The president’s attempts to intervene in an ongoing investigation could amount to obstruction of justice or other criminal violations, legal experts said, though they cautioned a case could be difficult to prove.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger had launched the inquiry following allegations that Cobb election officials had improperly accepted mail ballots with signatures that did not match those on file — claims that state officials ultimately concluded had no merit.
In an interview with The Washington Post on Friday, Raffensperger confirmed that Trump had placed the Dec. 23 call. He said he was not familiar with the specifics of what the president said in the conversation with his chief investigator, but said it was inappropriate for Trump to have tried to intervene in the case.
“That was an ongoing investigation,” Raffensperger said. “I don’t believe that an elected official should be involved in that process.”
The Post is withholding the name of the investigator, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment, because of the risk of threats and harassment directed at election officials.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Since Election Day, Trump has made at least three calls to government officials in Georgia in an attempt to subvert President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, beginning with a conversation with Gov. Brian Kemp (R) in early December to berate him for certifying the state’s election results.
The president is furious with both Raffensperger and Kemp, who have refused to echo his claims that the election was rigged. He has complained that they betrayed him after he endorsed both of their 2018 elections. At a rally Wednesday in Washington, shortly before his supporters ransacked the Capitol, he attacked them personally onstage, calling the two men “corrupt.”
Trump’s call to the chief investigator occurred more than a week before he spent an hour on the phone with Raffensperger, pushing him to overturn the vote. In that Jan. 2 conversation, the president alternately berated the secretary of state, tried to flatter him, begged him to act and threatened him with vague criminal consequences if the fellow Republican refused to pursue his false claims, at one point warning that he was taking “a big risk.”
Legal experts said Trump’s call to the secretary of state may have broken state or federal laws that bar the solicitation of election fraud or prohibit participating in a conspiracy against people exercising their civil rights.
Trump’s earlier call, to the chief investigator, could also carry serious criminal implications, according to several former prosecutors, who said that the president may have violated laws against bribery or interfering with an ongoing probe.
“Oh my god, of course that’s obstruction — any way you cut it,” said Nick Akerman, a former federal prosecutor in New York and a onetime member of the Watergate prosecution team, responding to a description of Trump’s conversation with the investigator.
Akerman said he would be “shocked” if Trump didn’t commit a crime of obstruction under the Georgia statutes. He said the fact that the president took the time to identify the investigator, obtain a phone number and then call “shows that he’s trying to influence the outcome of what’s going on.”
However, such cases can be difficult to prove, and legal experts said the decision to prosecute Trump — even after he leaves office — would be a politically fraught one.
Robert James, a former prosecutor in DeKalb County, Ga., said that proving obstruction would hinge on what Trump said and the tone he used, as well as whether the president’s intentions were clear.
Without the audio of the call, it would be more difficult to prove wrongdoing, he said. The later call with Raffensperger is more damning, he said, because of the power of the audio that was made public.
“He says, ‘Go find me some votes.’ That can clearly be interpreted as asking someone to break the law,” James said.
In the wake of the Capitol siege by Trump supporters, Democratic House leaders said Friday they were preparing articles of impeachment that they planned to vote on as early this coming week. While they were focused primarily on Trump’s role in inciting a violent mob to storm the Capitol, an early draft circulated Friday also mentioned Trump’s call to Raffensperger as an example of “prior efforts to subvert and obstruct” the certification of the 2020 election.
Raffensperger briefly mentioned Trump’s December call to the chief investigator in an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” earlier this week. But the details of the conversation had not been previously reported.
On the call, Trump sounded much like he did while talking to Raffensperger, according to the person familiar with the discussion — meandering from flattery to frustration and back again.
It was one in a series of personal interventions by Trump and his allies in Georgia since the November election. The president has obsessed about his defeat in the state and expressed disbelief to aides that he could have lost while other Republicans won.
It is unclear how the president tracked down the chief elections investigator. Before his Jan. 2 call to Raffensperger, Trump had tried to reach the secretary of state at least 18 times, but the calls were patched to interns in the press office who thought it was a prank and did not realize the president was on the line, as The Post previously reported. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows ultimately arranged the conference call among Trump, Raffensperger and their aides.
That conversation followed previous inquiries to state officials by Trump allies.
In mid-November, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) contacted Raffensperger to inquire about whether entire counties’ mail ballots could be tossed if an audit found high rates of mismatched signatures in those jurisdictions.
Raffensperger told The Post at the time that Graham appeared to be suggesting that he find a way to toss legally cast ballots. Graham denied that, calling that characterization “ridiculous.”
Then in late December, Meadows traveled to Cobb County to see for himself how the ballot-signature audit was proceeding.
Meadows said he was not trying to interfere with the investigation but just wanted to “talk outside of the tweets,” Jordan Fuchs, the deputy secretary of state, said at the time.
Meadows was not allowed in the room where the audit was occurring, Fuchs said, but he was able to peer through the window of the door.
Trump called the chief investigator the following day.
Raffensperger announced the audit on Dec. 14, after allegations surfaced that ballots were accepted in Cobb County without proper verification of voter signatures on the envelopes.
No evidence has emerged of widespread signature-matching anomalies in Cobb or elsewhere in Georgia. Raffensperger ordered the audit, he said, because his office pursues all allegations of election irregularities.
“Conducting this audit does not in any way suggest that Cobb County was not properly following election procedures or properly conducting signature matching,” Chris Harvey, Raffensperger’s director of elections, said at the time. “We chose Cobb County for this audit because they are well known to have one of the best election offices in the state, and starting in Cobb will help us as we embark on a statewide signature audit.”
If large numbers of mismatched envelope signatures had been discovered, it would have been impossible to pair those envelopes with the ballots they contained, which are separated to protect voter privacy as required in the Georgia Constitution.
In the end, Raffensperger’s investigations team, working alongside the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, found just two nonmatching signatures among more than 15,000 examined during the audit in Cobb County. The audit concluded on Dec. 29, six days after the president called the chief investigator.
Trump was steaming about the outcome of the inquiry when he spoke to Raffensperger on Jan. 2.
“Why can’t we have professionals do it instead of rank amateurs who will never find anything and don’t want to find anything?” the president said, according to audio obtained by The Post. “They don’t want to find, you know they don’t want to find anything. Someday you’ll tell me the reason why, because I don’t understand your reasoning, but someday you’ll tell me the reason why.”
Alice Crites, Paul Kane and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.