Georgia Today: Georgia A Major Player In Trump's Second Impeachment Trial
On Georgia Today, GPB political reporter Stephen Fowler discusses Georgia's role in former President Trump’s second impeachment trial, and whether there could be criminal charges tied to Trump’s interference in the presidential election.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. It's Friday, Feb. 12th, 2021. For months, Georgia has been the center of the political universe and that's still the case, judging by how prominently it's factored into former President Trump's second impeachment trial.
Madeleine Dean: In Georgia, a state Trump had counted on for victory, his conduct was perhaps the most egregious.
Steve Fennessy: Congresswoman Madeleine Dean is one of the impeachment managers arguing that Trump incited violence leading up to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6th. Speaking on Wednesday during the trial, Dean pointed to Trump's efforts to pressure Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to find enough votes to overtake Joe Biden, who won the state.
Madeleine Dean: ...the president of the United States telling a public official to manufacture the exact votes needed so he can win. Senators, we must not become numb to this. Trump did this across state after state, so often, so loudly, so publicly.
David Schoen: This trial will tear this country apart, perhaps like we have only seen once before in our history.
Steve Fennessy: That's attorney David Schoen, who lives in Atlanta. Schoen is a prominent civil rights attorney who most recently represented Roger Stone, a Trump ally, on charges that Stone had obstructed a congressional investigation. Schoen is one of the lawyers representing former President Trump in his second impeachment trial.
David Schoen: They say you need this trial before the nation can heal, that the nation cannot heal without it. I say our nation cannot possibly heal with it.
Steve Fennessy: To discuss Georgia's role in the impeachment trial, I'm joined by GPB political reporter Stephen Fowler. So, Stephen, the last time you and I spoke for an episode of Georgia Today, it was Jan. 7th, a little over a month ago, one day after the pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol.
Rioters: [chanting] Treason! Treason!
Steve Fennessy: So here we are now. And the scene of the crime is now the scene of former President Trump's second impeachment trial. But in this trial, we already kind of know which way the jurors are going to come down on, don’t we?
Stephen Fowler: Yeah, you know, it would take 17 Republican senators to convict or to vote to bar Trump from holding public office ever again. And it's not going to be 17. Of course, we have no idea knowing which way the winds are going to blow. And, you know, there's still time for some sort of something to happen for people to change their minds. But we only saw six Republican senators vote to say that the impeachment trial was constitutional. So it's a foregone conclusion. But obviously there are members of the House and the Senate that still feel that putting this on trial for the country to see is important.
Jamie Raskin: My name is Jamie Raskin, and it's my honor to represent the people of Maryland's 8th Congressional District in the House and also to serve as the lead house manager.
You will not be hearing extended lectures from me because our case is based on cold, hard facts.
Stephen Fowler: Even if it doesn't result in a conviction of the former president of the United States, there are takeaways from seeing the horrors and the chaos of Jan. 6th that will move the needle somewhere with something. And it remains to be seen what.
Jamie Raskin: The president of the United States is forbidden to commit high crimes and misdemeanors against the people at any point that he's in office. Indeed, that's one specific reason the impeachment conviction and disqualification powers exist: to protect us against presidents who try to overrun the power of the people in their elections and replace the rule of law with the rule of mobs.
Steve Fennessy: And for Georgians specifically who may have grown fatigued, what happened in Georgia is to a large degree or significant degree anyway, one of the reasons why we're having an impeachment trial.
Stephen Fowler: Right. So the weekend before the Jan. 5th runoff, President Trump made a phone call to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, asking him to find enough votes to overturn the election.
Donald Trump: I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have.
Stephen Fowler: He went on and on and on about all these false claims of election fraud.
Donald Trump: You know, the people of Georgia know that this was a scam. And because of what you've done to the president, a lot of people are going out to vote and a lot of Republicans are going to vote negative because they hate what you did to the president.
Stephen Fowler: Brad Raffensperger, the very hard right capital “R” Republican, capital “C” conservative secretary of state, said as much to the president and really pushed back against these claims.
Brad Raffensperger: Mr. President, you have people that submit information and we have our people that submit information. And then it comes before the court and the court then has to make a determination. We have to stand by our numbers. We believe our numbers are right.
Donald Trump: Why do you say that? I don't know. I mean, sure, we can play this game with the courts, but why do you say that? First of all, they don't even assign us a judge.
Stephen Fowler: There was this just shock by a lot of people that, you know, at this far in the game, this point in the game, nothing President Trump could do to shock people. And yet here it was. You know, he was on tape. I — you know, there are many things that he said and did or you read about in The New York Times or The Washington Post that, you know, sources on the inside said X, Y, Z thing. But here you had, you know, audio of the president saying and doing and pushing these things. And so there was this sense of shock and outrage that he would try to push an elections official to overturn things in his favor when he had been doing as much through the courts and through surrogates making these claims. But this was just really a direct frontal assault on it. And so that's one of the few things that made it into the articles of impeachment for the second round of things. And we heard on the Senate floor the House impeachment managers make mention of Georgia several times, both of the call of Gabriel Sterling saying that somebody is going to get hurt, somebody is going to get killed when this happens.
Gabriel Sterling: … all gone too far. All of it.
Steve Fennessy: Gabriel Sterling is — is a deputy under Brad Raffensperger who's the voting implementation manager and also a Republican.
Gabriel Sterling: Mr. President, it looks like you likely lost the state of Georgia. We're investigating. There's always a possibility, I get it. And you have the right to go to the courts. What you don't have the ability to do — and you need to step up and say this — is stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence. Someone's going to get hurt. Someone's going to get shot. Someone's going to get killed. And it's not right.
Stephen Fowler: It wouldn't be a stretch to say that without this call to Georgia and without this just singular obsession on Georgia's election results and proving fraud, that many of the other consequential events up to and including impeachment would not necessarily be a case. So, yeah, Georgia is still the black hole at the center of the political universe, sucking everything in.
Steve Fennessy: Yeah, and up to and including also the Jan. 6 rally and speech that he held, which — which was followed by the storming of the Capitol.
Stephen Fowler: Yeah. And we have seen that there were several people with Georgia ties that were there.
Newscast: At least eight people with Georgia ties have now been arrested in connection with the riots at the U.S. Capitol last month.
Stephen Fowler: One facing a judge today, we saw a south Georgia lawyer get arrested for his role in it. And just this week, there was an 18-year-old teen from Milton that was put into custody from the FBI.
Newscast: All new tonight, details of the criminal complaint against a metro Atlanta 18-year-old charged in connection with the U.S. Capitol riot. The FBI's Atlanta office reports Bruno Joseph Cua of Milton was arrested Friday. The criminal complaint includes screenshots of videos from Jan. 6, apparently showing Cua on the Senate floor. The FBI also refers to video he uploaded to his personal Instagram declaring, “Yes, for everyone asking, I stormed the Capitol.”
Stephen Fowler: They had security camera footage. It showed him shoving a Capitol police officer. And he's the youngest person so far to be charged in connection with this.
Steve Fennessy: The FBI has so far announced well over 100 arrests nationwide, and presumably there's going to be hundreds more. So we can probably expect that there will be more Georgians swept up in this, right?
Stephen Fowler: Yeah. And I mean, one of — one of the good and bad things about what happened is that there were so many photos, there were so many videos. The social media site Parler, that was a favorite of Trump supporters after, you know, Twitter was cracking down on conspiracies and things — somebody went and scraped all of the videos posted on that site, especially from Jan. 6th. And Parler didn't scrub the metadata from it. So what that means is law enforcement and researchers and journalists and others could identify where those videos were taken to show that some of them were inside of the Capitol, but also link it back to real people, because for every video of somebody, you know, standing on the Senate floor of the Capitol, those same accounts would be posted from, you know, somebody's home in West Virginia or something that makes it a little bit easier to identify. So there's definitely going to be more to come on that front.
Steve Fennessy: Just ahead, as we continue to learn the extent of former President Trump's interference in Georgia's election, could there end up being criminal charges? This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: It's Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. We're talking about the second impeachment trial against President Trump and Georgia's connection to it. Fulton County’s district attorney has asked state officials to preserve documents as part of a probe into President Trump's attempts to influence the 2020 election results here in Georgia. Potential crimes could include conspiracy, solicitation of election fraud, even racketeering. I'm joined by GPB political reporter Stephen Fowler to discuss what this might mean.
Stephen Fowler: So I mentioned the call between President Trump and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Trump also called Gov. Brian Kemp at one point, urging him to invoke a special session where legislators could maybe vote to send an alternative slate of electors for President Trump to the Electoral College. President Trump also called a high-ranking law enforcement official that was overseeing a signature audit in Cobb County to do things. President Trump also had contacts indirectly with the attorney general's office — Attorney General Chris Carr — because that office defended the state in several of these frivolous failed lawsuits seeking to overturn the elections and things.
And so Fani Willis is the new Democratic district attorney in Atlanta. And so she sent a letter to the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state and attorney general, saying that there is a criminal investigation into attempts to influence the 2020 election. Now, Steve, none of this mentions Donald Trump by name, but he's the orange-haired elephant in the room, so to speak, because of this call that he made to the secretary of state and to the governor. But also, there are other things that could come out in this criminal investigation. I mean, she mentions that there are potential crimes like racketeering and conspiracy and giving false statements to state or governmental officials, which is interesting because that gets into some of these hearings that we saw in the state House and Senate where Rudy Giuliani came in, was talking about suitcases full of ballots and other things that have been debunked. So we don't really know the full scope of what this investigation is going to be. But because all of these things happened in Atlanta and in Fulton County, she has jurisdiction to launch a criminal probe into efforts to sway the election.
Steve Fennessy: And, of course, a criminal probe means there could be criminal charges.
Stephen Fowler: Yeah, because, you know, the — there was debate in Washington and in the Senate about can you convict a former president and what sort of crimes and, you know, pardons and the other sort of thing like that. But if the district attorney in Fulton County says you violated state law, nobody can help you there except for the state Board of Pardons and Paroles. You know, Brian Kemp couldn't waltz in there and say, you know what? We forgive you for trying to overturn the election. So that's got some people's, you know, the — the eyeball emoji popping up of people seeing things. And this isn't the only investigation on a criminal level that Trump is facing. In New York, there's a Manhattan D.A. that's looking into some financial things, as well as the state attorney general looking into things. So there are some places where private citizen Donald J. Trump might be able to face some consequences if it's found to have committed a crime.
Steve Fennessy: Right. And — and that's not — those aren't the only inquiries that are ongoing right now. This week, we also heard about Brad Raffensperger, Georgia secretary of state's office, launching his own inquiry into that — that call. So how is he — he — he's investigating something that happened to him? How does that work?
Stephen Fowler: Well, so the state election board is the authority for investigating potential state election law violations or election board rule violations. And the SEB is chaired by the secretary of state. And so after the November election, there were, you know, dozens and dozens of complaints filed, many of them, you know, kind of out there. But what happens is the state election board initiates a case and there are about two dozen investigators that work for the secretary of state's office that are sworn law enforcement officials that then investigate these claims of law violations.
Steve Fennessy: So we have the new Fulton County D.A., Fani Willis, launching a criminal probe. We have the state elections board looking as well into Donald Trump's call to Brad Raffensperger. And then we also have state Republicans here in Georgia who are now in session talking about changing the way we conduct our elections. What's on the table here?
Stephen Fowler: Well, first, it's important to remember that Georgia for a long time has been a Republican state: Republican governor, Republican secretary of state, Republican-controlled legislature. Many of the election laws that are in place, including the one with a new voting system for ballot marking devices, were written and endorsed by Republicans. So all of that said, once Democrats won the presidential race and flipped both U.S. Senate seats and the aftermath of that, some Republicans said, “Uh, you know what? We actually need to change some of these voting laws because of, uh, reasons.”
And some of those reasons they say, again, are kind of baseless claims of fraud. They say that there's too many people that voted absentee that they think shouldn't have voted absentee or been allowed to vote at all, and that there wasn't enough being done to have oversight in the process and have observers. And so in the days after the November election, some Republican lawmakers said, we are going to fix this in the Legislature. And what we've seen so far is a raft of bills and proposals, in the state Senate mainly, aimed at cracking down on voting rights and kind of making it harder for all people to vote: not just Democrats, not just nonwhite voters, but really many of these are just blanket across the board, makes it harder to vote.
Steve Fennessy: Had Donald Trump carried the state of Georgia, would we be talking about this right now?
Stephen Fowler: If Donald Trump had won Georgia's electoral votes and if David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler were still Georgia senators, you probably wouldn't see these bills in the same way. It's — it’s kind of nakedly partisan. One of the proposals would ban the use of secure 24/7 monitored drop boxes as a way to return absentee ballots without worrying about the mail or without being around other people in a global pandemic.
Steve Fennessy: What's wrong with the boxes?
Stephen Fowler: Fraud. There's this theory that even though they are monitored and have to be monitored with video surveillance and they're locked and they have to get come and collect it every couple of days, that, you know, that there's somehow opportunity for fraud, for people to fraudulently put ballots in and not have them counted, even though there's no evidence of that. And there's also — many of these bills and proposals that are put in place, you can tie back directly to complaints that Trump and other top Republicans had about the election. I mean, for example, there was all of those things floating around on the Internet about people moving to Georgia between the general election and the runoff to help flood the vote. And so there's one bill that would say that anyone who voted in a November election outside of Georgia and moved to the state couldn't vote in a runoff for U.S. House or Senate, even though, to my knowledge, the only person being investigated for trying to move to Georgia to illegally vote was a Republican attorney in Florida.
And so there's just a lot of things. I mean, one would change the state's motor voter law, which is actually if you look at every press release the secretary of state puts out, is one of the first things that they tout as Georgia being a leader in elections. And what that means is any time you go to the State Department of Driver Services and change or update your license or registration or things, they update your voter registration for you. And that's how more than five million of the seven-and-a-half million voters we have in Georgia have their voter registrations done. And for whatever reason, Republican lawmakers want to make it opt in instead of opt out. And I mean, I don't know about you, but any time you go to the DMV, it's not exactly a pleasant experience and it's not a top of mind to, “Oh, yeah, let me make sure I update my voter registration.” So it's just this sense of retaliatory legislation that is floating in the Senate that we're currently dealing with right now.
Steve Fennessy: The question that raises is to what degree Donald Trump is still sort of affecting the future, not only of Republicans nationwide, but specifically here in Georgia? You know, there are there are the Republicans who are still stridently for Donald Trump, even though he's no longer president. And then there are other Republicans. Which way is — is the party going in Georgia?
Stephen Fowler: Well, I think it still remains to be seen because, you know, all of this — the backdrop of the election and the impeachment and everything else — is up against 2022, where Brian Kemp is going to be up for reelection, where every state House and state Senate member is up for reelection. Every statewide elected office is up, as well as one of the two Senate seats. And so the future of really the next decade of Georgia politics hinges on which faction of the Republican Party wins out in this kind of battle that's going on, because you have leaders like Brian Kemp and House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Jeff Duncan that have pushed back against these fraud claims and not necessarily rejected President Trump, but focus on a more big-tent message that's centered around economic recovery from the pandemic and education and things like that, that is, frankly, more appealing to more people and can both excite rural voters as well as moderate suburban Republicans that, you know, don't necessarily like all of the chaos that comes with Trump's calls for election fraud and tweets.
And then you've got some of the faction that are more like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene that are bombastic and it's more the party of Trump than the Republican Party. And it's a big section of base Republican voters that think the election was fraudulent and stolen and that obviously the Democrats stole it. But even more so that these Republicans are RINOs — Republican In Name Only — that haven't done enough to support the president and things like that, that they may be facing challenges from the right.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to GPB political reporter Stephen Fowler. We've just heard Stephen talk about possible changes to the way we vote in Georgia, one of the issues that he's covered in depth on his podcast, Battleground Ballot Box. You can subscribe to it wherever you get podcasts.
Two of the jurors in the impeachment trial are Georgia U.S. Sens. Raphael Warnock and John Ossoff. The Democrats were sworn in after the insurrection on Jan. 6 and say they're open to hearing from witnesses from both sides. Here's Sen. Warnock during a news conference.
Raphael Warnock: I took an oath just a few days ago to defend the Constitution of the United States of America, and I intend to do just that. And so this week, as the Senate takes up this impeachment trial, please know that I will sit as an impartial juror. I will listen to the evidence and then I will render a decision.
Steve Fennessy: You can continue to follow the latest updates on the impeachment trial on GPB Radio and GPB.org. I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Our producer is Sean Powers. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.
Transcript by Khari J. Sampson