In Georgia, Trump’s Attacks on Election Still Haunt Republicans
“In the aftermath of President Trump’s efforts to subvert the election, state officials face harassment and threats, and a district attorney is weighing an inquiry into the president’s actions.
ATLANTA — The impeachment charge that House Democrats have filed against President Trump stems from his role in inciting a mob to attack the U.S. Capitol last week. But included in the resolution is another element of Mr. Trump’s behavior that is also drawing condemnation as an abuse of presidential power: His pressure campaign to persuade Georgia officials to overturn his electoral loss in the state.
Before inspiring a throng of supporters to attack the Capitol, Mr. Trump had previously sought to “subvert and obstruct” the results of his failed re-election effort, a draft article of impeachment released Monday reads, citing in particular the president’s extraordinary intervention in Georgia.
Even if Democrats’ second effort to remove the president from office fails or fades, Mr. Trump’s efforts to subvert the will of Georgia’s voters will continue to resonate, both for the president and for politicians in Georgia. State elections officials continue to face harassment and death threats. A number of Georgia Republicans are now blaming Mr. Trump’s baseless accusations of election fraud for the losses by the state’s two Republican senators this month.
And in Atlanta, the Fulton County district attorney is weighing whether to start a criminal investigation into Mr. Trump for a phone call to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in which the president exhorted him to “find” the votes that would deliver Mr. Trump victory.
That call was part of a much broader push by Mr. Trump and his allies to subvert Georgia’s election results. The effort played out over two months and in the end was based on allegations of fraud that were consistently debunked by his fellow Republicans charged with overseeing the state’s election.
Gabriel Sterling, one of the most outspoken of those officials, said in an interview this week that the president’s effort was both inappropriate and crude.
“There was never an overarching strategy,” Mr. Sterling said, adding: “It was a series of tactical moves in an attempt to get a different outcome here. The president shouldn’t be trying to do things to put his thumb on the scale. I don’t care if it’s a Republican or a Democrat, no president should do that.”
Mr. Trump’s relentless campaign to change the result first came to public attention in a startling act of intraparty discord six days after Election Day.
On Nov. 9, the two Republican senators forced into Georgia runoff races, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, released a joint statement calling for the resignation of Mr. Raffensperger, a fellow Republican. The senators, who were both Trump loyalists, made hazy allegations that Mr. Raffensperger’s oversight of the election was marred by “mismanagement and lack of transparency.”
An official in the secretary of state’s office, who requested anonymity because of the threats that were still coming in, said the office learned that same day that Mr. Trump was behind the statement; he had warned the two candidates that he would turn his Twitter account against them if they did not publicly call for Mr. Raffensperger to step down.
The state official learned of the threat in a phone call with consultants from one of the two senators’ campaigns.
There had been other, quieter attempts to move Mr. Raffensperger, a Trump supporter and lifelong Republican, more firmly and publicly into Mr. Trump’s camp. In January of last year, he rejected an offer to serve as honorary co-chair of the Trump campaign. He also rebuffed subsequent efforts to get him to publicly endorse the president, according to two state elections officials. The efforts, which Mr. Raffensperger rejected on the grounds that he needed to be seen as impartial, were first reported by ProPublica.
The assault on Mr. Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp, who also is a Republican, came as Mr. Trump watched his chances of victory melt away, with swing states counting mountains of mail-in absentee votes that tilted the race in favor of his Democratic challenger, Joseph R. Biden Jr.
In Georgia, David Shafer, the chair of the state Republican Party, assailed the vote-counting process in Fulton County, which encompasses much of Atlanta. Soon, a succession of Trump allies and aides, some of them much more powerful than Mr. Shafer, began exerting pressure on state officials to overturn the election results.
One of them was Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. He called Mr. Raffensperger later that month, and asked him if he had the power to toss out mail-in votes from some counties, according to Mr. Raffensperger’s account of the call, which Mr. Graham has disputed.
The president unleashed a barrage of tweets baselessly challenging his loss and calling for a special session of the Legislature to consider overturning the results. Conspiracy theories blossomed on the far-right fringes of the internet.
On Dec. 1, Mr. Sterling, in an emotional news conference, implored Mr. Trump to stop claiming that the election had somehow been “rigged” against him.
“Mr. President, you have not condemned these actions or this language,” he said, expressing fury over the threats that election officials and poll workers were receiving. “It has to stop.”
It did not. On Dec. 3, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani came to Georgiafor a State Senate hearing and made a series of specious claims about voter fraud, even as officials from the secretary of state’s office debunked such claims at a separate hearing taking place just one floor below. The next day, the Trump campaign filed suit in Georgia to try to get the state’s election results overturned and was joined by the state party.
On Dec. 5, Mr. Trump called Mr. Kemp to pressure him to call a special session of the Legislature to overturn Mr. Biden’s victory in the state. Just hours later, the president again criticized Mr. Kemp and Mr. Raffensperger at a rally that was putatively intended to bolster the electoral chances of Ms. Loeffler and Mr. Perdue.
Two days later, after two recounts, Mr. Raffensperger certified Mr. Biden’s victory.
By then, the schism within the party had widened. A senior official in the secretary of state’s office said at the time that the state party needed “to stop passing the buck for failing to deliver Georgia for Trump.”
In the days before Christmas, Mr. Trump called the lead investigator for the Georgia secretary of state’s office, pressing the investigator to “find the fraud,” those with knowledge of the call have said. Around the same time, Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, made a surprise visit to Cobb County, with Secret Service agents in tow, to view an audit in process there. (“It smelled of desperation,” Mr. Sterling said in the interview. “It felt stunt-ish.”)
The pressure campaign culminated during a Jan. 2 call by Mr. Trump to Mr. Raffensperger, which was first reported by The Washington Post. “I just want to find 11,780 votes,” Mr. Trump said on the call, during which Mr. Raffensperger and his aides once again dismissed the baseless claims of fraud.
Of all of Mr. Trump’s efforts to change the Georgia results, it was this call, recorded and released to the public, that could end up causing him the most trouble. The impeachment resolution cites the call in asserting that the president “threatened the integrity of the Democratic system.”
The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
On Jan. 5, Ms. Loeffler and Mr. Perdue lost their races, giving Democrats control of the Senate. A day later, Mr. Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol.
The ramifications of Mr. Trump’s false claims of voter fraud continue in Georgia. Mr. Sterling said that his house, as well as Mr. Kemp’s, showed up on a website called “enemies of the people” that the F.B.I. concluded was part of an Iranian effort to disrupt the election.
“I got doxxed again last night on Gab,” Mr. Sterling said Monday, referring to a site favored by right-wing extremists.
Georgia Republicans were already confronting the daunting prospect of a Democratic Party reinvigorated by changing demographics and suburbanites’ growing distaste for Mr. Trump’s political style. Now they are left with a party badly split between the Trump supporters who continue to believe that the election was stolen from him and those who believe Mr. Trump’s fight to overturn the results was misguided.
“I think that by President Trump going so far beyond even the date that Al Gore conceded hurt the Republican Party in the runoff,” said Martha Zoller, who chairs Georgia United Victory, the most prominent political action committee that backed Ms. Loeffler’s bid. “I think he had the right to pursue the avenues, but he should have called for peace and unity a lot sooner.”
The legal ramifications of Mr. Trump’s attempts to reverse the election here are uncertain — and complicated. Some legal scholars have said that Mr. Trump’s call to Mr. Raffensperger may have violated state and federal laws, though many note that a charge may be difficult to pursue.
A spokesman for Fani Willis, Fulton County’s new prosecutor, did not return calls seeking comment this week.
In a Jan. 3 letter to Mr. Raffensperger, David Worley, a Democratic member of the state elections board, said that probable cause might exist that Mr. Trump violated a Georgia law concerning solicitation to commit election fraud. State law makes it illegal for anyone who “solicits, requests, commands, importunes” or otherwise encourages others to engage in election fraud.
In an interview this week, Anthony Michael Kreis, a constitutional law expert at Georgia State University in Atlanta, said that Ms. Willis was facing a difficult decision of whether to use her office’s time and resources to go after the president, given her significant challenges at home, including a spike in Atlanta’s crime rate.
But Mr. Kreis argued that the nature of the debate might have changed since the mob attacked the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday.
“Now it well might be worth her time,” he said, “because there’s been real life-and-death consequences for these lies, as well as the president attacking state and local officials to do his bidding to overturn the election in an anti-democratic thrust.”
Astead W. Herndon and Nick Corasaniti contributed reporting.