Attempts by the president to intervene in an ongoing investigation could turn into obstruction of justice or other criminal offenses, legal experts said, although they warned that the case could be difficult to prove.
Secretary of State Brad Rafensperger launched the investigation after allegations that Cobb election officials had illegally accepted ballot papers with signatures that did not match those in the archives – allegations that government officials ultimately concluded were unfounded.
In an interview with The Washington Post on Friday, Rafensperger confirmed that Trump called on December 23. He said he was not aware of the specifics of what the president said in a conversation with his chief investigator, but said it was inappropriate for Trump to try to intervene.
“It was an ongoing investigation,”
The Post retained the name of the investigator, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment due to the risk of threats and harassment directed at election officials.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Since election day, Trump has made at least three calls to Georgian government officials in an attempt to undermine President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, beginning with a conversation with Gov. Brian Kemp (R) in early December to denounce him for verifying state results. elections.
The president is furious with both Rafensperger and Kemp, who refuse to reiterate his claims that the election was rigged. He complained that he had been betrayed after approving both of their 2018 elections. At a rally in Washington on Wednesday, shortly before his supporters robbed the Capitol, he personally attacked them on stage, calling the two men “corrupt.”
Trump’s call to the chief investigator came more than a week before he spent an hour on the phone with Rafensperger, urging him to cancel the vote. In that January 2 conversation, the president alternated between the secretary of state, trying to flatter him, begging him to act, and threatening him with unclear criminal consequences if a fellow Republican refused to pursue his false allegations, warning at one point that he was taking “big risk ”.
Legal experts say Trump’s appeal to the secretary of state may have violated state or federal laws that prohibit recourse to electoral fraud or prohibit conspiracy against people exercising their civil rights.
Trump’s earlier appeal to the chief investigator could also have serious criminal consequences, according to several former prosecutors who said the president may have violated anti-bribery laws or interfered in an ongoing investigation.
“Oh, my God, of course, that’s an obstacle – to reduce it in any way,” said Nick Ackerman, a former federal prosecutor in New York and a former member of the Watergate team, in response to a description of Trump’s conversation. with the investigator.
Ackerman said he would be “shocked” if Trump did not commit an obstacle crime under Georgia’s statute. He said the fact that the president took the time to identify the investigator, get a phone number and then call, “shows that he is trying to influence the outcome of what is happening.”
However, such cases can be difficult to prove, and legal experts say the decision to prosecute Trump – even after he leaves office – will be a politically burdensome decision.
Robert James, a former prosecutor in DeCalb County, Georgia, said proving obstacles would depend on what Trump said and the tone he used, as well as whether the president’s intentions were clear.
Without the audio of the appeal, it would be more difficult to prove wrongdoing, he said. A later conversation with Rafensperger was more damned, he said, because of the power of the audio, which was made public.
“He says, ‘Go find me votes.’ This can be clearly interpreted as a request from someone to break the law, “said James.
Following the siege of the Capitol by Trump supporters, Democratic House leaders said Friday they were preparing members for impeachment, which they plan to vote on early next week. While they focused primarily on Trump’s role in inciting a violent mob to storm the Capitol, an early draft released Friday also cited Trump’s appeal to Rafensperger as an example of “previous efforts to undermine and impede election certification.” in 2020
Rafensperger briefly mentioned Trump’s call in December to the chief investigator in an interview with ABC’s Good Morning America earlier this week. But details of the conversation were not announced earlier.
During the conversation, Trump sounded as much as he did as he spoke to Rafensperger, according to those familiar with the discussion, meandering from flattery to disappointment and vice versa.
It was one of a series of personal interventions by Trump and his allies in Georgia after the November election. The president is obsessed with his defeat in the state and expressed distrust of aides he could have lost while other Republicans won.
It is not clear how the president tracked the chief election researcher. Prior to his January 2 call to Rafensperger, Trump tried to contact the secretary of state at least 18 times, but the calls were sent to interns at the press center who thought it was a joke and did not realize the president was online, as The Post reported earlier. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows eventually arranged a conference call between Trump, Rafensperger and their aides.
This conversation followed previous inquiries to government officials from Trump’s allies.
In mid-November, Senator Lindsey O. Graham (RS.C.) turned to Rafensperger to ask if entire county mail ballots could be thrown away if the audit found a high percentage of inconsistent signatures in those jurisdictions.
Rafensperger then told The Post that Graham seemed to be offering him a way to cast legally cast ballots. Graham denied this, calling it “ridiculous.”
Then, in late December, Meadows traveled to Cobb County to see for himself how the ballot was being audited.
Meadows said he was not trying to interfere in the investigation, but simply wanted to “talk off the tweets,” said Jordan Fuchs, the deputy secretary of state.
Fuchs said Livazus was not allowed into the audit room, but was able to peek out the door window.
Trump called the chief investigator the next day.
Rafensperger announced the audit on December 14 after allegations surfaced that ballots had been received in Cobb County without proper verification of voters’ signatures on the envelopes.
There was no evidence of widespread signature anomalies in Cobb or elsewhere in Georgia. According to him, Rafensperger ordered the audit, as his office is pursuing all allegations of election irregularities.
“Conducting this audit in no way implies that Cobb County did not follow election procedures properly or did not match signatures properly,” said Raffensperger, director of elections at the time. “We chose Cobb County for this audit because it is well known that they have one of the best constituencies in the state, and starting in Cobb will help us when we embark on an audit of signatures across the country.”
If a large number of non-compliant envelope signatures were found, it would be impossible to pair these envelopes with the ballots they contain, which are divided to protect the confidentiality of voters, as required by the Georgian Constitution.
Eventually, Rafensperger’s investigation team, working with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, found only two inconsistent signatures among more than 15,000 examined during the Cobb County audit. The audit ended on December 29, six days after the president called the chief investigator.
Trump burned the outcome of the investigation when he spoke with Rafensperger on January 2.
“Why can’t we have professionals do it instead of amateurs who will never find anything and don’t want to find anything?” The president said, according to an audio report from The Post. “They don’t want to find, you know they don’t want to find anything. One day you will tell me the reason why, because I do not understand your reasoning, but one day you will tell me the reason why. “
Alice Creates, Paul Kane and Mike Debonis contributed to this report.