The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump calls Georgia governor to pressure him for help overturning Biden’s win in the state

In November 2018, Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp walks with President Trump at a rally in Macon, Ga. (John Bazemore/AP)

President Trump called Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) on Saturday morning to urge him to persuade the state legislature to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the state and asked the governor to order an audit of absentee ballot signatures, the latest brazen effort by the president to interfere in the 2020 election.

Hours before he was scheduled to hold a rally in Georgia on behalf of the state’s two GOP senators, Trump pressed Kemp to call a special session of the state legislature for lawmakers to override the results and appoint electors who would back the president at the electoral college, according to two people familiar with the conversation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private call.

Trump also asked the governor to demand an audit of signatures on mail ballots, something Kemp has previously noted he has no power to do. Kemp declined the president’s entreaty, according to the people.

The Fix’s Amber Phillips analyzes how some of the rhetoric from Trump allies could depress Republican turnout ahead of the Georgia Senate runoff elections. (Video: The Washington Post)

The governor later referred to his conversation with Trump in a midday tweet, noting that he told the president that he’d already publicly advocated for a signature audit.

Kemp’s spokesman, Cody Hall, confirmed that the two men spoke. Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh declined to comment.

The latest example of Trump’s extraordinary personal effort to overturn Biden’s win comes as his legal team has met with resounding failure in its attempts to use the courts to upend the election. On Friday, the president and his allies suffered legal defeats in six states, including decisive rejections in Arizona and Nevada of their claims of fraud and other irregularities.

Judges turn back claims by Trump and his allies in six states as the president’s legal effort founders

Trump was unable to stop the certification of the vote in all the states in which he has sought to contest the results, even after making personal outreach to Republican officials in Michigan.

Despite that, the president has continued to lash out at the results — particularly in Georgia, where he was furious that Republican officials certified Biden’s win.

On the call Saturday, Kemp told the president that his family was mourning the death of a family friend, a staffer for Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) who was killed in a car crash Friday. Trump then offered his condolences, according to one of the people with knowledge of the conversation. But that was not the purpose of the president’s call, the person added: “This was not a condolence call. This was Kemp being chewed out by Trump.”

Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said that if Trump invoked his federal authority in his conversation Saturday with Kemp, or made the call from the Oval Office, he could have violated criminal provisions of the Hatch Act, which prohibits government officials from political activity in their official roles.

Though the civil penalties of the Hatch Act do not apply to the president, the criminal provisions do, she noted.

Even if Trump did not commit a crime, Clark added, his actions threaten to disenfranchise voters in Georgia who participated in the November election.

“Such a move would undermine public confidence in our constitutional system and do damage to future elections,” she said.

The president’s attempts to pressure Kemp come amid high political stakes in Georgia, where the U.S. Senate incumbents, both Republicans, face runoff elections against Democrats on Jan. 5 that could determine which party controls the upper chamber.

Trump headlined a campaign rally for Loeffler and Sen. David Perdue in the state Saturday night — his first major political event since before the Nov. 3 election.

GOP officials were working frantically behind the scenes to try to keep the president on script at the rally, worried that he would use the forum to attack Kemp and other state GOP officials who have resisted his pressure, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

But the president remained fixated on his loss in the state, promoting baseless claims that Biden’s win was based on fraud, and appears furious with Kemp, a onetime ally.

At his Saturday rally in Valdosta, Ga., Trump briefly lashed out at Kemp for not embracing the president’s allegations of fraud.

“Your governor could stop it very easily if he knew what the hell he was doing,” the president said. He added: “So far we haven’t been able to find the people in Georgia willing to do the right thing.”

The Georgia governor has become a punching bag for the president, who called him “hapless” on Twitter and told aides in recent days that Kemp was a “moron,” according to the person. He also complained to aides that Kemp should not have appointed Loeffler to succeed retiring Sen. Johnny Isakson in late 2019, saying he does not think she is a good candidate.

When asked to comment on Trump’s remarks, Loeffler campaign spokeswoman Caitlin O’Dea said, “Tune in tonight and stop reporting fake news.”

In the run-up to the rally, the president kept up his attacks on state GOP officials.

On Saturday, Trump tweeted: “I will easily & quickly win Georgia if Governor @BrianKempGA or the Secretary of State permit a simple signature verification. Has not been done and will show large scale discrepancies. Why are these two “Republicans” saying no? If we win Georgia, everything else falls in place!”

In response, Kemp tweeted: “As I told the President this morning, I’ve publicly called for a signature audit three times (11/20, 11/24, 12/3) to restore confidence in our election process and to ensure that only legal votes are counted in Georgia.”

Hours later, the president tweeted back: “But you never got the signature verification! Your people are refusing to do what you ask. What are they hiding? At least immediately ask for a Special Session of the Legislature. That you can easily, and immediately, do. #Transparency.”

Trump and his allies have claimed with no evidence that county election officials in Georgia accepted ballots where the voter signatures on envelopes did not match the voter signatures on file.

Trump roils Georgia GOP as party waits to see if presidential visit helps — or hurts — in crucial Senate runoffs

Even if officials audited signatures on ballot envelopes, it would be impossible to match them with the ballots themselves, which are separated from envelopes during processing to protect voters’ privacy, as required in the Georgia Constitution.

Kemp has requested that Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger conduct an audit, but the governor’s office also has made clear that Kemp personally has no power to order such a move.

“Georgia law prohibits the governor from interfering in elections. The Secretary of State, who is an elected constitutional officer, has oversight over elections that cannot be overridden by executive order,” Kemp’s spokesman said several days ago in response to Trump’s public demands.

Raffensperger, a Republican, has strongly defended the integrity of Georgia’s election, despite pressure from other GOP leaders, including the state’s senators, who demanded his resignation. His office has said there is no specific evidence the signature match process was done improperly.

Earlier last week, a top official in Raffensperger’s office called on Trump to stop spreading false claims about fraud, saying the rhetoric was leading to threats of violence against election workers.

‘Someone’s going to get killed’: GOP election official in Georgia blames President Trump for fostering violent threats

Biden secured his victory in Georgia by roughly 12,000 votes. A second recount of ballots requested by the Trump campaign is expected to be finalized this week and confirm his lead.

Nevertheless, the Trump campaign filed a new lawsuit Friday in Superior Court of Fulton County seeking to invalidate Biden’s win. The suit calls for either a new election or for the courts to allow the GOP-majority state legislature to appoint electors.

Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani pressed GOP lawmakers to assert such a role when he addressed a state Senate hearing on the election last week.

“State law doesn’t in any way prevent you, the legislature, from immediately taking this over and deciding this,” Giuliani said at the hearing.

Democratic state Sen. Elena Parent pushed back at the idea that the legislature could choose to override the popular vote and appoint electors sympathetic to Trump.

“According to the law of the state of Georgia, we do not have the power to submit alternate electors. The provision in the old law is quite clear,” said Parent, who has been the target of death threats on far-right online sites.

A handful of GOP lawmakers have called for a special session, but the idea has been shot down by Kemp and other top Republican leaders.

Lawyers for Raffensperger have determined that current law gives Georgia legislators no role in seating electors. And the governor does not think the legislature has the power to change the law with retroactive effect, according to people familiar with his views.