Credit: Stephen Fowler / GPB News
Battleground: Ballot Box | Why Trump's grand election plan now goes to a grand jury
Georgia wasn’t the only battleground state where Donald Trump tried to change his 2020 election defeat, but it was home to his most brazen efforts.
Even after elections officials counted — and recounted — the presidential race, made painstaking rebuttals to fraud claims large and small, and legally certified the election, Trump and his allies did not stop their pressure campaign to alter the outcome.
The former president publicly and privately called for officials to fraudulently declare him the victor, 16 Republicans signed documents falsely claiming to be the state’s Electoral College representatives and, as lawsuit after lawsuit failed, a scheme to unlawfully copy data from a rural county elections office unfolded in a last-ditch effort to prove unprovable claims.
And it wasn’t just top Republicans that drew the ire of the president’s supporters. Election workers, particularly two Fulton County women, faced death threats, in-person harassment and unrelenting pressure directed by the most powerful person in the country.
All of those efforts by the former president and his allies may soon result in criminal charges for those involved.
On this episode, we go deeper into Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of Georgia’s election and how prosecutors are likely to show those actions were tantamount to a criminal enterprise.
In our last episode, we explored a series of legislative hearings held in December 2020, where Trump associates like Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman tried to convince Republican lawmakers they could toss out the election results and select their own slate of presidential electors.
"This is probably the worst situation of voter fraud we've ever had in this country," Giuliani said during one of the hearings. "Georgia is one example of it ... whatever the result, this election is going to live in history."
Many of these hearings happened after Georgia election workers finished a third count of the presidential race, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp certified the results and the 16 Democrats who were by law the state’s official Electoral College representatives met and signed their official documents in the state Capitol, led by gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams.
Speaking of Electoral College votes, the next prong of the plan to keep Trump in office was taking place elsewhere in the state Capitol while Abrams and fellow Democrats were doing their duty as Georgia’s official electors in the House chambers.
Sixteen Republicans had a meeting, shrouded in secrecy and duplicity, and signed paperwork claiming that they, too, were Georgia’s official electors.
The meeting was part of a multi-state plan to have Republican electors gather and sign documents claiming to be the official representatives of their state in hopes that the courts, state legislatures or Congress would deem them valid over the Democratic slates on or before Jan. 6 when the Electoral College met.
While some Republicans added caveats that their signatures were contingent on other factors like a court decision, Georgia's did not.
One of the architects of the elector plan is a previously unknown lawyer, Kenneth Chesebro, who authored a memo outlining how these alternate electors could fulfill their aim in six states, but noted the prospect was “somewhat dicey” in the Peach State.
Another individual potentially at risk of being charged is Jeffrey Clark, a former Department of Justice official who authored an unsent letter to Georgia leaders that would have falsely claimed the Justice Department had “identified significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the elections,” citing a conspiracy-laden letter from an outgoing state Senator and recommending a special legislative session to “decide between any competing slates of elector certificates.”
Clark was named as an un-indicted co-conspirator in Trump’s federal charges earlier this month stemming from the 2020 election.
Documents uncovered in the aftermath also found Trump counsel Jenna Ellis and scholar John Eastman, who told Georgia lawmakers the Constitution allowed them to reject the outcome and select their own elector slate, also wrote memos supporting these fraudulent electors as a method to give Trump a victory instead of Biden winning.
Eastman in particular used three false statements about Georgia to urge Vice President Mike Pence to reject the lawful slate of electors, including claiming the secretary of state changed absentee signature verification requirements through an unauthorized settlement agreement, using portable polls that quote “targeted to heavily democrat ares” (sic) and refusal by state courts to assign a judge to hear the Trump campaign’s election challenge.
On the first point, Raffensperger’s office repeatedly explained that the settlement in a lawsuit filed by Democrats over absentee ballot verification was not unauthorized, it did not weaken the requirements to verify ballot signatures and did not result in fraud.
On the second point, Fulton County utilized two buses fitted with voting machines during early voting that rotated evenly throughout the county — not just in Democratic areas — and complied with state law (before Republicans changed the law in 2021 to remove them as an option) while the third assertion stemmed more from the campaign’s lawyers incorrectly filing the challenge and failing to request a different judge.
Eventually, they dropped all legal challenges.
Under Georgia’s racketeering law, those who falsely claimed to be electors could be charged as part of a RICO case with forgery and making false statements and writings, plus the potential for additional charges of false swearing, and Trump allies that helped orchestrate and support the scheme could face charges of soliciting false statements and forgery.
Not all of the unofficial electors in Georgia will be charged for their roles, based on public filing stemming from the special purpose grand jury investigation. One elector, current Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, successfully halted Fulton County DA Fani Willis from investigating him because of a conflict of interest since Willis held a fundraiser for a Democrat who would eventually be Jones’ general election opponent.
At least eight of the 16 took immunity deals from prosecutors, according to court filings, but that does not appear to include two of the more high-profile figures in this saga: David Shafer and Cathy Latham.
Shafer, as the former chair of the Georgia Republican Party, was a constant in pushing false claims about the election in the months after the polls closed and led the meeting of the fake electors. He also falsely claimed the call between Trump and Raffensperger was doctored and that the conversation was a confidential “settlement discussion” for the pending lawsuits to reverse the election.
Latham is a slightly different story and leads us to the next prong in the post-certification plans down in rural Coffee County.
Latham was the Coffee County GOP chairwoman and heavily involved in the state party apparatus, including serving as a fake elector. She was also involved in the plan that took place after the Jan. 6 insurrection to illegally copy election data and analyze it for alleged evidence of fraud.
Coffee County is not exactly a bastion of liberal politics — 70% of its voters cast ballots for Trump — but its former election supervisor Misty Hampton, Latham and others were convinced that making copies of virtually every piece of election infrastructure in the county would help prove Trump actually won the statewide election.
In fact, Coffee County’s elections board had caused waves in the aftermath of the presidential race by refusing to certify the results of the recount, citing problems with their voting equipment the state said was human error.
The January 2021 data breach was organized in part by Sidney Powell, a lawyer who is most notable for filing the so-called “Kraken” lawsuit in Georgia that made wild conspiratorial claims about Georgia’s Dominion voting machines having ties to Venezuela and foreign government coups while alleging hundreds of thousands illegal votes were cast in the state.
Powell was also involved in a meeting at the White House trying to convince Trump to use the military to confiscate voting machines and make her a special czar to investigate alleged fraud — something that never materialized.
Other figures involved in the Coffee County breach include Scott Hall, an Atlanta bail bondsman who helped with the scanning, Doug Logan, who also ran a firm that oversaw a costly, partisan audit of the 2020 election in Arizona’s Maricopa County — an audit that concluded Biden won by even more than originally thought — and Jeffrey Lenberg, who spent hours in the election office over the course of several days with machines and other election related items, according to surveillance video.
State elections officials have replaced all the equipment in Coffee County, Hampton is no longer the supervisor and it’s likely that several people involved with the county’s data breach could face both RICO charges and standalone charges for breaking other laws dealing with computer trespass and election law violations.
Trump's pressure campaign
In the post-certification plot to steal Georgia’s election, spearheaded by former President Trump, Jan. 2, 2021, was an important date and included a call unlike anything anyone had heard before.
Trump was joined by his chief of staff Mark Meadows, lawyer Cleta Mitchell and other Georgia-based attorneys. On the other end of the line was Raffensperger, the secretary of state’s office general counsel Ryan Germany, and an aide to discuss with the former President what he was largely saying in public: the election was stolen.
Trump dove headfirst into false claims after exchanging brief pleasantries.
"So we've spent a lot of time on this, and if we could just go over some of the numbers, I think it's pretty clear that we won," he said. "We won very substantially."
From there, the conversation devolved into Trump rattling off numbers of alleged fraudulent votes that were already publicly proven false and attacking two Fulton County election workers who faced death threats, harassment and pressure from Trump allies to falsely claim they committed election fraud.
As a sidebar, mother-daughter election workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss were key witnesses in the Democrat-led U.S. House investigation into the leadup of the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol, with emotional testimony from Moss about the harassment they faced following Trump's false allegations.
"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."
The crux of the call, which an angry Trump constantly pressured the secretary of state to do something about the already-certified, thrice-counted election, also saw Trump tell the Georgians that they would face consequences for not acquiescing.
"it's more illegal for you than it is for them because you know what they did and you're not reporting it," Trump said. "That's just, you know, that's a criminal — that's a criminal offense. And, you know, you can't let that happen. That's that's a big risk to you and to Ryan. Your lawyer is — that's a big risk. But they are shredding ballots, in my opinion, based on what I've heard. And they are removing machinery and they're moving it as fast as they can, both of which are criminal fines. And you can't let it happen. Then you are letting it happen. You know, I mean, I'm notifying you that you're letting it happen, so."
From there, Trump utters the most famous line from the lengthy call, the line that arguably launched the investigation into the efforts to subvert the 2020 election results.
"All I want to do is this: I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have, because we won the state," he said.
Raffensperger was also asked about the call in the Jan. 6 hearings, and his remarks telling Trump that the data he was sharing was simply incorrect.
"What I knew is that we didn't have any votes to find," Raffensperger told the committee. "We continued to look. We investigated. I could have shared the numbers with you. There were no votes to find. That was an accurate count that had been certified. And as our general counsel said, there was no shredding of ballots."
It wasn’t just Trump pushing for unlawful actions on the call. Meadows, who also showed up unannounced at a Georgia Bureau of Investigation audit of absentee ballot envelope signatures mid-December, offered his pressing two cents, too.
"There are allegations where we believe that not every vote or fair vote and legal vote was counted, and that's at odds with the representation from the secretary of state's office," he said. "What I'm hopeful for is there are some way that we can we can find some kind of agreement to to to look at this a little bit more fully. As you know, the president mentioned Fulton County, but in some of these areas where there seems to be a difference of where the facts seem to lead. And so, Mr. Secretary, I was hopeful that, you know, in a spirit of cooperation and compromise is there there's something that we can at least have a discussion to look at some of these allegations to find a path forward that's less litigious."
Meadows also helped orchestrate a call between Trump and Frances Watson, a Georgia election investigator helping with the GBI audit. Trump also asked Watson to find fraudulent ballots that would overturn the election, asking her to go beyond the scope of the audit and focus on Fulton County, asking her to do “whatever you can do.”
The now infamous call between Trump and Raffensperger is also worth a listen on its own, as the most powerful politician in America tries to order officials to subvert the will of the voters.
"So what are we going to do if I only need 11,000 votes, fellas?" he asked. "I need 11,000 votes. Give me a break. You know, we have that in spades already, or we can keep it going. But that's not fair to the voters of Georgia because they're going to see what happened."
What’s also remarkable is to hear Raffensperger and Ryan Germany, the secretary of state's general counsel, so calmly and methodically push back against a rising narrative embraced by so many in the Republican Party.
"The numbers are the numbers, the numbers don't lie," Raffensperger told the Jan. 6 committee. "They said that there was over 66,000 underage voters. We found that there was actually zero ...They said that there was 2,423 non-registered voters. There were zero. They said that there was 2,056 felons. We identified 74 or less actually still on a felony sentence. Every single allegation we checked, we ran down the rabbit trail to make sure that our numbers were accurate."
From incitement to likely indictments
Other calls made by Trump include outreach to Gov. Brian Kemp and Attorney General Chris Carr, though we don’t have recordings of those. But they all factor heavily into likely charges for Trump when the DA presents this case to the grand jury starting today.
Under the state RICO law, it is possible Trump could be found to have committed the predicate acts of false statements and writings, influencing witnesses, solicitation of false statements and writings and solicitation of false swearing.
It’s also likely prosecutors will allege that the calls, hearings, and push for a special legislative session to appoint alternate electors were an attempt to force a fraudulent outcome in Georgia’s election. Then there was the scheme to access election data and the threats to elections workers and politicians that could run afoul of other laws, too, including solicitation to commit election fraud, felony interference with primaries and elections and conspiracy to commit election fraud.
While we don’t know how many people will be charged, what they’re charged with and how that will play out in a broader RICO case, we do know that Donald Trump’s legal jeopardy is perhaps more severe in Georgia than his other cases, namely because any pardon would have to come from the State Board of Pardons and Parole and could not come until after any sentence is completed.
We also know that the efforts to change Georgia’s electoral votes failed, but the lasting attacks on the election system, and voters’ faith in it have been successfully damaged in the eyes of a sizable chunk of GOP voters.
Trump and his allies have already begun attacking the Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis beyond frivolous court motions and statements questioning her credibility. And those attacks are likely to increase exponentially following any Trump indictment.
On the next episode of Battleground: Ballot Box
We look at the preparation and implementation of sprawling indictments, once they come, of those who tried and failed to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Who will face the music, what laws did they break and how will this play out in both the courtroom and the court of public opinion.
Battleground: Ballot Box is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting and is produced by Chase McGee. Our engineer is Jake Cook, our editor is Josephine Bennett and the theme music was created by me, Stephen Fowler. Subscribe to our show at GPB.org/battleground or anywhere you get podcasts.