Credit: Brynn Anderson/Associated Press
Battleground: Ballot Box | The path to understanding Jan. 6 runs through Georgia
A bipartisan U.S. House committee investigating the Capitol insurrection attempt is holding public hearings to tell the American public what it's found, and Georgia figures prominently.
From former President Donald Trump pressuring Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to "find" votes to death threats against election workers, Georgia's 2020 election results played an important role in guiding events leading up to the riot.
Emotional testimony from former Fulton County election worker Shaye Moss and her mother, Ruby Freeman, headlined a hearing this week that detailed the real-world impacts of Trump's refusal to accept defeat.
"I’ve lost my name, and I’ve lost my reputation," Freeman said. "I’ve lost my sense of security, all because a group of people, starting with No. 45 and his ally, Rudy Giuliani, decided to scapegoat me and my daughter Shaye to push their own lies about how the presidential election was stolen."
This week, we look at Georgia’s role in understanding Jan. 6.
The ballots were counted three times in Georgia — including once by hand — and Donald Trump did not win the 2020 election here.
Despite that, he refused to accept the outcome in Georgia and other swing states and accelerated a chain of events that culminated in his most fervent supporters launching an attack on the very heart of government.
Even before the first votes were cast, Trump publicly cast doubt on mail-in absentee ballots and refused to accept defeat as a possibility.
But after the votes were counted? The pressure was on.
"President Trump's pressure campaign against state officials existed in all the key battleground states that he lost," Jan. 6 committee chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson said Tuesday. "But the former president had a particular obsession with Georgia."
In Georgia and other swing states, Trump and his allies called lawmakers repeatedly, publicly and privately, asking them to take steps to overturn the election.
Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers testified on Tuesday about one such call.
"Immediately I saw that the White House on my Bluetooth was calling, and I took the call and was asked by the — I would presume the operator at the White House — if I would hold for the president, which I did," he said.
Bowers detailed his conversations with the president, and his refusal to aid in efforts overturn the state's election results. Just before the hearing, Trump put out a statement claiming Bowers said the election was rigged.
“I did have a conversation with the president,” he said. “That certainly isn’t it. Anywhere anyone, anytime, has said that I said the election was rigged — that would not be true.”
The committee played numerous examples of similar calls Giuliani and others made to prominent lawmakers, including Trump’s call to Georgia’s top election investigator Frances Watson.
"You know, it's just you have the most important job in the country right now," Trump said.
Committee members said that call, which came after Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows took a surprise trip to try and get into a Cobb county inspection of absentee ballot signatures, was all part of his efforts to overthrow election results before Jan. 6.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said the committee has text message evidence that Meadows wanted to send investigators "a s***load of POTUS stuff" that was ultimately shot down, and that Trump's call to Watson mentioning timing of Jan. 6 was further evidence that the date was part of Trump's multi-pronged plan to subvert results.
"Do you think you'll be working after Christmas to keep it going fast?" Trump asked. "Because, you know, we have the end of the season, which is a very important date."
Raffensperger and his top deputy Gabriel Sterling also testified at this week’s hearing, and provided stark testimony about Trump’s baseless claims and the real-world negative impacts of the lies.
For starters, Raffesnperger said one reason Trump lost is that he was not as popular as other Republicans.
"I've been traveling through the state of Georgia for a year now, and I simply put, in a nutshell: What happened in fall of 2020 is that 28,000 Georgians skipped the presidential race and yet they voted down ballot in other races," he said. "And the Republican congressman ended up getting 33,000 more votes than President Trump, and that's why President Trump came up short."
The committee played several excerpts of Trump’s unprecedented call to Raffensperger, asking the mild-mannered engineer to respond to false claims.
Were there thousands of dead people that voted?
"No, it's not accurate," Raffensperger testified. "And actually, in their lawsuits, they allege 10,315 dead people. We found two dead people when I wrote my letter to Congress that's dated Jan. 6, and, subsequent to that, we found two more. That's one, two, three, four people."
Could Raffensperger have recalculated the votes, like Trump asked him to?
"The numbers were the numbers, and we could not recalculate because we had made sure that we had checked every single allegation and we did many investigations," he said. "We had nearly 300 from the 2020 election."
And the infamous request to find votes?
"What I knew is that we didn't have any votes to find," Raffensperger replied. "We investigated. ... There were no votes to find. That was an accurate count that had been certified."
In an earlier hearing, former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia Byung "BJay" Pak detailed his efforts to chase down conspiracies about the election in the days leading up to Jan. 6.
Pak resigned after learning Trump wanted to fire him because he didn’t find any fraud in Georgia’s election — because there was no evidence.
"We found that the suitcase full of ballots, the alleged black suitcase that was being seen pulled from under the table, was actually in an official lockbox where ballots were kept safe," he said.
That mention of a suitcase of ballots is central to one of the most pervasive false claims about Georgia’s election, and one of the most heart-wrenching portions of testimony about the aftermath of the election.
"What I loved most about my job were the older voters," Shaye Moss said. "Younger people could usually do everything from their phone or go online, but the older voters like to call. They like to talk to you. They like to get my card. They like to know that every election I'm here."
Moss was an election worker in Fulton County who loved her job. Her only sin was working on Election Night, and being seen in a surveillance video counting ballots along with her mother, Ruby Freeman.
To those who know elections, and who read fact checks and debunking statements from Georgia officials, the videos showed people doing normal election things.
But to Trump and his allies and far-right media outlets, it was evidence of how the election was stolen.
"Rudy Giuliani and others claimed on the basis of this video that you and your mother were somehow involved in a plot to kick out observers, bringing suitcases of false ballots for Biden into the arena and then run them through the machines multiple times," Schiff said. "None of that was true, was it?"
"None of it," she replied.
The result of those lies from Giuliani — including a quote from Giuliani that said "Ruby Freeman and Shaye Freeman Moss and one of the gentlemen quite obviously surreptitiously passing around USB ports as if they're vials of heroin and cocaine" — was racist harassment against the Black women, threats that resulted in them leaving their jobs and, briefly, their homes.
People sent vile text messages and Facebook messages, calling for them to be killed or jailed. But none of it was true.
Those USB ports Giuliani accused them of moving? A ginger mint.
Moss, who received a JFK Profile in Courage award this year, was devastated.
"I felt horrible," she said. "I felt like it was all my fault, like if I would have never decided to be an election worker, like, I could have done anything else. But that's what I decided to do. And now, people are lying and spreading rumors and lies and attacking my mom."
I encourage you to listen to the full hearing, and full testimony of Moss and Freeman. It’s hard to listen to their anguish caused by lies so easily disproven, but so easily believed.
For weeks, reporters, the secretary of state’s office, local elections officials and others tried to let the truth be known far and wide.
Gabriel Sterling testified just how hard it was to get through.
"For lack of a better word, it was frustrating," Sterling said. "But oftentimes I felt our information was getting out that that there was a reticence of people who needed to believe it to believe it, because the president of the United States, who many looked up to and respected, was telling them it wasn't true, despite the facts. And I have characterized at one point it was kind of like a shovel trying to empty the ocean."
Within that ocean, there are plenty who still believe the lie that 2020 was stolen, and believe claims about Georgia’s voting that were never close to being true.
And in that same ocean are people like Ruby Freeman, one of many people whose life was turned upside down by false claims put forth by one of the most powerful people on the planet.
"Do you know how it feels to have the president of the United States target you?" she said in a taped interview. "The president of the United States is supposed to represent every American, not to target one, but he targeted me. Lady Ruby. A small business owner. A mother, a proud American citizen who [stood] up to help Fulton County run an election in the middle of the pandemic."
Schiff previewed the hearing with a warning and a prayer that 2020 does not repeat itself ever again.
"The system held, but barely," he said. "And the system held because people of courage, Republicans and Democrats like the witnesses you will hear today. But they were also to the country and Constitution above any other consideration. They did their jobs as we must do ours."
The aftermath of Jan. 6 and Georgia’s role will not be over once the final hearing ends.
In Fulton County, a grand jury is still hearing from witnesses in a wide-ranging probe to see if Trump and his allies broke several state laws in their failed efforts to overturn the election.
And Trump’s influence will loom large over Georgia’s midterms this November. As a portion of the Republican Party continues to believe his false claims of fraud, will Trump’s biggest supporters stay home in the fall? And will candidates who lose do so with grace or with ill intent, casting further doubt on our election system?
We’ll cover the developments as they happen.
Battleground: Ballot Box from Georgia Public Broadcasting is produced by Stephen Fowler. Our editor is Josephine Bennett. Our engineer is Jake Cook and Jesse Nighswonger wrote our theme music. You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening.