Georgia Today: Trump’s enablers — and the Georgia federal prosecutor who refused to go along
Almost a year after the 2020 election, new revelations continue to emerge about former President Donald Trump pressuring Georgia officials to overturn the election results.
A recent Senate Judiciary Committee report sheds light on the departure earlier this year of former Georgia U.S. Attorney Byung J. "BJay" Pak, who abruptly announced his resignation just before the Senate runoffs. Investigators say Trump forced Pak to resign for refusing to go along with Trump’s false claims of election fraud. We break down what's in the preliminary Senate committee report and hear what the findings could mean for elections to come.
Steve Fennessy: You're listening to Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. In this episode: more revelations from an ongoing Senate Judiciary Committee investigation into former President Donald Trump's election interference. A new report from the committee outlines the extent of Trump's efforts to compromise the independence of his own Justice Department, and efforts to overturn the 2020 election. One of the most disturbing findings sheds light on the sudden departure of former Georgia U.S. Attorney from the Northern District "BJay" Pak, who you may recall abruptly announced his resignation before the Senate runoffs in January.
[News tape] 11Alive: The sudden resignation of a federal prosecutor from Georgia is now under investigation. BJay Pak resigned as U.S. attorney after President Trump called him a "never-Trumper." In his resignation letter, Pak cited, quote, “unforeseen circumstances.”
Steve Fennessy: According to investigators, Pak was forced by Trump to resign for refusing to go along with Trump's false claims of election fraud in the state. And that's not all. For more on these findings, I'm joined by GPB political reporter Stephen Fowler. Stephen, there have been just so many reports and revelations that have come to light over the last year about Donald Trump's interference in the Georgia elections, so let's just start with kind of what this new report is.
Stephen Fowler: So this report of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the accompanying Minority Report really zeroes in on a specific time frame in what seems to be a never-ending conversation about the 2020 election and some of the actions that the Department of Justice took — or did not take — regarding all of these claims of election fraud or wrongdoing or things that supposedly put the results in doubt.
Steve Fennessy: This main report by the Senate Judiciary Committee runs to 394 pages with all the documents that are appended to it. But despite its length, I have to say it's actually riveting because it includes testimony from these key players: people like Acting Attorney General Jeff Rosen, his deputy Richard Donoghue, and then, of course, the former U.S. attorney from the Northern District of Georgia, BJay Pak, who is — or was — top federal prosecutor here. So these men all testified before this committee. What were they talking about?
Stephen Fowler: They're talking about a lot of different things that have happened and come up — their access and insight into the memos, emails and things behind the scenes unfolding in real time. Really, this is just an unparalleled look into these career law enforcement officials by these career prosecutors, by these government employees that work in the president's circle regarding everything from allegations about fraud and wrongdoing to what is the proper procedure for handling these claims to, you know, the wild goose chase is that some were being sent on to track down some of these claims. And so you see through some of the emails and the conversations that are discussed in these reports and some of the transcripts and interviews, the kind of tightrope-walking that many of these attorneys and others are doing to avoid Trump's wrath.
Steve Fennessy: And you go back to your civics lesson. There are three branches of government: the executive, the legislative and the judiciary. Of course, the president appoints his — the attorney general, the United States Department of Justice — with Senate approval. But then he also appoints federal prosecutors around the country, one of whom was BJay Pak. BJay Pak testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee for about three hours or so in August. So let's talk a little bit specifically about — about what BJay Pak revealed by going back in time to a specific date: Nov. 9, which is six days after the general election and just two days after the election was called for Joe Biden. But on Nov. 9, six days after the election, William Barr, who was then the attorney general for President Trump, sent out a memo to federal prosecutors around the country, including to BJay Pak, who was the federal top prosecutor here in the Northern District of Georgia. And that memo was significant. Can you tell me what exactly that memo said and why it was significant?
Stephen Fowler: Well, think of it this way: Elections are run at the state level. There are elections for federal candidates, but everything is done at a decentralized state level. So the federal government doesn't really get involved in the election process until it comes time to do the, up until recently, perfunctory counting of the Electoral College votes and then the official swearing in of president and vice president and all of that other sort of good stuff. And you don't want to give the impression that something is wrong when the investigation doesn't necessarily bear out. So this change in the memo, authorizing pre-certification investigative steps, quote, “If there are clear and apparently credible allegations of irregularities,” that has the potential to spook people, or move the needle or give more credence to these claims, if it's some of the top law enforcement in the country descending on these local state elections to try to figure out if something's wrong.
Steve Fennessy: The pre-certification aspect is important because I mean, the certification means that's when — that's when the results are declared final. And so to have investigators, as you say, maybe swarming some sort of electoral polling station, might tip the scales, or at least the scales of perception.
Stephen Fowler: Yeah, and we already saw this. We saw individual people or organizations face a lot of pressure to not certify the election. I mean, in Georgia and other states, there were "alternate slates of electors," quote unquote, that Republicans met in the capitol to try to appoint their own electors to cast the state's electoral votes for Donald Trump. And pre-certification is normally a time where election officials go to make sure that the number of people that voted match the number of ballots and they go through to make sure that everything's done properly and to check for discrepancies. So the timing of that's important, because that is when you could potentially have outcomes change or votes challenged. You had Rudy Giuliani, a lawyer to the president, come down and just tell outright lies to Senate lawmakers. These kind of kangaroo court committee hearings that were convened where you had claims of suitcases full of ballots being stuffed into the total at Fulton County State Farm Arena and other wild claims attacking the integrity of the elections.
[News tape] 11Alive: The president also questioning the State Farm video alleging election workers stuffed and scanned ballots multiple times.
Donald Trump: They did it in slow motion replay magnified, right? She stuffed the ballot boxes. They were stuffed like nobody's ever seen them stuffed before.
[News tape] 11Alive: The video, debunked in early December, shows standard ballot containers.
Sec. of State Brad Raffensperger: We did an audit of that, and we proved conclusively that they were not scanned three times.
[News tape] 11Alive: Raffensperger saying their lawyers will be in touch, ending the phone call, once again, assuring the election results are accurate.
Stephen Fowler: And Republican lawmakers allowed this to happen. There wasn't really any pushback except for from the secretary of state's office and local elections offices.
Steve Fennessy: You mentioned the Georgia State Senate hearing when Rudy Giuliani came now, and one of the things that stood out in reading this report is sort of an aside from BJay Pak. And of course, BJay Pak was a former state lawmaker himself. And one of the things that frustrated him, as he explains in this report, is that when you have these Senate hearings, like the one that Rudy Giuliani was in, there is no, there's no oath. You don't have to swear on any Bible that you're going to tell the truth.
Stephen Fowler: Yeah, you don't have to testify under oath. And so with these committee hearings, Rudy Giuliani got up and said things that either were misrepresentations of the truth or complete fabrications about normal election practices. And there's nothing you can really do about that.
Steve Fennessy: And I think it's important to say here, Stephen, that these allegations were investigated by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican — his office, right?
Stephen Fowler: Right. Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has sworn law enforcement officers that track down claims of fraud. They looked at the security camera video and, in fact, invited a local TV station to look at the security camera videos.
[News tape] 11Alive: President Trump doubling down on claims of voter fraud in Georgia. And you can hear the president berating Brad Raffensperger and declaring he actually won the election.
Stephen Fowler: And so there was hard video proof that all of these claims were false. But by then it had taken a life of its own and had gotten all the way to the point where there were debates within the FBI about whether to send people down to do interviews and investigations.
Steve Fennessy: Let's talk about that, because that's something that BJay Pak is testifying to before the Senate Judiciary Committee in August. The day after Rudy Giuliani comes to Atlanta, testifies before this Republican state Senate committee about the election and these kind of crazy allegations that he's making, BJay Pak gets a call from his boss, William Barr, the attorney general. What is William Barr asking?
Stephen Fowler: He says, you know, this is a top priority that you need to look into and that you need to investigate these claims. Now, if you look through the Minority Report, which Republicans put out about some of these interviews, their takeaway and interpretation is that, well, you know, BJay Pak said it would make sense that President Trump would want to have fraud investigated so that the law enforcement agencies would be the ones to look at this. But it paints a little bit different picture when you have the attorney general of the U.S. saying this claim is something that the big boss wants to investigate. Steve Fennessy: And BJay Pak says, OK, I'll look into it, right?
Stephen Fowler: He looks into it and finds what the secretary of state's office said: There was video evidence that the claims just didn't match up to reality. But that's not the end of the story. We're coming up on the election and BJay Pak, like other U.S. attorneys around the country — you know, the DOJ, BJay Pak, others, don't want to say or do anything that could manipulate the Senate runoff election. And Pak says he's probably going to announce his resignation after the election and have it effective the inauguration, which is typically when you would have a lot of turnover because a new party and a new president comes in and picks their own choices.
Steve Fennessy: So it's not unusual for top prosecutors across the country to submit their resignation in advance of an inauguration when there's a new administration coming in.
Stephen Fowler: Yeah, exactly. So BJay Pak has plans to move on to other things on his own terms.
Steve Fennessy: But at a Jan. 3 meeting in the Oval Office, then-President Donald Trump had other ideas. That's next. This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: You're listening to Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. Joining me is GPB's Steven Fowler. We're talking about the latest revelations on former President Donald Trump's interference in Georgia's 2020 presidential elections. BJay Pak intended to serve as U.S. attorney until President Biden was inaugurated. But that isn't exactly how it turns out.
Stephen Fowler: No. After Pak says there was nothing wrong with State Farm. The president isn't exactly happy about that. And so Trump says that BJay Pak is a “never-Trumper."
Steve Fennessy: OK, how do we know he said that? Where did that come up?
Stephen Fowler: This comes if you look at the report from an interview with people that were in the room with the president when he was making these comments. It's from somebody who was in the room where it happened.
Steve Fennessy: And he says that, no surprise. In Atlanta, we have a never-Trumper there, referring to BJay Pak.
Stephen Fowler: There's a story as far back as 2016 of the then-state legislator Pak talking about Trump and saying he's not necessarily endorsing him, but not necessarily thinking he's going to be best for the party moving forward. And so Trump says that BJay Pak is a never-Trumper and starts to have questions about putting him in charge of things, Trump said, Atlanta, Atlanta, no surprise there. They didn't find anything. No surprise because we have a never-Trumper there as a U.S. attorney. Trump, he's been fixated on Georgia's election results. Now he's fixated on BJay Pak and he wants BJay Pak fired, and he wants to fire him on the spot for not doing enough to find the alleged fraud that was going to be proven in Georgia.
Steve Fennessy: So talk a little bit more about that conversation because we have testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee of officials who were in the Oval Office when that discussion took place. So what was the gist of the discussion?
Stephen Fowler: Well, the gist of the discussion is that, you know, BJay Pak had already said that he was going to resign soon. You know, in a couple of weeks. We're not going to fire somebody who's already talked about resigning. But what happened was that Pak said he thought about resigning after an infamous call between Trump and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
Steve Fennessy: This infamous phone call that President Trump in — actually, it was early January of this year, of 2021, a few weeks before the inauguration, where he is still fighting tooth and nail to win an election that had already been declared for his opponent.
Donald Trump: I have to find 12,000 votes — and I have them, times a lot, and therefore I won the state.
[News tape] 11Alive: President Trump, in an hourlong phone call with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger asking for votes that would put him above Biden.
President Donald Trump: I need 11,000 votes. Give me a break. You know, we have that in spades already.
[News tape] 11Alive: The president reigniting already debunked claims of voter fraud and machine malfunctions.
Stephen Fowler: Most of the call was about Trump berating Raffensperger and berating the attorney. That was with Raffensperger's office, claiming that he just needed to find some votes so he could be declared winner and that they were letting voters of Georgia down by not overturning it. And in the immediate aftermath, it was kind of on the side of Trump saying, Oh yeah, you know, talking about the never-Trumper U.S. attorney.
[News tape] 11Alive: The then-president called Mr. Pak a “Never-Trumper” — the Justice Department now looking into that incident.
Stephen Fowler: Now we know that it had a little bit more significance; the day after the call is ultimately when Pak resigns.
Steve Fennessy: So in his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, what was the recollections of BJay Pak about how — how he found out that he was going to have to resign or be fired?
Stephen Fowler: Well, he got a call from senior Justice Department officials, and he was told that Trump was very unhappy with him and that Trump agreed to accept the resignation, but that basically he had to do it sooner rather than later and by sooner, they mean now. And so, you know, he just sent off a quiet letter. He said he sent a very bland resignation in order to avoid impacting the upcoming election.
Steve Fennessy: And there was something else that was unusual about this. The protocol is when a top prosecutor steps down who's a political employee appointee that the interim prosecutor, who is there until the next person is appointed permanently, is a career prosecutor, the first assistant United States attorney. But in this case, that's not what Trump wanted. He wanted his own man in there, right?
Stephen Fowler: Yeah. You know, typically there's a very well-stated protocol of who steps in and runs things so that there's not any sort of chaos. And so there's regularity and consistency. So Trump instead wanted to move over another U.S. Attorney from the Southern District of Georgia, Bobby Christine. Trump said If I put him in, he'll do something about it.
[News tape] The Hill: President Trump has named Bobby Christine, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, as the new acting attorney in Atlanta, bypassing a top career prosecutor to fill the role. Christine's office announced the news Tuesday, writing that he was named acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia on Monday, quote, “by written order of the president.” The news comes after Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak abruptly resigned from the role, effective immediately on Monday after holding the position for three years.
Stephen Fowler: So the understanding is that if Bobby Christine moved over into the Northern District of Georgia, that he would perhaps succeed where BJay Pak had not in finding some smoking gun that would prove election fraud. The interesting thing about that is after Bobby Christine was appointed, Bobby Christine came in and said, Well, I can't find anything. There's nothing there. Y'all did a good job investigating, but yep, nothing there.
Steve Fennessy: Nothing there. And yet still. Still, even today, Donald Trump insists that he won Georgia.
Stephen Fowler: We're almost a year later from the election that President Joe Biden won, that was counted three different times in Georgia. And we still have President Trump saying that he won the election. And you still have top Republican lawmakers saying he won the election and plenty of pro-Trump Republican conservative voters that think he won the election.
Steve Fennessy: There were so many allegations, so many outlandish things that were found to be utterly groundless, but yet it's still kept going and going and going, and it kept feeding into this conspiracy theory that the election was a fraud.
Stephen Fowler: Typically, the presidential daily briefing is a big, thick book of information and stories and intelligence and things that the president gets to know what's going on with the world. Trump's presidential daily briefing was from the far-right fever swamps of the Internet, where, you know, journalistic integrity and fact-checking and reality are very few and far between. And so you had these conspiracies from random parts of the Internet that ended up driving a lot of the conversation, and that's been something that's been hard to counteract even 11 months later.
Steve Fennessy: I think about a quote that's attributed to the former U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who said, “You know, we're all entitled to our opinions, but we're all not entitled to different facts.” And yet the facts now seem to be as fungible as opinions. Where is all of this going when it comes to the Republican Party in Georgia?
Stephen Fowler: It sounds cliché to say that the Republican Party is at a crossroads, but it really is. And what you're seeing in Georgia is a battle for who is in charge of the Republican Party in Georgia. Is it the pro-Trump wing of the party that is energized and excited and angry at what they think was massive fraud that cost their president a second term and who is on a warpath? Or the Georgia Republicans that have been in charge for the last 20 years or so that have focused on growing business-friendly policies and growing the type of state policies that have attracted so many diverse companies and people and voters to the state. And right now, it's looking like the Trump wing of the party could be what's in charge.
Steve Fennessy: In reading this report and reading all of the coverage as we've come to know more about what occurred, especially in the White House, but also in the halls of power here in Georgia, you know, that but for the efforts of a few people really who were holding fast to — to the rule of law and to — to how things are done in America, that this whole thing might have turned out quite differently. Do you get that same feeling?
Stephen Fowler: Absolutely. You know, not a day goes by where I don't think about just how close we came to a completely different outcome to a completely different set of circumstances. Because if we did not have the secretary of state's office so responsive to questions and knocking down claims and showing the work behind how Georgia's votes are counted, and if Brad Raffensperger wasn't such a hard-core capital-C conservative, you know, it might not have been given as much weight because there's not, you know, because there's not— nobody's going to accuse — successfully accuse Brad Raffensperger of being squishy or being a closet Democrat. And then this report shows that if it were not for one U.S. attorney who was principled, who wanted to uphold the rule of law in his job and in his purview, there could have been letters from the Department of Justice that would have undermined the integrity of the election in Georgia. But there was a draft letter that said, you know, the Department of Justice feels that it is your position to not certify the election; overturn the results.
Steve Fennessy: And to put forth an alternate set of electors, right? That was what that proposed letter said.
Stephen Fowler: Yeah. And that was from the highest levels of the Department of Justice. If it wasn't for people like BJay Pak saying, “No, this isn't real,” we could have had a real crisis on our hands, Steve, because these trusted, credible institutions would have been used to put their thumb on the scale and change the boundaries of our reality.
Steve Fennessy: Yeah, it's a reminder that we put our trust in institutions, but the institutions, of course, are upheld by people. They’re only as strong as the people who occupy those positions.
Stephen Fowler: Exactly. And people are the cornerstones of elections. And I think we've seen the pitfalls and dangers of allowing conspiracies to creep into our democracy, in our complex American electoral systems. We saw that pushed to the limit last year, and thankfully, mostly cooler heads have prevailed.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to GPB's Stephen Fowler. The Senate Judiciary Committee's investigation isn't over yet; it's still awaiting documents from the National Archive that could shed more light on White House efforts to subvert the election. Meanwhile, the office of District Attorney Fani Willis is continuing its own investigation into election meddling in Fulton County by the White House. Thanks for listening to Georgia Today. For more, go to GPB.org. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Subscribe anywhere you get podcasts and please don't forget to leave us a review on Apple. Jess Mador produced this episode. Our engineers Jesse Nighswonger. See you next week.