HILLSBORO, Ohio — Unlike many who often defend President Donald Trump, I don't always see political motivations behind special counsel Robert Mueller III's investigation. But the raid on the home and office of Trump's longtime personal attorney brought flashbacks of a local incident with numerous parallels.
In 2011, Drew Hastings was elected mayor of Hillsboro. With no political experience, he was best known until then as a developer and an entertainer. Some of his social media posts have been condemned as insensitive at best, racist at worst. He uses salty language that has been called inappropriate for a public official. He was investigated for crimes in a probe he called a "witch hunt,"and his critics say he uses his office to enrich himself. His stated goal is to disrupt an entrenched political system.
Hastings' name might ring a bell. He spent most of his adult life living in Los Angeles and working as a stand-up comedian with some national success, including a Comedy Central special, two appearances on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and regular guest spots on the nationally syndicated "Bob & Tom Show."
He became disillusioned with La La Land — "At the end of the day the sun doesn't set in L.A., it just gives up and drops into the ocean with a bitter hiss," he says in one routine — and in 2006 he bought a small farm near Hillsboro. He began purchasing rundown properties in town to either flip or rent (including office space leased by the Times- Gazette). Eventually, he ran for mayor.
Hastings was successful at the ballot box but a lightning rod for controversy. One of his first orders of business was disbanding Hillsboro's 156-year-old fire department in favor of a contract with a nearby fire district, a process that involved noisy council meetings packed with opponents.
After upsetting a number of other apple carts in his new hometown, he was reelected in 2015. But shortly after, he faced a criminal investigation based on evidence gathered by his own police department, with which he had feuded since taking office. The probe — soon led by a special prosecutor from the state auditor's office — resulted in four felony indictments and became a national story.
"I'm only guilty of trying to represent our citizens without the consent of an established political structure," Hastings told the Associated Press, in Trump-like fashion.
The Hastings investigation started out looking into legitimate questions about a $500 refund he had received from the city in connection with suspicions of forgery, as well as a "theft in office" allegation over the use of city dumpsters. Citizens following all this didn't know what to think. Law enforcement had the benefit of the doubt — until a late-night raid on an apparently unrelated matter tipped public opinion in Hastings's favor.
In February 2016, law enforcement officials armed with a warrant conducted a 10 p.m. raid on Hastings' Hillsboro home, where his visiting father-in-law was ordered out of the house into the freezing night. The purpose of the raid, according to the search warrant, was to look for evidence of residency — one of the eventual charges against him was election falsification for not living where he said he lived — with investigators meticulously documenting the underwear of Hastings' wife, their young child's toys, and even the serial number of their commode. When the raid was reported, it was met with general outrage.
Likewise, the raid on Trump's personal attorney, apparently to probe issues far removed from the original Russian interference and collusion mandate, could well be a tipping point in Trump's favor. Most people, regardless of their political leanings, don't like it when it appears an investigation has become more personal than professional, veering off the beaten path to find something — anything — just to claim a win.
At Hastings' trial, the judge threw out two of the four charges and a jury unanimously acquitted Hastings of the others. He's still the mayor. Not surprisingly, Hastings sees in Trump a kindred spirit trying to make systemic changes against a "deep state" resistance that uses criminal investigations and political-correctness police to maintain the status quo.
As long as the investigation by Mueller and the actions of law enforcement stayed focused on their primary mandate, they were on solid ground. Now, after the raid on Trump's personal attorney, it appears to many that they are merely looking for a win on something — anything.
It will be an ironic development if overzealous law enforcement officials manage to make Trump something that he seldom succeeds in making himself — a sympathetic character.
Gary Abernathy, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, is publisher and editor of the (Hillsboro, Ohio) Times-Gazette.