Christine declined to comment on the call when contacted by the AJC Tuesday.
Former U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak, a Republican who had served since 2017, had planned to remain through the end of the Trump administration but resigned abruptly Jan. 4. Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal reported the White House forced Pak to resign because Trump believed he was not being aggressive enough in investigating allegations of election fraud.
In a call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger two days before Pak’s resignation, Trump disparaged Pak as a “never Trumper U.S. attorney.”
Christine, the U.S. attorney for Georgia’s Southern District, was appointed to replace him. The appointment bypassed the number two prosecutor in the office, Kurt Erskine, and raised fears of political interference as Trump was waging a campaign to overturn the results of the election.
Christine apparently convened the conference call to reassure federal lawyers in the Northern District office — most of whom are working remotely — that he was not pushing what Justice Department officials have called baseless claims of election fraud in President-Elect Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia. Yet the questions from staff attorneys revealed deep suspicions and fears of political interference.
“Can you walk us through what happened when you were offered this position? Was it a call from the (Deputy Attorney General’s) office, was it the acting Attorney General?” one lawyer on the call asked. “I think we are entitled to know what specifically was conveyed to you from either the White House or main Justice leadership.”
Attorneys asked and re-asked why First Assistant U.S. Attorney Erskine had not been appointed as Pak’s replacement during the transition.
“Many of us have been through multiple administrations, and almost always the FAUSA takes over,” one lawyer on the call said.
“I don’t think that’s a question I’m going to get into,” Christine said. “I appreciate you asking it; I empathize for why you would ask it, but I’m not going to get into that.”
FILE - In this Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019, file photo, U.S. Attorney Byung J. "BJay" Pak is seen following a news conference in Atlanta. Pak, the top federal prosecutor in Atlanta, left his position Monday, Jan. 4, 2021, a day after an audio recording was made public in which President Donald Trump called him a “never-Trumper." Pak, who was appointed by Trump, announced his resignation as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia in a news release. The statement did not say why Pak was leaving or what he plans to do next. (AP Photo/Ron Harris, File)
Credit: Ron Harris
Credit: Ron Harris
Won’t be ‘an election lawyer,’ Christine says
Former federal prosecutor Buddy Parker spent 19 years in the Department of Justice, much of that time working in the Northern District of Georgia, and he said the abrupt resignation of Pak and appointment of Christine was a blow to the credibility of the office.
“I have never observed or heard of such an event as what happened last Monday week,” he said.
Referring to the reporting of the Wall Street Journal and others, Parker said it was outrageous for a White House to force the resignation of United States attorney and appoint someone from another district to force action on a political matter.
“It’s beyond very disruptive,” he said. “To me, it’s just a culture of fear of being created in the office.”
When a U.S. attorney resigns, Parker said the first assistant attorney always takes over in an acting capacity. It is extremely unusual for a U.S. attorney from another district to be appointed, he said.
When Pak resigned and Christine was appointed, Parker said he called contacts in Savannah who described Christine as “absolutely devoted to Trump.”
“He takes orders and executes orders. He also has great ambition, according to people I talked to down in Savannah,” he said.
In September, Christine contributed $2,800 to Trump’s reelection campaign, the maximum allowable individual contribution.
Pak also contributed to a number of Republican candidates and committees over the years, but he did not contribute to Trump and has made no political contributions since his appointment in 2017.
In 30 minutes of introductory remarks, Christine flattered the staff and attempted to reassure them he was there to “do no harm.” Christine was appointed by Trump in 2017 to head Georgia’s Southern District, a position he retains while also serving as acting U.S. attorney in the northern half of the state.
Christine said he didn’t “race” to Atlanta to assume the position, arriving last Wednesday, partly in deference to his friendship and respect for Pak.
“I also knew we had an election going on Tuesday and I didn’t want my arrival to distract any leadership in our office or in the federal agencies,” he said.
“I’m not coming up here to be an election lawyer,” he said. “I’m not coming here for that purpose.”
‘No there, there’
Christine said the Northern District office was “running like a sewing machine,” but that description only prompted more questions from staff as to why he decided to bring two lawyers skilled in election law from the more thinly staffed Southern District.
Christine said he brought the two election attorneys to help with what he assumed was a “dump truck full” of election files, but instead found “very, very few.”
Even so, Christine met with the FBI, GBI and the Department of Homeland Security on his first day in Atlanta to get briefed on election cases, he said. So far, Christine said the election cases were overblown, and cited the two cases he closed last Wednesday.
“In my opinion, there is no there, there,” he said.
When asked by a staff attorney, Christine described such issues as “well-intentioned” complaints of receiving two ballots. “‘That may actually be a well-intentioned person who received an application for a ballot and then the ballot itself,” he said.
“We don’t have these huge colossal issues that if you turn on the TV you’d think it’d be,” he said. “Some of them might be threatening emails that come from an IP address that actually might lead us right back to the complainant, right? So election issues are more than just what we hear about on TV. You all know that better than I do.”
Christine also revealed that he has contracted to bring in a third outside lawyer: Miles M. “Matt” Hart, a former prosecutor from the Northern District of Alabama with history of prosecuting government corruption and white collar crimes.
Christine said he hired Hart because of his history dealing with public corruption cases and alluded to something big in the Northern District.
“I am not experienced in public corruption, and it is my understanding that there is a colossal public corruption series of cases in the office and a well-staffed team that are working those issues,” he said. “BJay made me aware, Kurt’s given me more information, and I expect we’ll learn more.”
Christine was pushed as to whether he would resign on Jan. 20, as Pak had planned. He said he wouldn’t “be dragged out of here by my heels,” but he repeatedly hedged on his future plans.
“I simply don’t know how long that will be. Is it one day? Is it one week? Is it one year? I don’t know,” he said. “I assume it’s shorter rather than longer, but I don’t know.”