LISTEN: Donald Trump pressures Georgia secretary of state to recalculate vote in his favour
Washington - President Donald Trump urged fellow Republican Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, to "find" enough votes to overturn his defeat in an extraordinary one-hour phone call Saturday that legal scholars described as a flagrant abuse of power and a potential criminal act.
The Washington Post obtained a recording of the conversation in which Trump alternately berated Raffensperger, tried to flatter him, begged him to act and threatened him with vague criminal consequences if the secretary of state refused to pursue Trump's false claims, at one point warning that Raffensperger was taking "a big risk."
Throughout the call, Raffensperger and his office's general counsel rejected Trump's assertions, explaining that the president is relying on debunked conspiracy theories and that President-elect Joe Biden's 11 779-vote victory in Georgia was fair and accurate.
Trump dismissed their arguments.
"The people of Georgia are angry, the people in the country are angry," he said. "And there's nothing wrong with saying, you know, that you've recalculated."
Raffensperger responded: "Well, Mr. President, the challenge that you have is, the data you have is wrong."
At another point, Trump said: "So look. 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 later added: "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."
The rambling and at times incoherent conversation offered a remarkable glimpse of how consumed and desperate the president remains about his loss, unwilling or unable to let the matter go and still asserting that he can reverse the results in enough battleground states to remain in office.
"There's no way I lost Georgia," Trump said, a phrase he repeated again and again on the call. "There's no way. We won by hundreds of thousands of votes."
Several of his allies were on the line as he spoke, including White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and conservative lawyer Cleta Mitchell, a prominent GOP attorney whose involvement with Trump's efforts had not been previously known.
In a statement, Mitchell said Raffensperger's office "has made many statements over the past two months that are simply not correct and everyone involved with the efforts on behalf of the President's election challenge has said the same thing: Show us your records on which you rely to make these statements that our numbers are wrong."
The White House, the Trump campaign and Meadows did not respond to a request for comment.
Raffensperger's office declined to comment.
On Sunday, Trump tweeted that he had spoken to Raffensperger, saying the secretary of state was "unwilling, or unable, to answer questions such as the 'ballots under table' scam, ballot destruction, out of state 'voters,' dead voters, and more. He has no clue!"
Raffensperger responded with his own tweet: "Respectfully, President Trump: What you're saying is not true."
The details of the call drew demands from top Democrats for criminal investigations. Campaigning in Georgia, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris called Trump's conversation a "bald-faced, bold abuse of power by the president of the United States."
Biden's top campaign lawyer, Bob Bauer, said the recording "captures the whole, disgraceful story about Donald Trump's assault on American democracy."
Republicans, however, were largely silent. Senator. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, when asked about the call while campaigning in Georgia on Sunday for the two GOP senators who face a run-off Tuesday, dodged the question completely.
Trump's pressure campaign on Raffensperger is the latest example of his attempt to subvert the outcome of the November 3 election through personal outreach to state Republican officials. He previously invited Michigan Republican state leaders to the White House, pressured Republican Georgia Governor Brian Kemp in a call to try to replace that state's electors and asked the speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to help reverse his loss in that state.
His call to Raffensperger came as scores of Republicans have pledged to challenge the electoral college's vote for Biden when Congress convenes for a joint session on Wednesday. Republicans do not have the votes to successfully thwart Biden's victory, but Trump has urged supporters to travel to Washington to protest the outcome, and state and federal officials are already bracing for clashes outside the Capitol.
During their conversation, Trump issued a vague threat to both Raffensperger and Ryan Germany, the secretary of state's general counsel, suggesting that if they don't find that thousands of ballots in Fulton County have been illegally destroyed to block investigators - an allegation for which there is no evidence - they would be subject to criminal liability.
"That's a criminal offense," he said. "And you can't let that happen. That's a big risk to you and to Ryan, your lawyer."
Trump also told Raffensperger that failure to act by Tuesday would jeopardise the political fortunes of David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, Georgia's two Republican senators whose fate in that day's runoff elections will determine control of the US Senate.
Trump said he plans to talk about the alleged fraud on Monday, when he is scheduled to lead an election eve rally in Dalton, Ga. - a message that could further muddle the efforts of Republicans to draw out their voters.
"You have a big 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," Trump said. "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? They hate it. And they're going to vote. And you would be respected, really respected, if this can be straightened out before the election."
Trump's conversation with Raffensperger echoed his effort to persuade the Ukrainian president to investigate Biden on a call that led to his impeachment, and once again put him in legally questionable territory, legal experts said. By exhorting the secretary of state to "find" votes and to deploy investigators who "want to find answers," the president appeared to be encouraging him to doctor the election outcome in Georgia, which could violate state and federal law.
Trump's apparent threat of criminal consequences if Raffensperger does not act could be seen as an attempt at extortion and a suggestion that he might deploy the Justice Department to launch an investigation, they said.
"The president is either knowingly attempting to coerce state officials into corrupting the integrity of the election or is so deluded that he believes what he's saying," said Richard Pildes, a constitutional law professor at New York University, who noted that Trump's actions may have violated several federal statutes.
But Pildes said Trump's clearer transgression is a moral one, and he emphasised that focusing on whether he committed a crime could deflect attention from the "simple, stark, horrific fact that we have a president trying to use the powers of his office to pressure state officials into committing election fraud to keep him in office."
Prosecutors probably would exercise discretion in considering a case against an outgoing president, experts said.
Edward Foley, a law professor at Ohio State University, said that the legal questions are murky, and that it could be difficult to prove that Trump knew he was encouraging illegal behavior. But Foley also emphasised that the call was "inappropriate and contemptible" and should prompt outrage.
"He was already tripping the emergency meter," Foley said. "So we were at 12 on a scale of 1 to 10, and now we're at 15."
Throughout the call, Trump detailed an exhaustive list of disinformation and conspiracy theories to support his position. He claimed without evidence that he had won Georgia by at least a half-million votes. He floated a barrage of assertions that have been investigated and disproved: that thousands of dead people voted; that an Atlanta election worker scanned 18 000 forged ballots three times each and "100 percent" were for Biden; that thousands more voters living out of state came back to Georgia illegally just to vote in the election.
"So tell me, Brad, what are we going to do? We won the election, and it's not fair to take it away from us like this," Trump said. "And it's going to be very costly in many ways. And I think you have to say that you're going to re-examine it, and you can re-examine it, but reexamine it with people that want to find answers, not people who don't want to find answers."
Trump did most of the talking on the call. He was angry and impatient, calling Raffensperger a "child" and said law enforcement officials "either dishonest or incompetent" for not believing there was widespread ballot fraud in Atlanta - and twice calling himself a "schmuck" for endorsing Kemp, whom Trump holds in particular contempt for not embracing his claims of fraud.
"I can't imagine he's ever getting elected again, I'll tell you that much right now," he said.
He also took aim at Kemp's 2018 opponent, Democrat Stacey Abrams, trying to shame Raffensperger with the idea that his refusal to embrace fraud has helped her and Democrats generally. "Stacey Abrams is laughing about you," he said. "She's going around saying, 'These guys are dumber than a rock.' What she's done to this party is unbelievable, I tell you."
The secretary of state repeatedly sought to correct Trump, saying at one point, "Mr. President, the problem you have with social media, they - people can say anything."
"Oh, this isn't social media," Trump retorted. "This is Trump media. It's not social media. It's really not. It's not social media. I don't care about social media. I couldn't care less."
At another point, Trump claimed that votes were scanned three times: "Brad, why did they put the votes in three times? You know, they put 'em in three times."
Raffensperger responded: "Mr. President, they did not. We did an audit of that and we proved conclusively that they were not scanned three times."
Trump sounded at turns confused and meandering. At one point, he referred to Kemp as "George." He tossed out several different figures for Biden's margin of victory in Georgia and referred to the Senate runoff, which is Tuesday, as happening "tomorrow" and "Monday."
His desperation was perhaps most pronounced during an exchange with Germany, Raffensperger's general counsel, in which he openly begged for validation.
Trump: "Do you think it's possible that they shredded ballots in Fulton County? 'Cause that's what the rumor is. And also that Dominion took out machines. That Dominion is really moving fast to get rid of their, uh, machinery. Do you know anything about that? Because that's illegal, right?"
Germany responded: "No, Dominion has not moved any machinery out of Fulton County."
Trump: "But have they moved the inner parts of the machines and replaced them with other parts?"
Trump: "Are you sure? Ryan?"
Germany: "I'm sure. I'm sure, Mr. President."
It was clear from the call that Trump has surrounded himself with aides who have fed his false perceptions that the election was stolen. When he claimed that more than 5 000 ballots were cast in Georgia in the name of dead people, Raffensperger responded forcefully: "The actual number was two. Two. Two people that were dead that voted."
But later, Meadows said, "I can promise you there are more than that."
Another Trump lawyer on the call, Kurt Hilbert, accused Raffensperger's office of refusing to turn over data to assess evidence of fraud, and also claimed awareness of at least 24 000 illegally cast ballots that would flip the result to Trump.
"It stands to reason that if the information is not forthcoming, there's something to hide," Hilbert said. "That's the problem that we have."
Reached by phone Sunday, Hilbert declined to comment.
Mitchell contradicted Trump on several occasions on the call, saying, "Well, I don't know about that," when the president alleged that a Fulton County election worker had triple-counted 18 000 ballots for Biden. She claimed that the extent of the fraud is unclear because Raffensperger's office has not shared all the data Trump's lawyers have sought.
"We never had the records that you have," she said. Germany noted that the office is barred under law from sharing some voter information.
In the end, Trump asked Germany to sit down with one of his attorneys to go over the allegations. Germany agreed.
Yet Trump also recognised that he was failing to persuade Raffensperger or Germany of anything, saying toward the end, "I know this phone call is going nowhere."
"Why don't you want to find this, Ryan?" he asked of Germany. "What's wrong with you? I heard your lawyer is very difficult, actually, but I'm sure you're a good lawyer. You have a nice last name."
But he continued to make his case in repetitive fashion, until finally, after roughly an hour, Raffensperger put an end to the conversation: "Thank you, President Trump, for your time."