Experts differ over whether Trump comments could aid prosecutors

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Georgia GOP convention in Columbus on Saturday, June 10, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Georgia GOP convention in Columbus on Saturday, June 10, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Legal experts were divided over whether former President Donald Trump gave additional ammunition to prosecutors during his remarks in Georgia on Saturday.

Trump blasted prosecutors in various criminal investigations during a speech at the Georgia GOP convention in Columbus. He continued to claim — falsely — that he lost the 2020 election because of rampant voting fraud. And he defended the infamous phone call in which he urged Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” him the 11,780 votes Trump needed to defeat Democrat Joe Biden.

Georgia State University law professor Clark Cunningham said Trump may have helped prosecutors by making false factual claims of ballot stuffing that went beyond merely expressing the opinion that the election was stolen.

“If Donald Trump made an important factual claim today about the Georgia election for which he is completely unable to provide supporting evidence, his actions today might be used to show a continuing pattern of deliberate falsehoods to undermine the 2020 election,” Cunningham said.

Another GSU law professor, Anthony Michael Kreis, said Trump apparently didn’t dig a deeper legal hole for himself.

“It was a much more scripted and disciplined stump speech, at least with respect to the investigations into him, than what Trump typically delivers,” Kreis said.

Trump’s convention speech was his first public appearance since he was indicted on federal charges related to his possession of classified documents he kept after leaving the White House in 2021.

He also has been charged in New York for his role in paying hush money to adult film star Stormy Daniels. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is investigating Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia and has suggested she will announce indictments in August. The U.S. Department of Justice also is investigating the events that led to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Trump’s legal troubles dominated his early comments to GOP delegates. He blasted Willis as a “lunatic Marxist.” And he derided U.S. Department of Justice Special Counsel Jack Smith — who is overseeing the federal investigations — as “deranged.”

But it’s unclear whether Trump may have given prosecutors additional ammunition as some legal experts believe he did at a CNN town hall last month.

Cunningham cited Trump’s claim that there are “thousands and thousands and thousands of tapes showing good old fashioned ballot stuffing.” Trump appeared to be citing the film “2000 Mules,” which claimed to demonstrate widespread absentee ballot fraud in Georgia and other states. The film’s claims have been investigated and debunked.

Cunningham said Trump’s claim about “thousands of tapes” is “the kind of (false) statement that may get him indicted in Georgia.”

“This was not a statement of his personal opinion that the election in Georgia was rigged,” he said. “This was a claim that actual evidence exists of ballot stuffing, in fact ‘thousands’ of tapes.”

Kreis didn’t see any obvious statements that could get Trump in trouble.

“While he attacked Brad Raffensperger and Fani Willis and claimed he did nothing wrong in the aftermath of the 2020 election, he stayed away from talking about material facts or his state of mind in any way that might implicate him or give his lawyers a headache,” Kreis said.

Trump said he did nothing wrong in his handling of classified documents. He accused Biden of weaponizing the Justice Department to take out a political foe.

He also said he did nothing wrong in the January 2021 phone call to Raffensperger. If he had, Trump said one of the attorneys on the call — his own or Raffensperger’s — would have said so.

“I had every right to complain that the election in Georgia was, in my opinion, rigged,” he told convention delegates, drawing applause.

Norm Eisen, co-author of a Brookings Institution report that found Trump may have broken numerous laws in Georgia, disputed Trump’s take on the phone call. He said Trump “went beyond mere complaining to apparent solicitation of election fraud — a crime in Georgia.

“There was no legal or evidentiary basis for his demand backed by threats that Raffensperger just ‘find 11,780 votes’ that did not exist after the election had been certified as we explained in detail in our Brookings report,” Eisen said.