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As Trump May Face Espionage Charges, Rand Paul Calls for Repeal of Espionage Act

Though there are good reasons to call for Espionage Act reform, Republicans like Paul likely want impunity for Trump.

Sen. Rand Paul speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on April 26, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

As details emerge surrounding the boxes of documents that the FBI uncovered at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence, far right Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) has called for a repeal of the Espionage Act, a law that federal officials may use to prosecute Trump.

On Saturday, Paul wrote in a tweet that the Espionage Act — which is used to prosecute spies and those who gather and refuse to return sensitive information that relates to national defense — is an “egregious affront to the 1st Amendment” and that it has been “abused from the beginning to jail dissenters of WWI.”

Free speech advocates have long called for reforms to the Espionage Act, as the World War I-era law has been used to prosecute whistleblowers, including figures like Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning, who have leaked information about American war crimes perpetrated by the military abroad.

However, the timing of Paul’s tweet, just a few days after the FBI search, suggests that he may be calling for the repeal of the Espionage Act due to Trump’s potential legal troubles in relation to the top secret documents that he smuggled to Mar-a-Lago after leaving office. Holding onto classified documents — and concealing them from federal investigators — is illegal.

Paul has been outspoken against the FBI’s search. “The FBI raid on President Trump was approved by Director [Chris] Wray,” Paul wrote on Twitter shortly after the raid. “Today’s raid is outrageous and unjust, but predictable.” Trump had appointed Wray to lead the FBI when he took office, but their relationship eroded when Trump began to believe that Wray was not sufficiently loyal to him.

If Trump is indeed charged under the Espionage Act, it would be the first time that a president has faced scrutiny under that law.

Paul’s call to repeal the Espionage Act came as other Republicans were loudly condemning the investigation, claiming that it is politically motivated, though commentators have said that failing to investigate the documents would be the truly politically motivated move. Legal experts say that the FBI has been relatively soft on Trump throughout the investigation.

Still, far right Republicans have called for the FBI to be defunded and replaced with an agency that is controlled by the far right.

Like the calls to defund the FBI, experts say that there is weight to Paul’s call to abolish the Espionage Act. But if such demands are motivated by bad faith views, the laws or agencies that the right wing calls to abolish could be replaced with institutions that even further favor the far right.

In this case, it seems as though Paul is likely joining his fellow GOP lawmakers in calling for impunity for Trump, as the party has done for over a year in relation to his role in inciting the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

Government watchdogs and advocates for democracy have indeed called for Trump to be prosecuted for trying to overturn the 2020 election or for a variety of other crimes that he appears to have committed, but the right has doggedly lined up behind Trump to ensure that he doesn’t face consequences. After all, Senate Republicans voted against convicting Trump during both of his impeachment proceedings, despite massive amounts of evidence against him.

Meanwhile, Trump’s most loyal followers have responded to the FBI search by threatening violence and calling for civil war. One Trump loyalist executed an attack on an FBI office in Cincinnati, Ohio, demonstrating that some right-wingers are willing to enact violence if Trump faces penalties for his behavior.

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