WASHINGTON - Donald Trump has given every signal that he's running for president in 2024. The FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida on Monday may only harden his resolve to jump in the race - and possibly speed up the timetable.
"If he wasn't running before, he is now," said a person close to the former president, who wasn't authorized to speak on the record. "It pisses him off that they can do this to him. One way to get it to stop is to control the government again."
As an active candidate, Trump could be in a stronger position to argue that the federal investigation amounts to a politically motivated attempt to damage him in a potential showdown with President Joe Biden.
Another incentive to run would be that, should he win, Trump would be insulated from prosecution owing to the Justice Department's long-standing practice of never charging a sitting president with a crime. He would also regain power to hire and fire the FBI and Justice Department officials who have great sway over whom to investigate and charge.
None of those realities are lost on Trump, the source said.
"They are terrified he's going to announce any day that he's running for president in 2024," Lara Trump, the former president's daughter-in-law, said on Fox News. "And this is a very convenient way to just throw a little more mud on Donald Trump as though they haven't already done enough."
A Trump lawyer, Christina Bobb, told NBC News that Trump and his legal team have been cooperating with authorities and that the FBI "seized paper" in its "unannounced raid." A source familiar with the matter said the search was tied to classified information Trump is alleged to have taken with him from the White House to his Palm Beach resort in January 2021.
Trump was the first to publicly reveal that his home had been searched. He wasn't there at the time, and he was seen Monday evening leaving his high-rise building in New York City. He issued a statement that cast himself as a target of "third world" tactics meant to undermine his possible candidacy.
Trump's allies quickly seized on the idea that he is being persecuted.
"All of a sudden, 30 agents descend upon Mar-a-Lago," Trump's son Eric told Fox News. "You know who this came from - this came from one place and one building, and that is the White House in Washington, D.C. They want to attack a guy who they view is the greatest threat - is Biden's greatest threat. And that is exactly what Donald J. Trump is."
A White House official told NBC News that the White House didn't have advance notice of the search.
No candidate for high office particularly wants to run while fending off a federal investigation. But in Trump's case, the escalating legal woes fit a narrative that he has spun since he announced his candidacy in 2015: that he's an outsider whose populist appeal threatens the political establishment.
"They've been after President Trump as a candidate, as president, and now as a former president," tweeted GOP South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Trump ally. "Using the criminal justice system in this manner is un-American."
At this early stage, it's difficult to predict the fallout from the unprecedented news that federal agents obtained a search warrant, entered a former president's home and opened his private safe. Sensing Trump's vulnerability, more Republicans may decide to challenge him for the party's 2024 nomination. The Republican National Committee has asked Trump not to announce his candidacy until after the midterm elections in November, said a person familiar with the matter who wasn't authorized to speak publicly.
"The FBI raiding Trump's beloved Mar-a-Lago rips the 2024 Republican primary wide open. The Trump era is over, and it's anybody's ball," GOP donor Dan Eberhart said. "The logjam of Republican candidates waiting to see if Trump was going to run just burst. There's no need for them to wait anymore. "
But there's another possibility: that the government's actions provoke a backlash that redounds to Trump's advantage. A chyron on Fox News demonstrated how Trump loyalists might try to capitalize on the development: "Biden's FBI ransacks home of potential 2024 opponent."
"The effect of this thing is it's going to make him a martyr," a former Justice Department official said, requesting anonymity to talk more freely. "It's going to elevate Trump and push people toward him."