Trump’s claims about the video now feature prominently in a 45-page federal indictment that accuses the former president of an illegal scheme to overturn Joe Biden’s victory. The indictment says Trump and unnamed co-conspirators “used knowingly false claims of election fraud to get state legislators and election officials to subvert the legitimate election results.”
Georgia State University law professor Anthony Michael Kreis said Trump’s handling of the State Farm Arena video offers clear evidence to support the Justice Department’s case.
“The State Farm evidence was an essential part of maintaining the claim that the election was rigged,” Kreis said.
Trump’s use of the surveillance video also is a focus of a Fulton County grand jury investigation expected to yield criminal charges this month. Jurors heard testimony from two election workers who endured harassment and death threats because they played a starring role in Trump’s lies about the video.
Investigators’ interest in the video is not surprising. It was one of Trump’s most powerful weapons as he sought to overturn the election in Georgia.
The AJC found his campaign featured the video in TV ads and other media to pressure Georgia Republicans — sometimes by name — to support Trump’s plan.
That effort was ultimately unsuccessful. But Trump’s dark tale of late-night ballot stuffing in Atlanta fueled the anger of his supporters — anger that ultimately led to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Not an ‘ ‘‘Oceans 11-level” scheme’
Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani unveiled the video at a hearing at the Georgia Capitol on Dec. 3, 2020 — a month after Election Day. He played lawmakers snippets of surveillance video from State Farm Arena, where Fulton election workers had counted tens of thousands of absentee ballots.
The video showed workers pull containers of ballots from beneath a table and begin counting them late on election night — and that’s all. But Giuliani and other lawyers spun a shocking tale of fraud.
They said election workers sent Republican observers and the news media home on the pretense that they were done counting for the night. When the observers left, they said, workers pulled out the “suitcases” of ballots that had been hidden beneath the table and began counting. At a subsequent hearing, they said the workers counted some ballots multiple times.
Giuliani called the video a “powerful smoking gun” and proclaimed there was “more than ample evidence to conclude that this election was a sham.”
But none of it was true.
Investigators with the FBI, the GBI and the secretary of state’s office watched all 14 hours of surveillance video — not just the snippets Giuliani played. They also interviewed election workers and the Republican observers. They concluded nothing improper happened.
The investigators found the “suitcases” were official ballot containers. They weren’t placed under the table in secret, but with the observers and the news media present.
The election workers thought they were done for the night, so they packed up the containers of uncounted ballots, sealed them and stored them under the table. When told to keep counting, they pulled the containers back out.
No one asked the Republican observers to leave, they later told investigators. They assumed the counting was done and left on their own, though they could have stayed until the lights were out.
And those double-counted ballots? It’s standard procedure to rescan entire batches of ballots when a scanner misses some of them. The workers press a button to delete the incomplete batches before rescanning them. Investigators determined the ballots were only counted once.
The State Election Board recently dismissed voting fraud allegations against Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, two Fulton election workers featured in the State Farm video. But the basic facts of what happened were apparent to state investigators almost immediately.
The day after Giuliani unveiled the video, the secretary of state’s office showed its frame-by-frame analysis to Channel 2 Action News.
“These are just typical everyday election workers who are just doing their jobs,” Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer for the secretary of state’s office, told Channel 2. “It’s not like this is an ‘Ocean’s Eleven-level’ scheme put together in the middle of the night.”
Spreading the lies
The FBI and U.S. Attorney Byung “BJay” Pak also concluded nothing illegal happened. But Giuliani’s tale of fraud captured on video was an immediate sensation. Conservative media spread the tale, and Georgia lawmakers were bombarded by calls and emails demanding action.
Many Georgia Republican lawmakers apparently told the Trump campaign they were ready to overturn the election — but not enough to convene a special legislative session to take action. So Trump kept up the pressure, and he continued to cite the debunked video as evidence of voting fraud.
The AJC reviewed internal Trump campaign correspondence and transcripts of interviews with campaign employees and contractors. They were released in December by the U.S. House of Representatives committee that investigated the events that led to the Jan. 6 attack.
The documents show how the campaign used television ads, text messages, social media and other outlets to convince Trump supporters in Georgia and other swing states that the election had been stolen.
In Georgia, Exhibit A was the State Farm Arena video. The footage was featured in ads with titles such as “Overwhelming” and “On Tape.” One version, which ran on Fox News, claimed the election workers’ actions were “outrageous.”
“The media won’t admit it, but it’s on video,” the narrator declared.
The ad urged viewers to “contact your legislators and governor today” and “demand that they hear the evidence.”
The Fox ad likely was one of the more subdued Trump television ads featuring the State Farm Arena video. Campaign officials told House investigators that Fox wanted the campaign to document its claims.
They said two other conservative networks, Newsmax and One America News, were less stringent about the claims they aired, and the campaign cut different versions of the ads. One version said the Fulton election workers were engaged in “dirty work” and seemed to “double count votes,” according to a script described in one interview.
Campaign officials told House investigators that Trump pushed for more inflammatory language.
“Boss wants fire breathing, but if we do that we won’t get it on TV,” Larry Weitzner, CEO of the Jamestown Associates advertising firm that produced the ads, wrote in an email to Trump’s campaign. “Tried to balance it out.”
Weitzner told investigators the “boss” was Trump.
When asked whether “the Georgia suitcase example was at the core of” the ads, Weitzner told House investigators it was “at the core of the arguments about election fraud, yes.” Weitzner did not respond to a request for comment.
A “strategic communication plan” prepared by Giuliani’s legal team shows the campaign also planned to use talk radio, conservative bloggers, social media influencers and other means to “inspire citizens to call upon legislators and members of Congress to disregard the fraudulent vote and certify the duly-elected President Trump.”
The campaign targeted elected officials in Georgia and other swing states — sometimes by name.
Text messages sent on Jan. 1, 2021, urged Georgia Trump supporters to call and email state House Speaker David Ralston and Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan “to demand they call a special session immediately” to “hear the evidence, correct the false statements, (and) demand a vote on decertification.”
Trump shared the text on social media on New Year’s Day.
Credit: Source: Trump Twitter Archive
Credit: Source: Trump Twitter Archive
Doubts and repercussions
Even as they crafted the ads, some Trump campaign staffers acknowledged they could not substantiate the allegations. They discussed them by email less than a week after Giuliani unveiled the State Farm Arena video.
“Some of these claims, like suitcase full of ballots, networks can point to fact checks like this (he provided a link) and say it’s not true,” wrote Zach Parkinson, the campaign’s deputy communication director.
Alex Cannon, the campaign’s deputy general counsel, also weighed in.
“Suitcases of ballots. You all can judge from the video what went on just as well as I can,” Cannon wrote. “I do not have a high degree of confidence that networks will run this.”
The federal indictment cites a Dec. 8 email about the video from an unnamed senior campaign adviser, who singled out the State Farm Arena video claim.
“When our research and campaign legal team can’t back up any of the claims made by our Elite Strike Force Legal Team, you can see why we’re 0-32 on our (court) cases,” the official wrote. “I’ll obviously hustle to help on all fronts, but it’s tough to own any of this when it’s all just conspiracy s--- beamed down from the mothership.”
Weitzner told congressional investigators he “expressed concerns about the validity of some of the facts that were being argued” in an ad featuring the video. The allegations were included in the ad anyway.
The indictment says even Trump knew the allegations were false. Top Justice Department officials and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told him so.
But Trump was still spinning the tale on Jan. 6. At a rally that preceded the attack on the Capitol, he told the crowd Fulton County election workers pulled “suitcases of ballots out from under a table.”
“You all saw it on television,” he said, “totally fraudulent.”
Kreis, the GSU professor, said the indictment shows Trump “manufactured evidence out of thin air,” ignored advisers who told him the fraud allegations were false and used them to rile up his supporters to press his cause.
“If people don’t honestly feel that something was stolen from them, they’re not going to get whipped up into a frenzy or storm the Capitol or support your cause,” Kreis said.
Trump may not be the only one in legal jeopardy. Evidence laid out in the federal indictment strongly suggests Giuliani is one of the unnamed co-conspirators. Giuliani also is a target of the Fulton County investigation.
In a defamation lawsuit brought by the two election workers, Giuliani recently said he does not contest the plaintiffs’ claim that he made false statements about them. But Ted Goodman, a political adviser to Giuliani, struck a different tone in a statement to the AJC this week.
“Every fact Mayor Rudy Giuliani possesses about this case establishes the good-faith basis President Donald Trump had for the actions he took during the two-month period charged in the indictment,” Goodman said.
One America News has already settled a defamation claim brought by Freeman and Moss.
Von DuBose, their attorney, said recent judicial proceedings “confirm what we have known all along: that Shaye Moss and Ruby Freeman were dedicated, ethical election workers who did nothing wrong, and that they were collateral damage in a coordinated effort to undermine the results of the 2020 presidential election.”
Staff writer Bill Rankin contributed to this article.