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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Two months in Georgia: How Trump tried to overturn a crucial state’s vote

Trump supporters stand in protest of election results at State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta, on Nov. 7, 2020.

By Danny Hakim and Richard Fausset

When President Donald Trump’s eldest son took the stage outside the Georgia Republican Party headquarters two days after the 2020 election, he likened what lay ahead to mortal combat.

“Americans need to know this is not a banana republic!” Donald Trump Jr. shouted, claiming that Georgia and other swing states had been overrun by wild electoral shenanigans. He described tens of thousands of ballots that had “magically” shown up around the country, all marked for Joe Biden, and others dumped by Democratic officials into “one big box” so their authenticity could not be verified.

Trump told his father’s supporters at the news conference — who broke into chants of “Stop the steal!” and “Fraud! Fraud!” — that “the number one thing that Donald Trump can do in this election is fight each and every one of these battles, to the death!”

Over the two months that followed, a vast effort unfolded on behalf of the lame-duck president to overturn the election results in swing states across the country. But perhaps nowhere were there as many attempts to intervene as in Georgia, where Fani Willis, the district attorney of Fulton County, is now poised to bring an indictment for a series of brazen moves made on behalf of Trump in the state after his loss and for lies that the president and his allies circulated about the election there.

Trump has already been indicted three times this year, most recently in a federal case brought by special prosecutor Jack Smith that is also related to election interference. But the Georgia case may prove the most expansive legal challenge to Trump’s attempts to cling to power.

It could also prove the most enduring: While Trump could try to pardon himself from a federal conviction if he were reelected, presidents cannot pardon state crimes.

Perhaps above all, the Georgia case assembled by Willis offers a vivid reminder of the extraordinary lengths taken by Trump and his allies to exert pressure on local officials to overturn the election.

There was the infamous call that the former president made to Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, during which Trump said he wanted to “find” nearly 12,000 votes, or enough to overturn his narrow loss there. Trump and his allies harassed and defamed rank-and-file election workers with false accusations of ballot stuffing, leading to so many vicious threats against one of them that she was forced into hiding.

They deployed fake local electors to certify that Trump had won the election. Within even the Justice Department, an obscure government lawyer secretly plotted with the president to help him overturn the state’s results.

And on the same day that Biden’s victory was certified by Congress, Trump allies infiltrated a rural Georgia county’s election office, copying sensitive software used in voting machines throughout the state in their fruitless hunt for ballot fraud.

The Georgia investigation has encompassed an array of high-profile allies, from lawyers Rudy Giuliani, Kenneth Chesebro and John Eastman, to Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff at the time of the election. But it has also scrutinized lesser-known players like a Georgia bail bondsman and a publicist who once worked for Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West.

As soon as Monday, there could be charges from a Fulton County grand jury after Willis presents her case to them. The number of people indicted could be large: A separate special grand jury that investigated the matter in an advisory capacity last year recommended more than a dozen people for indictment, and the foreperson of the grand jury has strongly hinted that the former president was among them.

If an indictment lands and the case goes to trial, a regular jury and the American public will hear a story that centers on nine weeks from Election Day through early January in which a host of people all tried to push one lie: that Trump had secured victory in Georgia. The question before the jurors would be whether some of those accused went so far that they broke the law.

Fueling ‘hate and fury’

It did not take long for the gloves to come off.

During the Nov. 5 visit by Donald Trump Jr., the Georgia Republican Party was already fracturing. Some officials believed they should focus on defending the seats of the state’s two Republican senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, who were weeks away from runoff elections, rather than fighting a losing presidential candidate’s battles.

Four days later, the two senators called for Raffensperger’s resignation. The Raffensperger family was soon barraged with threats, leading his wife, Tricia, to confront Loeffler in a text message: “Never did I think you were the kind of person to unleash such hate and fury.”

By the end of November, Trump’s Twitter feed had become a font of misinformation. “Everybody knows it was Rigged” he wrote in a tweet Nov. 29. And on Dec. 1: “Do something @BrianKempGA,” he wrote, referring to Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, a Republican. “You allowed your state to be scammed.”

But these efforts were not gaining traction. Raffensperger and Kemp were not bending. And on Dec. 1, Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, announced that the Department of Justice had found no evidence of voting fraud “on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”

A show for lawmakers

It was time to turn up the volume.

Giuliani was on the road, traveling to Phoenix and Lansing, Michigan, to meet with lawmakers to convince them of fraud in their states, both lost by Trump. Now, he was in Atlanta.

Even though Trump’s loss in Georgia had been upheld by a state audit, Giuliani made fantastical claims at a hearing in front of the state Senate, the first of three legislative hearings in December 2020.

He repeatedly asserted that machines made by Dominion Voting Systems had flipped votes from Trump to Biden and changed the election outcome — false claims that became part of Dominion defamation suits against Fox News, Giuliani and a number of others.

Giuliani, then Trump’s personal lawyer, also played a video that he said showed election workers pulling suitcases of suspicious ballots from under a table to be secretly counted after Republican poll watchers had left for the night.

He accused two workers, a Black mother and daughter named Ruby Freeman and Wandrea Moss, of passing a suspicious USB drive between them “like vials of heroin or cocaine.” Investigators later determined that they were passing a mint; Giuliani recently admitted in a civil suit that he had made false statements about the two women.

Other Trump allies also made false claims at the hearing with no evidence to back them up.

The president calling

In the meantime, Trump was working the phones, trying to directly persuade Georgia Republican leaders to reject Biden’s win.

He called Kemp on Dec. 5, a day after the Trump campaign filed a lawsuit seeking to have the state’s election results overturned. Trump pressured Kemp to compel lawmakers to come back into session and brush aside the will of the state’s voters.

Kemp, who during his campaign for governor had toted a rifle and threatened to “round up illegals” in an ad that seemed an homage to Trump, rebuffed the idea.

By Dec. 7, Georgia had completed its third vote count, yet again affirming Biden’s victory. But Trump allies in the Legislature were hatching a new plan to defy the election laws that have long been pillars of American democracy: They wanted to call a special session and pick new electors who would cast votes for Trump.

Never mind that Georgia lawmakers had already approved representatives to the Electoral College reflecting Biden’s win in the state, part of the constitutionally prescribed process for formalizing the election of a new president. The Trump allies hoped that the fake electors and the votes they cast would be used to pressure Vice President Mike Pence not to certify the election results on Jan. 6.

Kemp issued a statement warning them off: “Doing this in order to select a separate slate of presidential electors is not an option that is allowed under state or federal law.”

The fake electors meet

Rather than back down, Trump was deeply involved in the emerging plan to enlist slates of bogus electors.

Trump called Ronna McDaniel, the head of the Republican National Committee, to enlist her help, according to McDaniel’s House testimony. By Dec. 13, as the Supreme Court of Georgia rejected an election challenge from the Trump campaign, Robert Sinners, the Trump campaign’s local director of Election Day operations, emailed the 16 fake electors, directing them to quietly meet in the capitol building in Atlanta the next day.

On Dec. 14, the bogus electors met at the Statehouse. They signed documents that claimed they were Georgia’s “duly elected and qualified electors,” even though they were not.

In the end, their effort was rebuffed by Pence.

In his testimony to House investigators, Sinners later reflected on what took place: “I felt ashamed,” he said.

One last call

Trump refused to give up. It was time to reach the man who was in charge of election oversight: Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state.

On Jan. 2, he called Raffensperger and asked him to recalculate the vote. It was the call that he would later repeatedly defend as “perfect,” an hourlong mostly one-sided conversation during which Raffensperger politely but firmly rejected his entreaties.

“You know what they did and you’re not reporting it,” the president warned, adding, “you know, that’s a criminal — that’s a criminal offense. And you know, you can’t let that happen. That’s a big risk to you.”

Trump seemed particularly intent on incriminating the Black women working for the county elections office, telling Raffensperger that Freeman — whom he mentioned 18 times during the call — was “a professional vote-scammer and hustler.”

“She’s one of the hot items on the internet, Brad,” Trump said of the viral misinformation circulating about Freeman, which had already been debunked by Raffensperger’s aides and federal investigators.

Trump-fueled conspiracy theories about Freeman and her daughter, Moss, were indeed proliferating.

Then, on Jan. 4, Freeman received an unusual overture.

Trevian Kutti, a Trump supporter from Chicago who had once worked as a publicist for Ye, persuaded Freeman to meet her at a police station outside Atlanta. Freeman later said that Kutti had tried to pressure her into saying she had committed voter fraud.

“There is nowhere I feel safe. Nowhere,” Freeman said in her testimony, adding, “Do you know how it feels to have the president of the United States target you?”

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