The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s impeachable. It’s likely illegal. It’s a coup.

In a phone call on Jan. 2, President Donald Trump insisted he won the state and threatened vague legal consequences. Here are excerpts from the call. (Video: Obtained by The Washington Post)

When President Trump allegedly tried firing special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III, refused to respond to lawful subpoenas during the investigation into the 2016 election and committed the other acts to obstruct justice documented in the Mueller report, he arguably violated his oath, broke the law and committed impeachable conduct.

When he tried to extort Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (“I would like you to do us a favor though …”) to create dirt to use against now President-elect Joe Biden and stonewalled Congress’s demands for evidence, he again violated his oath, engaged in impeachable conduct and broke the law.

In neither case did Republicans recognize the facts before them. In neither case did they act to remove him. That prologue brings us to his telephone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Saturday.

The Post reports: “President 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 election experts said raised legal questions.” In the call, Trump asked Raffensperger to change the certified vote that was subject to multiple recounts: “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.”

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In fact he threatened him. The Post reports, “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.” Trump, sounding like a mobster as he often does, said, “That’s a criminal offense. And you can’t let that happen. That’s a big risk to you and to Ryan, your lawyer.” Nice career, there Brad. Shame if anything happened to it.

Laughably, Trump also tried to use the Senate runoff election to pressure Raffensperger. In an incoherent tirade, he insisted, “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.” He continued: “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. Okay? 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.” I have no idea what “vote negative” means or how voters’ anger would jeopardize the Republican Senate contenders. In any event, now that the tape has been revealed, Trump’s conduct will, we should hope, undercut the Republicans.

I have never favored prosecuting Trump for his conduct in office. But pressuring a campaign official to change the vote tally is a federal offense, as former Justice Department inspector general Michael Bromwich tweeted Sunday, citing Title 52 U.S. Section 20511. That law states: “A person, including an election official, who in any election for Federal office … knowingly and willfully deprives, defrauds, or attempts to deprive or defraud the residents of a State of a fair and impartially conducted election process, by … the procurement, casting, or tabulation of ballots that are known by the person to be materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent under the laws of the State in which the election is held” is subject to imprisonment of up to five years.

Threatening Raffensperger with criminal consequences is also arguably extortion. Title 18 Section 875 of the U.S. Code reads: “Whoever, with intent to extort from any person, firm, association, or corporation, any money or other thing of value, transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any threat to injure the property or reputation of the addressee or of another or the reputation of a deceased person or any threat to accuse the addressee or any other person of a crime, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.”

Alternatively, the state attorney general of Georgia might investigate and bring applicable charges under state law. That would have one clear advantage: Trump cannot receive a federal pardon for state crimes.

There must be a response to a president who exploits his office for the purpose of overthrowing an election. The evidence is on tape. The next attorney general should move forward, if for no other reason, to deter further attempts at such reprehensible conduct. I would suggest impeachment as well, which could include a ban on holding office in the future, but we know already Republicans will defend anything Trump does.

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