The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Michigan attorney general ponders criminal probes of state and local officials who bend to Trump’s will on overturning election results

Lee Chatfield, left, speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, bows his head as he heads with a group of fellow Republican legislators from his state to meet with President Trump on Friday at the White House. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Michigan’s attorney general is exploring whether officials there risk committing crimes if they bend to President Trump’s wishes in seeking to block the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in their state, according to two people familiar with the review.

The move by Dana Nessel, a Democrat, reflected a growing sense of unease among many in her party and some Republicans that the president was continuing his unprecedented efforts to reach personally into the state’s electoral process as he seeks to prevent Michigan from formally declaring a winner there.

On Wednesday, two Republican officials in Wayne County sought to rescind their vote to certify the election results in their county, where Detroit is located, after Trump called them Tuesday night.

On Friday afternoon, four leaders of Michigan’s Republican-controlled state legislature met with Trump in the White House at his invitation.

At a meeting of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers Nov. 17, Republicans were assailed by virtual attendees for initially refusing to certify election results. (Video: The Washington Post)

Tensions surrounding the White House encounter seemed to ease somewhat late Friday when there were signs the lawmakers would not side with Trump.

No details of the meeting were available late Friday. But the lawmakers issued a statement saying that they “have not yet been made aware of any information that would change the outcome of the election in Michigan and as legislative leaders, we will follow the law and follow the normal process regarding Michigan’s electors, just as we have said throughout this election.”

A spokesperson for Nessel declined to comment for this article.

Since President Trump lost the 2020 election, his campaign aides have repeatedly appeared on Fox News to tease baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud. (Video: The Washington Post)

The attorney general is conferring with election law experts on whether officials may have violated any state laws prohibiting them from engaging in bribery, perjury and conspiracy, according to people familiar with the deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.

Biden won enough states to secure 306 electoral college votes to Trump’s 232. In Michigan, Biden led Trump by more than 150,000 votes.

For three hours, an obscure county board in Michigan was at the center of U.S. politics

In the wake of Biden being declared president-elect on Nov. 7, the Trump campaign initially sought to file several legal challenges claiming the results were tainted by fraudulent ballots and widespread election fraud. But the campaign repeatedly lost those court cases for lack of evidence for its claims. In the past week, Trump and his allies have shifted their efforts to attempting to block the certification of results in several states, including Michigan.

That included Trump speaking by phone Tuesday with Monica Palmer, a member of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, after she and her Republican colleague William Hartmann reluctantly agreed to certify the county’s election tally. After the call, the next day, she and Hartmann reversed course, seeking to rescind their vote to certify. The Michigan secretary of state’s office, which oversees elections, said Thursday that there is no legal mechanism for Palmer and Hartmann to do so.

Palmer said Trump did not pressure her and mostly wanted to check on her safety, but it was hard to describe everything that was said in the call due to “adrenaline” and “stress.”

Palmer and Hartmann each signed affidavits saying they were misled into believing that if they voted for certification, there would be a rigorous audit of the ballot-counting process.

Under Michigan’s perjury law, the attorney general could prosecute an election official who provided false information in an affidavit submitted to the county and state election boards. A perjury conviction carries a maximum five-year sentence in Michigan.

Palmer denied any wrongdoing, saying that she accepted no favors nor benefits from the president and his allies and had been entirely truthful in her affidavit.

More important she stressed she was doing her job, and doing it diligently. She said she disagrees with repeated suggestions from some Democrats that board members are required to certify the vote.

“They are suggesting I don’t have discretion on whether to certify,” she said, calling the notion ridiculous. “What’s the point” of having a canvas board review if it is only a rubber stamp? she asked.

Hartmann’s lawyer, Mark Mandell, accused Nessel “of using my client as a patsy in a hyper-sensitive political environment.”

The Friday visit to the White House by Michigan lawmakers offered no signs that Trump’s pressure campaign would result in any legislative action to overturn the election.

Mike Shirkey, leader of the Michigan Senate, and Lee Chatfield, speaker of the state House, joined Trump along with two other Michigan Republicans, Tom Barrett, a state senator, and state Rep. Jason Wentworth.

Chatfield and Shirkey issued a statement afterward that they had delivered a letter seeking more aid for their state’s battle against the coronavirus pandemic. They notably did not back up Trump’s claims that there was evidence of rampant fraud in Michigan, but stressed that any fraud allegations should be probed.

“Michigan’s certification process should be a deliberate process free from threats and intimidation,” they said. “Allegations of fraudulent behavior should be taken seriously, thoroughly investigated, and if proven, prosecuted to the full extent of the law. And the candidates who win the most votes win elections and Michigan’s electoral votes. These are simple truths that should provide confidence in our elections.”

Chatfield said in a tweet Friday that he has nothing to apologize for in meeting with Trump. “No matter the party, when you have an opportunity to meet with the President of the United States, of course you take it. I won’t apologize for that. In fact, I’m honored to speak with POTUS and proud to meet with him.”

Trump’s critics have said the president’s actions appear on their face to be an improper and possibly illegal abuse of his presidential power.

Just before Trump’s meeting with Michigan Republicans, Biden legal adviser Bob Bauer blasted Trump for hosting the meeting.

“It’s an abuse of office,” Bauer told reporters Friday. “It’s an open attempt to intimidate election officials. It’s absolutely appalling.”

Longtime Republican elections lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg, a vocal critic of Trump’s efforts to reverse the election outcome, was initially dubious about the potential legal culpability of the state lawmakers who met with Trump. “I don’t know of anything in the law that would stop state legislators from going to the White House,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it’s not cringeworthy.” Still, Ginsberg said, Trump’s efforts to influence the count in Michigan could have the effect of disenfranchising Michigan voters. “That is wrong,” he said.

Nessel has been aggressive in prosecuting public integrity crimes in the state since her arrival last year, and has pressed forward with charges against fairly low-level public officials. Several have been Democrats, including a county clerk charged with election law violations.