Why Donald Trump’s phone call seeking to overturn Georgia election results was so damaging

The fallout from Donald Trump’s call to pressure Georgia’s elections chief was swift

John Bowden
Washington DC
Wednesday 22 February 2023 20:20 GMT
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A grand jury in Fulton County, Georgia, has recommended multiple criminal charges as a result of an investigation into Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results.

In an interview, the jury foreperson told The New York Times that the list of charges recommended was “not short”.

Much like the city of Detroit, also a target of Mr Trump’s false claims of voter fraud, Fulton County’s population is majority-Black and was a key region for the Biden campaign’s voter turnout efforts throughout 2020. The surge of Democratic votes in those regions were enough to flip two states, Georgia and Michigan, that voted for Mr Trump in 2016 – a costly blow in the former president’s fight for the Electoral College.

But it was Republican officials, including Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who were the target of Donald Trump’s overtures in the days following the 2020 election as he desperately sought to change the results. A conference call between the White House, Mr Trump’s lawyers, and Georgia state officials on 2 January 2021 has now become a crucial piece of evidence in the grand jury investigation into Mr Trump and his legal team after it first sent shockwaves through the media and political class.

The fallout from the call was immediate. Audio was published in The Washington Post just a day after it transpired, and it would go on to be a key point in the article of impeachment filed by Democrats against Mr Trump later that year.

After the partial grand jury report was released, the foreperson told The New York Times that the panel recommended charges against multiple people. “It is not a short list,” Emily Kohrs told The New York Times.

She declined to name whom the panel singled out for charges.

Let’s take a look at exactly why the call was so damaging for Mr Trump’s credibility on the issue of his 2020 election fraud claims:

An opening monologue

Much like you’d expect a phone call with Donald Trump to go, it began with a lengthy, rambling soliloquy from the president. Mr Trump spoke for several minutes, barely pausing, and diving immediately into conspiracy theories about what had supposedly occurred in Fulton County.

Thousands of unregistered voters supposedly cast ballots, he claimed. Thousands of people registered to vacant addresses supposedly voted. Thousands of out-of-state residents allegedly submitted votes. There were no poll watchers. There were no police. And, infamously, a woman was allegedly seen on camera “stuffing” a ballot box full of votes – all, presumably, for Mr Biden.

It was a monologue that could have been ripped straight from one of Mr Trump’s speeches. It only ended when Mark Meadows, the president’s chief of staff, interrupted him in the hopes of not overwhelming Mr Raffensperger and his fellow Georgians with nonsense.

Raffensperger responds to individual allegations

Despite the seemingly incoherent mess of conspiracies thrown at his feet by the president a minute earlier, Mr Raffensperger leapt into the conversation as soon as he had the chance and began dismantling the falsehoods Mr Trump was spreading.

“I’ll go through that point by point,” he told the president. The first one he took down was the conspiracy about supposedly compromised voting machines manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems.

“[W]e did a hand retally, a 100 per cent retally of all the ballots and compared that to what the machine said,” Mr Raffensperger told the president. “It came up with virtually the same results. Then we did the recount. We’ve got virtually the same results. So I guess we could probably take that off the table.”

Mr Trump had no real response to this; after a moment of huffing, he moved on to other conspiracies. At one point, Mr Trump accused a seemingly random poll worker of “scanning” ballots three times.

“Mr President they did not put that – we did an audit of that. It was proved conclusively that they were not scanned three times,” responded the secretary.

Trump warns Raffensperger: The people are angry

In what could be seen as a veiled threat, Mr Trump at one point in the call warned Mr Raffensperger that his own supporters were extremely upset about the election results.

“[T]he people of Georgia are angry and these numbers are going to be repeated on Monday night along with others that we’re going to have by that time, which are much more substantial even, and the people of Georgia are angry, the people of the country are angry,” Mr Trump told the officials, who would go on to be inundated with death threats for months.

He would repeat the potential threat later on: “I hate to imagine what’s going to happen on Monday or Tuesday.”

Trump claims local officials were ‘dishonest or incompetent’

Though the Trump campaign maintained publicly throughout late 2020 that they wanted investigators to look into the claims of election fraud the president and his allies were raising, it was clear at one point during Mr Trump’s call with Mr Raffensperger that this was not necessarily the case.

Confronted with the fact that investigators from the Georgia Bureau of Investigations as well as the FBI had looked into what had transpired when a burst water main caused a brief evacuation of one polling place, Mr Trump said that their findings didn’t matter.

“Well, there’s no way they could [not have found wrongdoing],” said the president. “Then they’re incompetent. They’re either dishonest or incompetent.”

He kept raging: “There’s only two answers, dishonesty or incompetence. There’s just no way. Look, there’s no way.”

Trump rages at Raffensperger

When it became clear that the two men differed significantly in their opinions of the integrity of Georgia’s elections, Mr Trump took it personally. And he lashed out at the official in response.

Told by Mr Raffensperger that he was repeating conspiracies from social media, Mr Trump fired back: “No. No, this isn’t social media. This is Trump media. It’s not social media. It’s really not. It’s not social media. I don’t care about social. I couldn’t care less. Social media is big tech. Big tech is on your side. You know, I don’t even know why you have a side because you should want to have an accurate election. And you’re a Republican.”

The president lashes out at Stacey Abrams

Despite Ms Abrams losing her own election, Mr Trump was convinced that she was the secret Democratic puppetmaster behind his loss in Georgia.

“Look, Stacey, in my opinion, Stacey is as dishonest as they come. She has outplayed you at every…at everything,” he told Mr Raffensperger.

He went on to explain that he believed a court settlement between Mr Raffensperger’s office had legalised ballot harvesting in the state. Mr Raffensperger informed the president that he was mistaken.

I just want to find 11,780 votes

Finally, the most damning portion of Mr Trump’s outreach to the secretary arrived. Defeated at every turn by dogged state officials who had meticulously shot down every theory and false assertion he had raised, Mr Trump told the other participants on the call that he needed state officials to find a reason, any reason at all, for nearly 12,000 votes to be added to his total.

“All I want to do is this: I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more that we have because we won the state. And flipping the state is a great testament to our country because, you know, this is just, it’s a testament that they can admit to a mistake or whatever you want to call it. If it was a mistake, I don’t know. A lot of people think it wasn’t a mistake. It was much more criminal than that. But it’s a big problem in Georgia and it’s not a problem that’s going away. I mean, you know, it’s not a problem that’s going away.”

After Mr Raffensperger responded, telling the president that they had looked into his claims, he tried his luck again.

“So what? So what are we going to do here, folks? I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes. Give me a break. You know, we have that in spades already, or we can keep it going.”

The call wound down from there; Mr Trump would go on to raise a false claim, and Mr Raffensperger would shoot it down. Rinse, repeat. A lawyer for Mr Trump pressed the officials on whether the matters had really been investigated, while outside counsel to Mr Raffensperger’s office responded that they would sit down with the Trump team and explain precisely why their numbers were wrong.

One last attack

As it became clear the call was going nowhere, Mr Trump launched one last bitter attack against the assembled officials and warned them that they were costing Republicans the upcoming runoff elections for US Senate. Georgia’s two US Senate seats would go on to fall into Democratic hands.

“You should meet tomorrow because you have a big election, election coming up and because of what you’ve done to the president, you know, the people of Georgia know that this was a scam,” raged Mr Trump. And because of what you’ve done to the president, a lot of people aren’t going out to vote and a lot of Republicans are going to vote negative because they hate what you did to the president. OK?”

“[Y]ou would be respected ... if this thing could be straightened out before the election,” the president added. “I’ll tell you, it’s going to have a big impact on Tuesday if you guys don’t get this thing straightened out fast.”

Finally, the call ended minutes later. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows encouraged the attorneys for the two groups to meet and discuss the results further, and so concluded one of the most shocking moments of Mr Trump’s entire administration.

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