Trump impeachment attorneys describe Raffensperger call as a search for the truth

WASHINGTON — Former President Donald Trump’s defense attorneys said his secretly recorded phone call with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger was intended to wake up state officials and encourage them to address election irregularities, not to change the outcome in his favor.

When audio of that Jan. 2 call was leaked to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Washington Post, critics of then-President Trump accused him of trying to bully Raffensperger and other GOP leaders into overturning Joe Biden’s win in Georgia. That call is now the subject of investigations by the secretary of state’s office and Fulton County’s district attorney.

Bruce Castor, an attorney for Trump, said Friday during the impeachment trial that allegations Trump acted improperly are “absurd and conflated.”

Castor described the call this way: Trump had taken note that the rate of ballots rejected in Georgia had fallen considerably from 2016 to 2020 and encouraged Raffensperger to “find” votes in context of finding out why that had occurred.

“It is clear that President Trump’s comments and the use of the word ‘find’ were solely related to his concerns with the inexplicable, dramatic drop in Georgia’s ballot rejection rates,” Castor said.

In citing Trump’s issues with Georgia, Castor did not paint an accurate picture. He said that the rate of absentee ballots rejected in Georgia was 6.4% in 2016, compared with 0.4% in 2020.

State election data shows that 2.9% of mail-in ballots were rejected in 2016, and 0.3% were for a missing or mismatched signature. In 2020, 0.3% of all absentee ballots were rejected, and 0.2% were due to signature issues.

Fewer ballots were rejected in 2020 because return envelopes were simplified, reducing the chance for errors, and a new state law required election officials to notify voters of problems and allow them to be corrected.

Gabriel Sterling, Georgia’s voting systems manager, posted on Twitter that Trump’s team was misleading senators on ballot rejections. He compared 2020 numbers with 2018, saying there was no difference.

“There is a cure period now and the final rate was 0.15% in both years,” Sterling wrote. “So ... shockingly, the disinformation continues.”

Castor told senators that Trump in his call to Raffensperger had asked that the signature-matching process be conducted in public. That is already the case in Georgia, although Republican observers said after the general election that they weren’t allowed to get close enough to see what was happening.

Earlier in the week, House impeachment managers said that Trump’s conduct toward Georgia elections officials was “the most egregious” they saw during the weeks the president contested the results of the general election. Georgia became a focal point of their allegations that the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol was a result of Trump’s false claims about the election being stolen from him in Georgia and other states.

Castor said the overall substance of Trump’s call with Raffensperger does not support Democrats’ argument that it fed into weeks of election misinformation that helped incite the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. He noted that Trump’s team did not record the call and therefore was not responsible for its contents being leaked in the media.

“How could he have hoped to use this call to incite his followers if he had no intent to make the conversation public and indeed had nothing to do with it being secretly recorded?” Castor said.

The call with Raffensperger wasn’t the only mention of Georgia during Friday’s proceedings, where Trump’s attorneys outlined their defense.

Stacey Abrams was included in a video montage of Democrats uttering the word “fight” in an attempt to make a point that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle should be protected under the First Amendment for incendiary speech.

Later, snippets of Abrams’ speech where she acknowledged Brian Kemp had won the gubernatorial election in 2018 but declined to concede were held up as proof that Trump is not the first lawmaker to refuse to accept the outcome of an election.

Senators will spend Friday evening asking questions of the House managers and Trump’s attorneys. One of the first questions came from Georgia’s Raphael Warnock, who asked House managers whether it was true that the elections-related lawsuits filed on Trump’s behalf in Georgia after the general election had all been dismissed.

U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, the Maryland lawmaker serving as the lead manager, said that was accurate although he doesn’t take issue with Trump’s attempts to have the courts intervene.

“When he crossed over from nonviolent means — no matter how ridiculous or absurd, that’s fine, he’s exercising his rights — to inciting violence: that’s what this trial is about,” Raskin said.

Senators could still decide to call witnesses to testify, although that is unlikely. Deliberations and a vote on whether to convict Trump are expected to occur Saturday.

Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this article.