Legal experts are divided over whether former President Donald Trump gave Fulton County prosecutors additional ammunition when he used a nationally televised town hall to double down on an infamous conversation with Georgia’s Secretary of State which is a centerpiece of an ongoing criminal probe.
During the Wednesday event hosted by CNN, Trump again defended what he called a “perfect phone call” with Brad Raffensperger on Jan. 2, 2021. During the hour-long conversation, audio of which was quickly leaked to the press, the then-president asked the fellow Republican to “find” nearly 12,000 votes, enough to reverse Democrat Joe Biden’s narrow victory in the state.
“All I want to do is this,” Trump said. “I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have because we won the state.”
At the town hall, Trump falsely insisted that he didn’t ask Raffensperger to “find” him votes.
“I didn’t ask him to find anything,” Trump said before an audience of Republicans and independents in New Hampshire. “ ... I said you owed me votes because the election was rigged. That election was rigged. If this call was bad, why didn’t him and his lawyers hang up?”
He added, “That was a call that was made to question the results of the election. When we can’t make a call to question the election results, then this country ought to just forget about it.”
Some legal observers said Trump’s remarks could help bolster a potential case from Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis. The prosecutor recently wrote in a letter to metro Atlanta law enforcement that she would announce indictment decisions stemming from her investigation of alleged criminal interference in Georgia’s 2020 elections between July and September. In that missive, Willis heavily suggested she would seek an indictment against Trump, telling authorities they needed “heightened security and preparedness” because her announcement “may provoke a significant public reaction.”
Norm Eisen, former President Barack Obama’s ethics czar who is closely following the probe, said Trump essentially confessed during the town hall, advancing Willis’s case.
“Trump was already in a hole legally and criminally in Georgia, and he dug in deeper last night because he articulated the motive for his unlawful conduct in the United States of America, including under Georgia law,” Eisen said Thursday. “You’re not allowed to take the law into your own hands once an election has been certified and call for the election to be overturned by finding non-existent votes no matter what you believe.”
Eisen, who served as Democratic counsel during Trump’s first impeachment trial and is a CNN contributor, said Trump’s behavior during the phone call was akin to someone challenging a bank over a $11,780 debt, losing the challenge and then “going into the bank and sticking it up for that exact amount.”
Anthony Michael Kreis, a Georgia State University constitutional law professor, agreed with Eisen’s assessment.
“Subjects of criminal investigation aren’t usually reckless enough to go on national television and admit their corrupt intent, but Donald Trump just handed Fani Willis a new piece of evidence and tied a bow on it,” Kreis said.
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com
But Melissa Redmon, a former Fulton prosecutor, said Trump’s town hall remarks were more equivocal.
Prosecutors could argue that the comments prove Trump felt entitled to votes in Georgia regardless of what the actual votes were, she said. Defense attorneys, meanwhile, could say Trump truly believed the election was fraudulent and that he wanted Raffensperger to do his job and root out that fraud, she added.
“It would definitely be something that the jury is going to hear different interpretations of from each party” should this go to trial, said Redmon, who teaches at the University of Georgia School of Law.
A Willis spokesman declined to comment, as did Drew Findling, one of Trump’s Atlanta attorneys.
Findling and his co-counsels are asking a Fulton judge to disqualify Willis from investigating Trump and quash evidence compiled by a special grand jury that met for nearly eight months last year. Prosecutors must respond by Monday.
Former Gwinnett County DA Danny Porter said Trump “definitely misquoted and mischaracterized the telephone call” with Raffensperger during the town hall.
Despite that, Porter said, “I don’t know that he put himself in any more jeopardy in Georgia than than he’s already in.”
Caren Morrison, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at GSU’s law school, said the audio of the Trump-Raffensperger phone call is the ultimate piece of evidence for the DA.
Morrison said Trump’s comments on CNN are “just more of the same, but it’s more of the same and it’s years later and so I think it helps reinforce — it’s corroborative evidence, really.”
Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.
Credit: University System of Georgia