforcement agencies, Lombardi still sees the GOP as the party of law and order. She sees a difference between Republicans supporting local law enforcement and challenging federal agencies.
"The FBI has become too political," she said.
A fellow Republican near Hartford, Connecticut, agrees.
Richard Toney, 64, said "retaliate" is the wrong word to use to describe Republican pushback to the search and warnings that House leaders plan to investigate the investigators if they gain majority control.
"I've had no faith in government agencies for at least 25 years," he said. "Yesterday's event was just a manifestation of a snowball running down the mountain."
That mountain is the increasing polarization in the country, he said.
"The country is going to self-destruct," he said.
That polarization has led to a redefining of law and order, according to Larry Bartels, political science professor at Vanderbilt University.
The issue of law and order has had a long, successful run in American politics, in part because it is conveniently flexible in its application, he said.
It started with former President Richard Nixon, who famously remarked that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal,” he said.
With polarized politics, “people firmly committed to one side increasingly convince themselves that any opposition must be illegitimate, even if it comes from individuals or institutions previously viewed as legitimate,” Bartels said.
Tom Richards, a 61-year-old voter in Silver Spring, Maryland, is sure it's his Republican Party that is still the party of law and order, despite GOP leaders rebuking the FBI, Justice Department and U.S. attorney general.
"Rank-and-file FBI agents do as they're told, but leadership is far too politicized," he said. "What was the FBI looking for? No one, including Republicans, seems to know the answer."
Joy Agueda Walla, 39, of Tulare County, California, agrees with lawmakers who say the search was politically motivated.
"I don't know what all other voters think about it, but this one thinks someone doesn't want (Trump) to run again or they want to keep him looking bad in the public eye," she said.
Cornfield, the political science professor, has another question: "Did the FBI not anticipate the firestorm this raid would set off?"
Supporters react: Trump loyalists descend on Mar-a-Lago as news breaks of FBI search
Candy Woodall is a Congress reporter for USA TODAY. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: GOP slams FBI and Justice Department over Mar-a-Lago search