Inside the campaign to undermine Georgia’s election
Election night victory laps
Georgia election officials spent Nov. 3, 2020, huddled in their “war room,” watching for cybersecurity threats and monitoring returns. A big screen showed wait times across the state, with a few slow precincts flashing red.
Georgia was a swing state in the highest-profile presidential election in recent memory. The race between Republican President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden was expected to be close, and election officials were under intense pressure to get it right. The June primary election had been a fiasco, with long lines and problems operating Georgia’s new voting system.
But the November election was going well. Wait times averaged less than two minutes at polling places across the state. At a few busy precincts, voters waited 30 to 40 minutes — far from the hourslong waits many saw in June.
Gabriel Sterling, the state’s voting system manager, went to bed late that night believing the election had been a resounding success.
“We were in victory lap mode,” Sterling said. “I mean, there were no lines, everybody had been voting, the results were coming in.”
Sterling had no idea Georgia was about to become a focus of Trump’s unprecedented crusade to win reelection, regardless of the official results.
Trump took his own victory lap shortly before 2:30 a.m. With millions of votes still uncounted and half a dozen swing states too close to call, he prematurely declared victory over Biden in remarks to supporters at the White House. He warned that his enemies were trying to steal the election, and he singled out Georgia as a state he had won.
“We’re up by 2.5%, or 117,000 votes, with only 7% left,” he said. “They’re never going to catch us. They can’t catch us.”
In fact, Trump’s lead in early Georgia tallies would slip away as workers counted more absentee ballots, and Biden took the lead a few days later. That was no surprise to election experts, who had predicted a late Biden surge for months. The surge was driven by a big partisan divide in voting methods. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Democrats across the country embraced absentee voting in record numbers. Two-thirds of absentee voters in Georgia supported Biden, election results show.
Election experts said partisan voting patterns could mean significant leads for Republicans in early returns, with Democrats catching up as more mail-in ballots were tallied. That’s exactly what happened.
But on election night, Trump offered a more sinister explanation.
“This is a fraud on the American public,” he said.
It was the beginning of Trump’s campaign to win Georgia by claiming the election was riddled with fraud. That claim would be proved false in the weeks ahead. But it would become an article of faith for many Trump supporters — including Georgia politicians who aided his effort to overturn Biden’s victory.
‘Stop the steal’ begins
Two nights after the election, at a Buckhead parking lot not far from state GOP headquarters, a small crowd buzzed around a makeshift stage.
Volunteers offered free pizza to encourage attendance, and people summoned by last-minute texts and phone calls clutched pro-Trump flags and posters. Speakers assembled in the darkness in front of a giant campaign RV plastered with Trump’s image and the words: “Keep America Great!”
Vote counting continued, and Trump’s Georgia lead was dwindling. But Donald Trump Jr. and other speakers made it clear they weren’t about to concede defeat. The crowd’s “stop the steal” chants reinforced that message.
“I want you to really hear this,” said Vernon Jones, a Democrat who had rankled his party by endorsing President Trump. “If Joe Biden wins this election, there’s going to be some payback. Not violence. Half of this country will believe that they cheated us out of this election.”
The Georgia Republican Party was quick to embrace Trump’s fraud claims. The party joined the president in his first Georgia election lawsuit the day after the election. The lawsuit said more than 50 late ballots may have been improperly counted in Chatham County.
Sounding the alarm on Twitter, Georgia GOP Chairman David Shafer said he authorized the lawsuit to “prevent the unlawful counting of absentee ballots received after the election.” Some of his Twitter followers were understandably upset.
“What can be done with this evidence of FRAUD???” one replied.
At a hearing the day of the Buckhead rally, Chatham election officials said the ballots in question had been flagged for further review, but they were found to be valid and then counted. There was nothing improper about them.
Judge James F. Bass Jr. dismissed the lawsuit. He found there was no evidence that election workers counted illegal votes or broke the law.
But the lawsuit established a pattern: Trump and his supporters made alarming accusations that created an impression of lawlessness. On closer inspection, the allegations amounted to nothing.
That didn’t stop Republicans from repeating the Chatham County allegations at the Buckhead rally that night. In the months ahead, Trump and his supporters continued to repeat such allegations long after they had been investigated and refuted.
The repetition of false claims convinced many Georgians they were true: By January, three-quarters of Republicans surveyed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution believed there was substantial fraud in the presidential election.
That belief led some of Trump’s most ardent supporters — including some from Georgia — to attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in an effort to prevent Congress from certifying Biden’s victory. And it continues to influence politics in Georgia and across the country.
This story — based on interviews with Georgia officials, government investigations and lawsuits, recent memoirs from participants and new reporting from credible news organizations — shows the role played by some of those who aided Trump’s effort right up to the Jan. 6 attack.
Some Georgia politicians continue to share false claims as they run for public offices that would allow them to influence the outcome of future elections.
‘Stop the steal’ gets personal
On Wednesday night after the election, Tricia Raffensperger was in the Great Smoky Mountains, preparing to lead a group of wildlife photographers on a weekend field trip. Her husband, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, hoped to join her late Friday, after Georgia counties finished counting ballots.
Tricia Raffensperger’s phone pinged at 10:06 p.m. as she was getting ready for bed. It was a text from an unidentified caller.
“Hi, Patricia. This is getting really ugly. Do Brad a favor and tell him to step down immediately.”
The text was unnerving.
“A stranger knew who she was, had gotten her cell number and had sent her a text,” Brad Raffensperger later recounted in his book on the 2020 election.
The anonymous text was a sign the president’s “stop the steal” campaign was about to get personal. A few days later, on Nov. 9, Georgia’s two Republican U.S. senators — Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue — called on Raffensperger to resign.
The senators said Raffensperger had “failed to deliver honest and transparent elections,” though they cited no examples and provided no evidence.
Seventeen minutes after Loeffler and Perdue issued their news release, Trump tweeted: “Georgia will be a big presidential win, as it was the night of the Election!”
“The coordination between the senators and the White House was obvious,” Raffensperger wrote. He refused to resign.
In the coming days, pressure on Georgia officials escalated.
On Nov. 10, GOP Chairman David Shafer and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, asked Raffensperger for a recount, citing a slew of fraud allegations. Congressional Republicans from Georgia asked Raffensperger to investigate the same claims.
In the weeks that followed, Raffensperger’s office investigated the allegations and found no evidence to support them. But he authorized an extraordinary hand recount of every ballot in the presidential race.
Pressure also came from right-wing extremists and conspiracy theorists. On Nov. 18, Infowars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, alt-right activist Nick Fuentes and Stop the Steal agitator Ali Alexander led a rally inside the Georgia Capitol. Jones called for a special legislative session to investigate allegations of voting fraud.
Finally, pressure came from ordinary Trump supporters alarmed by cries of “fraud.”
“In my eight years here in the Senate, I have never received so many emails, phone calls, text messages,” state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, said later.
Beach was one of four senators who issued an unusual call for Gov. Brian Kemp to convene a special session to address election concerns. They wanted lawmakers to consider evidence of voting fraud and possible changes to election rules ahead of the Jan. 5 runoff election in Georgia’s two U.S. Senate races.
Beach was executive director of the North Fulton Community Improvement District. He had a reputation as a mainstream Republican who mixed support for conservative priorities such as abortion restrictions with calls for transit expansion and other business concerns.
But Beach positioned himself as a Trump loyalist after the 2016 election. During a brief congressional campaign in 2019, he attacked former Republican U.S. Rep. Karen Handel as a “Never Trumper.” Even close friends were surprised by Beach’s political transformation.
Also calling for a special session was state Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick. He did not seek reelection and was serving his last days in the General Assembly. But he organized a special Senate committee to examine election issues.
Beach and Ligon were joined by state Sens. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, and Burt Jones, R-Jackson.
Their Nov. 24 call for a special session put the senators at odds with Republican leaders. Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston had already ruled out a special session. They said changing the rules would “result in endless litigation.”
But in the weeks ahead, the four senators would go to great lengths to aid Trump’s campaign to overturn the election.
That campaign had turned ugly for Tricia Raffensperger. She’d been receiving death threats from anonymous texters.
She got the first one on Nov. 11, two days after Loeffler and Perdue had called on her husband to resign. She texted each senator a copy of the threat and “asked if they understood what they had unleashed on her and on our family,” Brad Raffensperger wrote in his book.
Neither Loeffler nor Perdue responded to her text.
Tricia Raffensperger wasn’t the only one receiving threats. Amid Trump’s persistent claims of voting fraud, election workers began receiving death threats. That prompted Gabe Sterling in the secretary of state’s office to issue a dramatic appeal for the president to “stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence.”
“Someone’s going to get hurt,” Sterling said at the Georgia Capitol. “Someone’s going to get shot. Someone’s going to get killed.”
Giuliani brings the fight to Georgia
A month after the election, the Georgia Capitol was buzzing.
Spectators lined the walls of a fourth-floor committee room. More crowded in front of a television monitor outside the door.
Inside, Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and Trump’s personal attorney, was putting on a show, aided by a team of lawyers for the president’s campaign.
His claims were alarming: Tens of thousands of people had voted illegally in Georgia. Suspicious ballots appeared and were counted. Voting machines may have been manipulated.
By the time of Giuliani’s Dec. 3 appearance at the Georgia Capitol, Trump had already lost or abandoned more than 30 lawsuits nationwide. He would file another the next day in Fulton County, laying out his allegations in detail.
But Giuliani had “sort of given up on the courts,” he testified in a recent lawsuit deposition. So he sought another venue to try his case: state legislatures.
He got a warm welcome in Georgia. State Sen. William Ligon turned his committee over to Giuliani for more than six hours of televised fraud allegations.
The blockbuster evidence Giuliani offered was election night surveillance video from State Farm Arena. It showed Fulton County workers pull containers of ballots from underneath a table, roll them to nearby desks and begin counting them — and that’s it.
But Giuliani — who watched it for the first time in state Sen. Steve Gooch’s office before the hearing — supplied a sinister narrative: Election workers sent Republican observers and the media home under the pretense they were done counting for the night. Then they pulled out “suitcases” of ballots to count in secret.
“Why were they counting them in the middle of the night if there was nothing wrong with them?” Giuliani asked the senators. He called the video “a powerful smoking gun.”
It was not.
Giuliani’s team used snippets of video to spin a tale of fraud. Investigators for the secretary of state’s office watched all 14 hours of the video. Working with the FBI, they interviewed the election workers. State and federal investigators concluded nothing improper happened.
But Giuliani argued there was “more than ample evidence to conclude that this election was a sham.” He urged lawmakers to disregard the official election results, convene a special session of the General Assembly and pick Georgia’s 16 presidential electors themselves.
Giuliani cited a novel legal theory promoted by John Eastman, a law professor who became a key player in Trump’s effort to prevent congressional certification of Biden’s victory on Jan. 6.
Testifying at the Georgia hearing by video, Eastman conceded lawmakers probably could not overturn a fair election just because they didn’t like the outcome. But he said they could overturn an unfair election.
And Eastman said the evidence of fraud and improper conduct in Georgia — evidence that did not pass muster in any court — was “more than enough” to warrant lawmakers picking an alternative slate of presidential electors.
“I don’t think it’s just your authority to do that,” Eastman said, “but, quite frankly, I think you have a duty to do that to protect the integrity of the election here in Georgia.”
Eastman’s argument has been condemned by legal experts across the political spectrum. Georgia State University law professor Anthony Kreis called it “total and utter nonsense that has no respectability whatsoever and has no place in any mainstream legal theories.”
At the hearing, Democrats objected to Giuliani’s claims.
“If you’ve got evidence, show up in court and prove it,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta. “That’s how it has to be.”
But some Republicans said they found Giuliani’s evidence convincing.
State Sen. Greg Dolezal called the video “a bombshell.” Ligon later called it “a smoking gun.” They joined others in demanding investigations to uncover the truth.
In the weeks ahead, Ligon and others did little to investigate Trump’s fraud claims. But they did plenty to spread them. Georgia lawmakers invited Giuliani back to share false allegations twice more in the weeks ahead.
‘Dead’ voters at the Governor’s Mansion
The day after Rudy Giuliani wowed Republicans at the state Capitol, a hearse pulled up outside the Georgia Governor’s Mansion in Buckhead. Four “dead” people emerged, clutching fake ballots they intended to deliver to Gov. Brian Kemp.
They approached the mansion’s gate while Right Side Broadcasting — a pro-Trump network — streamed the scene on Facebook.
“Democrats have arisen from the grave to cast their ballot for Joe Biden, even though it’s a month after the election,” the narrator marveled. “I mean, those facts aren’t really important to Democrats. They’re not really concerned with that. What concerns them most is totalitarian leadership and stripping away of the constitutional liberties we have in our country.”
Several dozen people attended the rally, sometimes chanting, “Dead people can’t vote!” Some arrived on a “March for Trump” bus that was touring the country to spread the president’s tale of a stolen election.
The bus tour was organized by the group Women for America First, a chief sponsor of the Jan. 6 protest that devolved into an attack on the U.S. Capitol. The tour was bankrolled in part by Mike Lindell, the founder of the MyPillow bedding company and a supporter of Trump’s conspiracy theories.
The dead voters were the dramatic highlight of the Atlanta rally, but Lindell was the star. He repeated false claims of fake ballots, dead voters and machines that flipped votes from Trump to Biden. Election investigations later found that just four ballots across Georgia had been cast in the names of deceased voters, all by their relatives.
“This is world collapse if we let this happen,” Lindell warned. “And we’re not going to let it happen.”
Protesters called on Kemp to launch an audit of absentee ballots (he later authorized the GBI to audit signatures on more than 15,000 Cobb County ballots). They also urged the governor to call a special session of the General Assembly.
“We need to put pressure on this governor,” the Right Side Broadcasting narrator said during the protest.
The legislative training session in Athens held every two years is generally a chance for camaraderie and cohesiveness rather than cutthroat politics.
But the Dec. 6-8 conference offered a chance for pro-Trump lawmakers to renew their calls for a special session — and for Gov. Brian Kemp and other state leaders to bat them down.
Kemp came to the session with that in mind. He pointedly told lawmakers that any attempt to award the state’s 16 Electoral College votes to Trump would be unconstitutional and would trigger an all-out legal battle that they would ultimately lose.
“This is not an option under state or federal law,” Kemp said. “The statute is clear. The Legislature can only direct an alternative method for choosing presidential electors if the election was not able to be held on the date set by federal law.”
Kemp had backup from Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston, but some legislators pushed for an open revolt.
State Sens. Brandon Beach and Burt Jones were among those drafting a petition to allow the Legislature to “take back the power to appoint electors.” The petition cited the same dubious legal arguments laid out by Rudy Giuliani the previous week.
In a closed-door caucus meeting, Beach made a string of unsubstantiated and false claims about election fraud to fellow Republicans, using Fulton County as a punching bag.
“I said, ‘Guys and gals, if you think between Nov. 3 and Jan. 5 Fulton County is going to get better, you’re crazy,’” Beach later recalled to a conservative group. “If we don’t change this agreement, where the signatures have to match, and get rid of these drop boxes, we’re going to have the same result. And we’re going to lose two U.S. Senate seats.”
Jones, too, pressured his fellow legislators. He told his colleagues the “truth will set you free” when pushing the petition.
Beach and Jones weren’t the only ones applying pressure. In his recent book, Duncan said Trump himself called individual legislators in Athens “to urge them to circumvent those of us holding the constitutional line.”
State Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, told the AJC that he was one of those who received a call from Trump’s office. He said they were never able to connect.
In the end, only a handful of Senate members and roughly 40 House lawmakers signed on — well short of the three-fifths majority needed. But Trump’s supporters in the Legislature weren’t giving up.
While legislators met in Athens, Texas officials filed an extraordinary lawsuit asking the U.S. Supreme Court to prevent Georgia and three other states that Biden won from casting their electoral votes on Dec. 14. That’s when the Electoral College would officially select the next president.
In each state, the members of the Electoral College are determined by popular vote.
The lawsuit was a long shot: It made allegations and arguments that had already been rejected by other courts. The Supreme Court — which included three Trump-appointed justices — dismissed it four days after it was filed.
But it gave Republicans across the country a chance to demonstrate their loyalty to the president — and to avoid his wrath.
More than 125 Republican members of Congress filed a brief siding with Texas. Among them were Georgia U.S. Reps. Rick Allen, Buddy Carter, Doug Collins, Drew Ferguson, Jody Hice, Barry Loudermilk and Austin Scott. U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue also endorsed the lawsuit amid a constant battle to placate Trump and his supporters.
“I still think the legal arguments were sound,” state Sen. Blake Tillery, an attorney and Vidalia Republican who signed the brief, said months later.
“But it doesn’t bother me that the Supreme Court disagrees with me,” Tillery said. “That’s why they get to be the Supreme Court.”
The third floor of the Georgia Capitol was a scene of jubilation on Dec. 14.
In the stately Senate chambers, Georgia’s 16 presidential electors cast their votes for Biden. Some shed tears as Stacey Abrams and Nikema Williams tallied the votes that cemented the “flip” — the first time a Democratic presidential candidate had captured Georgia since 1992.
“We stand not for ourselves and not for our party, but for the people of Georgia,” Abrams, who as a de facto leader of the party was selected as an elector, told her colleagues and countless others who watched the historic moment on television. “It is on their behalf that we took up this charge to be electors. It is on their behalf that we are ensuring that the nation is led by a good man who believes in the soul of our nation and in all of its people.”
To some, the celebratory atmosphere might have felt like the end of the allegations, lawsuits and hearings that had marked the chaotic weeks since the election. But elsewhere in the Capitol, there were indications the election was far from over for Trump’s most ardent supporters.
Down a flight of stairs, behind a heavy wooden door in Conference Room 216, a small group of Republicans was doing its part to help him. It was anointing its own shadow slate of electors, even though Trump had lost the election and they had no legal authority to do so.
The organizers were secretive about their mission. When an AJC reporter noticed a group of lawmakers and activists huddling inside the conference room, a party functionary quickly slammed the door shut, declaring falsely that it was an “educational meeting.”
The leader of the bunch was state GOP Chairman David Shafer, a former state senator who had narrowly lost a runoff for lieutenant governor and had since become one of the loudest promoters of falsehoods about the 2020 election. Now he was presiding over a sham electoral vote.
The Republicans cloistered in the room were just leaving when the legitimate Electoral College ceremony upstairs ended. Shafer, as the spokesman for the group, said he was “asked by the president’s lawyers to hold this meeting to preserve his rights under the pending litigation.”
“There’s a lawsuit pending that President Trump filed in Fulton County Superior Court that hasn’t been decided,” Shafer said, adding: “In order for that lawsuit to remain viable, we are required to hold this meeting.”
Similar efforts to appoint shadow delegates occured in other swing states. For anyone paying attention, the message was clear: Trump’s campaign to overturn the election was about to accelerate. And it was aimed squarely at Jan. 6, when Congress would certify the Electoral College results.
Trump would use the shadow electors to build a case that the official ones were illegitimate. However flawed his case, it would disrupt the peaceful transfer of power in the United States, which had been a hallmark of American democracy for more than 200 years.
Part 2The road to Jan. 6
By mid-December 2020, there were many signs Trump’s Georgia voting fraud allegations were false.
State investigators had found no evidence of significant voting fraud. Election experts had taken a close look at claims that tens of thousands of people voted illegally in Georgia and found them “highly inaccurate” and “worthless.” Trump’s own attorney general said federal investigators found no evidence of enough fraud to change the election outcome. And judges in more than 50 lawsuits — including several in Georgia — had rejected Trump’s evidence and legal arguments.
On Dec. 17 — three days after the Electoral College had selected Biden as the next president of the United States — state Sen. William Ligon issued an election fraud report that ignored all that evidence. The Brunswick Republican had said senators “have a constitutional responsibility to get to the bottom of what happened.” But his committee didn’t do much investigating.
Instead, Ligon turned a hearing over to Trump’s attorneys for hours of unchallenged fraud allegations. Then he wrote a report that simply repeated those allegations — including a conspiracy theory that suggested foreign powers had used Georgia’s Dominion Voting Systems machines to manipulate election results.
The report included no response from election officials accused of wrongdoing. Nor did it include comments from the secretary of state’s office, which had investigated numerous fraud claims and found them to be false.
Ligon told the AJC his committee had limited time, and he noted state election officials testified at other legislative hearings.
“They were certainly welcome to be there,” he said. “Everything was announced.”
Ligon’s report wasn’t approved by the committee or even published on the state Senate website. But it recommended the General Assembly convene immediately to consider rescinding the election results and appointing “proper” presidential electors.
In the weeks to come, Trump’s allies would cite the report as evidence in their continuing campaign to overturn the election.
Ligon said recently that he believed the evidence presented at the hearing, including the State Farm Arena video that investigators with the secretary of state’s office, the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in Atlanta had concluded showed nothing improper.
“There should have been a thorough and sifting investigation of what occurred,” Ligon told the AJC, “and if there was misconduct, improprieties or fraud, then I think that maybe we should have had another election.”
Political ‘gamesmanship’ in court
By late December, state Sens. William Ligon and Brandon Beach had done more than most elected officials in Georgia to aid Trump’s effort to overturn the presidential election.
They had called for a special session of the General Assembly to investigate voting fraud. When Gov. Brian Kemp and legislative leaders rejected the request, they circulated a petition among lawmakers to convene a session.
They had staged a televised hearing where Trump’s lawyers shared conspiracy theories about late-night ballot stuffing and rigged voting machines. And they had sided with Texas in its lawsuit against Georgia and other states.
On Dec. 22, Beach and Ligon showed they were willing to take on the leaders of their own political party to serve Trump.
They were among the Georgia plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed in the District of Columbia that sought to prevent Vice President Mike Pence and Congress from accepting presidential electors from Georgia and four other states Biden won.
In addition to Pence, the defendants included the U.S. House and Senate, the Electoral College and public officials from the five states. The Georgia defendants — all Republicans — were Gov. Brian Kemp, state House Speaker David Ralston and state Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller.
The lawsuit cited allegations that had already been rejected in previous lawsuits. In Georgia, that included an assertion that emergency rules for processing absentee ballots were illegal.
But its main claim was that legislators in Georgia and elsewhere had violated the U.S. Constitution by failing to certify the election themselves. It asked the court to order Pence and Congress to refuse to accept the election results from those states until their legislatures voted to certify the electors.
U.S. District Judge James Boasberg dismissed their request on numerous grounds less than two weeks after it was filed. Among other things, he said the lawsuit “rests on a fundamental and obvious misreading of the Constitution.”
Boasberg suggested the lawsuit was a political ploy, not a serious legal argument. The plaintiffs had made no effort to properly serve the lawsuit on the defendants. The judge was so incensed he referred the plaintiffs’ attorney to a committee for disciplinary action.
“Courts are not instruments through which parties engage in such gamesmanship or symbolic political gestures,” he wrote.
The lawsuit may not have been serious. But Beach and Ligon had shown again that they would go to extraordinary lengths to overturn the election. And they weren’t done trying.
A disturbing phone call
As 2020 drew to a close, U.S. Attorney Byung “BJay” Pak got a disturbing phone call from Richard Donoghue, the acting deputy attorney general.
It was Dec. 30 or 31 — Pak couldn’t recall which. Donoghue “was very frustrated because the president was solely focused on Georgia with respect to any voter fraud allegations,” Pak told U.S. Senate investigators during a deposition months later.
Donoghue said Trump “just would not believe that he lost Georgia.”
Pak was the top federal prosecutor in Atlanta. He found Trump’s fraud fixation “kind of disturbing” because his own Justice Department had investigated “several allegations” in Georgia since the election.
“Obviously, we concluded that there was nothing there,” Pak said in his deposition.
Pak himself had reviewed a key piece of evidence: video from State Farm Arena that Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani had called a “smoking gun” at a state Senate hearing Dec. 3.
The day after that hearing, U.S. Attorney General William Barr had asked Pak to make investigating the video a “top priority,” Pak told Senate investigators. A few days later, Pak obtained the video, along with audio recordings of witness interviews conducted by the Georgia secretary of state’s office.
State investigators had already concluded that the video showed nothing improper. After watching the video and listening to the interviews, Pak agreed. At about the same time, the FBI interviewed election workers and also concluded “there was nothing irregular about the events,” Pak told investigators.
During their phone call, Donoghue had more disturbing news. Jeffrey Clark, a Trump ally in the Justice Department, was pressing DOJ officials to aid the president’s effort to overturn the election in Georgia.
Clark wanted to send a letter urging Georgia officials to consider appointing a new slate of presidential electors, citing “significant concerns” about the election. Trump allies were also pressing the DOJ to join a new lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court that sought to overturn the election in Georgia and other states Biden won.
One problem: The DOJ had no significant concerns. As evidence of fraud, the letter and the lawsuit cited state Sen. William Ligon’s one-sided report, which regurgitated Trump’s allegations without investigating them.
Aiding Trump would be an extraordinary intervention in U.S. politics by the Justice Department. Pak was stunned by what Donoghue was telling him.
“And I said, ‘Well, that seems — that’s very — that’s crazy,’” Pak told Senate investigators. “‘That’s just highly crazy.’”
Donoghue agreed it was “batshit crazy.”
Top DOJ officials told Clark they would not send his letter to Georgia and other states that Biden won, according to the Senate investigation report. They told Trump the department would not file the lawsuit.
During the phone call, Pak agreed the department should not file a lawsuit “that’s not substantiated by any evidence.” Donoghue told Pak that Trump might contact him directly.
“And I said, ‘Well, he could call me all he wants,’” Pak responded. “‘The answer is not going to change.’”
The president never called. But Trump remained fixated on Georgia — as Pak would soon learn.
A shocking day
Jan. 2 may long be remembered as the day Donald Trump asked Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to find the 11,780 votes he needed to beat Biden in Georgia. That phone call prompted a criminal investigation that some legal observers say puts Trump at “substantial risk of possible state charges.”
But, in retrospect, the Raffensperger call was just one of several stunning developments that day. In Georgia and in Washington, Trump’s campaign to overturn the election was taking dramatic turns.
Trump was trying to enlist a new ally for his last-ditch effort: Vice President Mike Pence. The legal rationale came from John Eastman, the law professor who had told Georgia lawmakers in December that they could ignore the official results and decide the presidential election themselves.
In memos that circulated beginning Jan. 2, Eastman now argued Pence could refuse to accept presidential electors from Georgia and other states that Biden won while presiding over Congress’ official ballot counting on Jan. 6. Then, through various procedural maneuvers, Trump could win reelection.
His argument hinged on the dubious claim that seven states had submitted “dual slates” of presidential electors to Congress — including the slate Georgia Republicans approved in secret on Dec. 14 without any legal authority.
When they became public months later, Eastman’s memos drew bipartisan condemnation. Critics said federal law does not allow the vice president to reject electoral votes. A complaint filed against Eastman in California said the memos “sought to justify a brazen power play by Mr. Trump.”
Brazen or not, many Republicans across the country joined the effort to pressure Pence.
On Jan. 2, some Georgia legislators prepared a letter urging Pence to delay the tally of Electoral College votes for 12 days “for further investigation of fraud, irregularities and misconduct” in the November election. Legislators from four other states that Biden won wrote similar letters.
Among the 16 Georgia legislators who signed the letter were Sens. Brandon Beach, Greg Dolezal, Burt Jones and William Ligon, who had spent weeks calling for the General Assembly to intervene on Trump’s behalf. The letter appeared on Ligon’s Senate stationery. Jones planned to deliver it to the vice president personally a few days later.
The campaign to aid Trump took other forms on Jan. 2.
At the Justice Department, Jeffrey Clark again pressed his superiors to urge Georgia officials to convene a special legislative session. And Clark dropped a bombshell: Trump had offered to make him acting attorney general, replacing Jeffrey Rosen. But Clark said he might turn down the promotion if Rosen agreed to send his Georgia letter.
Rosen and acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue refused to send the letter, according to a Senate investigation report. That set up a showdown the next day in Trump’s office.
Then there was Trump’s Jan. 2 call to Raffensperger.
Sitting at his kitchen counter, Raffensperger listened while Trump said that not reporting voting fraud would be a “a criminal offense.” He said Raffensperger and Ryan Germany, general counsel for the secretary of state’s office, were at a “big risk.”
Raffensperger took it as a threat.
“President Trump is using what he believes is the power of his position to threaten Ryan and me with prosecution if we don’t do what he tells us to do,” he wrote in his recent book. “It was nothing but an attempt at manipulation.”
‘Tomorrow is his last day’
BJay Pak learned about Donald Trump’s call to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger through news accounts on Jan. 3. He was upset and disappointed.
Despite Justice Department assurances that there was no widespread fraud in Georgia, “the president was seeking to overturn the election, or at least find ballots or represent that there was (sic) irregularities,” Pak later told U.S. Senate investigators.
Pak considered resigning immediately. But the runoff election for Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats was just two days away. He didn’t want his sudden resignation to “give some credence to the allegations of fraud” or be used as a “certain kind of talking point,” he told investigators.
So he decided to stick with his original plan. After the election, he would offer his resignation, effective Jan. 20, when Biden would be sworn in.
But Pak would be gone the next day.
At a Jan. 3 White House meeting, top DOJ administrators threatened to resign if Trump appointed Jeffrey Clark acting attorney general. They said other senior officials would join them.
Trump agreed not to replace Jeffrey Rosen. But he continued to complain about Georgia voting fraud, and he found a new target for his wrath.
“Atlanta, Atlanta, no surprise there,” Trump said, according to acting U.S. Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue’s Senate deposition. “They didn’t find anything. No surprise because we have a never-Trumper there as U.S. attorney.”
Trump had appointed Pak U.S. attorney in Atlanta in 2017. A former federal prosecutor, Pak served six years as a Republican in the state House of Representatives. He told Senate investigators he was not a “Never Trumper.”
But in 2016, Pak had said Trump made it “extremely difficult” for Republicans to court women and minority candidates and voters. Trump cited the remark at the Jan. 3 meeting.
The president told Donoghue to fire Pak. Donoghue told investigators he talked Trump into letting Pak resign instead. The president agreed, but he wanted Pak gone immediately.
“Tomorrow is his last day as U.S. attorney,” Trump said.
Donoghue broke the news to Pak that night. He offered Pak another senior Justice Department position through the end of Trump’s tenure. Pak declined.
“I told him, ‘Rich, thanks, but no thanks,’” he said in his Senate deposition. “‘I’m done.’”
The next morning, Pak resigned.
“I deeply appreciate the opportunity to have served as United States attorney,” he wrote to Trump. “I wish you and your administration the best of luck and success.”
Senate investigators later asked Pak whether — as of Jan. 4, his last day in office — he knew of any evidence or credible allegations of significant fraud in the 2020 election.
“I was not aware of any evidence that indicated widespread fraud or anything that would affect the actual result of the election in Georgia,” Pak said.
‘Never, ever surrender’
On the eve of the runoff, the campaigns of U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue were in trouble. And they desperately needed a strong push from Trump at a final campaign stop in Dalton.
The problem was, at the last rally Trump had held a month earlier in Valdosta, he had spent more time complaining about his election defeat than promoting his two Senate allies. When Loeffler and Perdue were introduced, chants of “fight for Trump” nearly drowned out their short speeches.
This rally was even more crucial. Though it might not seem sensible for Trump to make a beeline for staunchly Republican territory surrounding Dalton, the metrics showed early voting turnout took a nosedive in parts of northwest Georgia that were supposed to be GOP strongholds.
Loeffler was in particular trouble. Her campaign’s internal polling showed her lagging behind Perdue, a household name in conservative politics for the past decade. Loeffler, on the other hand, had raced to prove herself to the party’s base since Gov. Brian Kemp appointed her to the seat a year earlier.
With margins so close, any sign of lagging conservative support raised alarm bells in her campaign. And any attempt to curry favor with Trump got careful consideration - including his final demand that she block Biden’s Electoral College victory.
Time and again as the runoff neared, Loeffler had been asked whether she would join the small but growing GOP effort to block Biden’s Electoral College certification on Jan. 6 in Congress. And each time, she sidestepped the question.
But as Trump approached his final Senate runoff rally, there was no wiggle room.
Taking the stage to a boom of applause, Loeffler announced her decision to the cheering audience of thousands at Dalton’s windswept airport. With the crowd chanting, “Stop the steal” and “fight for Trump,” Loeffler said she would object to the vote.
“We’re going to get this done,” she said. “This president fought for us. We’re fighting for him.”
A few minutes later, it was Trump’s turn to rile up the crowd. He repeated many of the same well-worn lies about election fraud, then wound down his speech with a Churchillian homage that might as well have previewed the turmoil to come.
“We will not bend, we will not break. We will not yield,” he said. “We will never give in. We will never give up. We will never back down. And we will never, ever surrender.”
The undelivered letter
Georgians went to the polls again on Jan. 5 to pick two U.S. senators — races that would determine which party controlled the upper chamber and whether President-elect Biden’s agenda stood any chance in Congress.
That same day, state Sen. Burt Jones was in Washington, prepared to help Trump ensure Biden never became president.
He carried a letter signed by 16 Georgia legislators. It asked Vice President Mike Pence to delay certifying the presidential election results when Congress convened the next day. The lawmakers wanted 12 days to investigate fraud allegations that had already been investigated, including the State Farm Arena video.
Jones intended to hand the letter to Pence personally. He had been invited to a dinner for Pence supporters that night at the Naval Observatory.
Jones later told the AJC he was an early supporter when Pence considered his own presidential run in 2015. In his last days in office, Pence was now thanking supporters — possibly with an eye toward a 2024 presidential run.
Jones wasn’t the only Georgia Republican at the dinner. State Sen. Tyler Harper was also there: He tweeted a photo of himself with Pence and second lady Karen Pence.
Jones caught an Uber to the dinner. He asked the driver to wait and keep the Pence letter. He wanted to assess the vice president’s mood before delivering it.
“I was just reading his body language and everything else,” he said.
Pence had already told Trump he didn’t have the legal authority to block the certification of Biden’s victory. Jones said he could tell it would be “a tall order” to convince the vice president, and he decided not to deliver the letter.
“So I had it sitting out in the car,” he said. “I never did bring it in. I could tell that it wasn’t going to happen.”
Jones said he returned to Georgia that night. But at least one state Senate colleague was in Washington to aid Trump’s effort the next day.
The phone call that never came
As thousands of Trump supporters gathered near the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, state Sen. William Ligon waited by the phone in the Willard hotel, a block from the White House and a little over a mile from the U.S. Capitol. Trump’s team used the hotel as a command center in its effort to overturn Biden’s election, according to the Washington Post.
Ligon had done as much as any public official in Georgia to cast doubt on the election, and he was prepared to do it again. He was in Washington to assist Republicans who sought to invalidate Georgia’s presidential electors during the official tally later that day.
Ligon was joined by Preston Haliburton, an Atlanta attorney who told Ligon’s committee in December that he was investigating allegations of voting fraud.
Trump’s team asked them to be on hand to answer questions about the election. A Trump investigator paid for their hotel rooms, records obtained by The Washington Post show. Haliburton disputes that: He says they paid their own way.
Haliburton said they would have based their comments on Ligon’s report from the Dec. 3 Senate hearing.
“They wanted to have somebody who had knowledge of issues that were actually there,” Haliburton said.
Ligon said he saw no other Georgia lawmakers in Washington, but he saw some from other states.
“I was just asked to be available to answer questions that anyone may have had,” Ligon told the AJC.
So he waited by the phone, ready to cast doubt on the election. But his phone never rang. His plans were interrupted by the attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“I was available that day, but nothing happened because of all the things that went on that day,” he said.
Ligon wasn’t the only Georgia official hoping to sway Congress that day. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger made one last attempt to debunk the fraud claims Republicans had cited in their push to nullify the election.
Just after noon, Raffensperger emailed Georgia’s congressional delegation, including the Republicans who planned to contest the state’s election results at the joint session of Congress. He hoped to change their mind.
As a Republican, Raffensperger told them he was disappointed with the election result. But while there are a small number of illegal votes in any election, he said investigators were finding nothing out of the ordinary, and the outcome of the election was not in doubt.
Raffensperger had been making those points for weeks, but his arguments had not persuaded many fellow Republicans to stop claiming the outcome of the election was in doubt.
While Trump supporters rallied in Washington, D.C., a smaller group gathered outside the Georgia Capitol, where Raffensperger was working. Some were armed with rifles.
One of the protesters entered the Capitol looking for Raffensperger. Though the protester was unarmed, the Georgia State Patrol escorted Raffensperger out of the building.
“I did not know until I arrived home that the U.S. Capitol was under assault,” he later recalled.
At the Washington rally, Trump urged thousands of people to march on the U.S. Capitol. He insisted Vice President Mike Pence could refuse to accept electors from states Trump said were stolen from him by fraud. Pence had concluded he could not.
Rudy Giuliani also spoke that day. He decried “fraudulent” ballots and called for “trial by combat” to resolve election issues.
“I’ll be darned if they’re going to take away our free and fair vote!” Giuliani told the crowd. “And we’re going to fight to the very end to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
After the protest turned violent, Hice deleted the post.
In the chaotic hours that followed, hundreds of Trump supporters ransacked the Capitol, assaulted police officers and sent elected officials into hiding.
U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, was trapped on the balcony of the House chamber with several dozen members of Congress, employees and journalists. Police officers barricaded the room and drew their guns to prevent the mob from entering.
“We were basically sitting ducks,” Johnson said later.
About 140 officers were injured, and one died the next day after suffering strokes. Two Trump supporters died of heart attacks, while another — Rosanne Boyland of Kennesaw — died of an accidental overdose. One — Ashli Babbitt — was shot and killed by police.
Despite the violence, some Georgia Republicans still sought to overturn the election.
When Congress reconvened that night, Hice introduced the challenge to Georgia’s results, citing an “unprecedented amount of fraud and irregularities” in the election. U.S. Reps. Rick Allen, Buddy Carter and Marjorie Taylor Greene stood with him.
But Loeffler changed her mind about supporting the challenge. Without her support in the Senate, it died.
“The events that transpired have forced me to reconsider, and I cannot now, in good conscience, object to the certification of these electors,” Loeffler said on the Senate floor. “The violence, the lawlessness and siege of the halls of Congress are abhorrent and stand as a direct attack on what my objection was intended to protect, the sanctity of the American democratic process.”
It was one of her last official speeches. Voters had swept Loeffler and fellow Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue from office the day before.
At 3:42 a.m. Jan. 7, after majorities in Congress rejected Republican challenges and counted the Electoral College votes, Pence affirmed Biden’s victory.
Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on Jan. 20.
Postscript: ‘Stop the steal’ continues
The secretary of state’s office investigated 296 complaints about 2020 elections in Georgia. As of early December 2021, 36 of those cases remained open.
None of the investigations found evidence of a coordinated effort to change votes. Few cases found actual fraud, where someone illegally voted or tried to vote for someone else. Most complaints dealt with procedural errors by election workers or voter mistakes.
Election irregularities might have changed a handful of votes, but nowhere near the 12,000-vote margin in the presidential election.
“Despite all the grand delusions and claims that the election was stolen, not one single lawsuit was won, not a single piece of evidence has been brought forward and no grand conspiracy has been revealed,” Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said.
Some of those who spread false allegations have suffered consequences. Numerous lawyers face disciplinary action, including possible disbarment. State Sens. Brandon Beach and Burt Jones lost committee chairmanships in the state Senate.
But some who spread false claims have been rewarded or may yet be. In June, David Shafer was reelected chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, with Trump’s endorsement. Jones and U.S. Rep. Jody Hice are running for higher office. Beach is reportedly considering a run for Congress.
And despite repeatedly failing to turn up evidence of significant fraud, many people continue to question the legitimacy of last year’s presidential election. Among them is former state Sen. William Ligon.
Ligon said he has no regrets about his actions following the election, and he does not believe he helped pave the way for the attack on the U.S. Capitol. He said he raised “valid concerns” about the election, and investigations by the secretary of state’s office, the GBI, the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office have not diminished his concerns.
Ligon watched the Jan. 6 attack on television in his Washington hotel room.
“Just like everyone else, I was trying to understand what was going on and what was happening,” he said.
Ligon said he saw “a lot of patriotic people” on the streets, exercising their right to express themselves.
“And then you had the reports of what had happened at the Capitol and (I’m) just trying to understand, how did this happen?”