By Quint Forgey* – POLITICO
Legal experts and lawmakers have expressed alarm at the president’s conversation with Georgia’s secretary of state.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Monday that it was unlikely his office would open an investigation into his weekend phone call with President Donald Trump, but suggested a criminal probe could still be launched by an Atlanta-area district attorney.
Because Trump personally spoke with Raffensperger on Saturday and recently had a conversation with the chief investigator in the secretary of state’s office, Raffensperger told ABC’s “Good Morning America” in an interview that “there may be a conflict of interest” that would inhibit any potential investigation.
But Raffensperger went on to say: “I understand that the Fulton County District Attorney wants to look at it. Maybe that’s the appropriate venue for it to go.”
A spokesperson for the office of Fulton County, Ga., District Attorney Fani Willis did not immediately return an email or a phone call seeking comment on Raffensperger’s remarks.
Legal experts and lawmakers have expressed alarm at Trump’s Saturday phone call with Raffensperger, during which the president pressured the secretary to “find” enough votes to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the state.
In particular, Trump asked that officials determine that ballots were shredded in Fulton County and that Dominion election machinery was removed or tampered with. He also suggested Raffensperger could be guilty of a “criminal offense” by knowing about alleged election interference and not reporting it.
In fact, it is the president who may have opened himself up to legal liability in the phone call, potentially violating federal and state statutes intended to guard against the solicitation of election fraud.
The Washington Post and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first obtained audio of the call on Sunday, and it was subsequently confirmed by POLITICO. On Monday, Raffensperger declined to say whether he personally found Trump’s requests in their conversation to be lawful.
“I’m not a lawyer. All I know is that we’re going to follow the law, follow the process,” he said. “Truth matters. And we’ve been fighting these rumors for the last two months.”
Raffensperger also did not explicitly confirm reporting by The New York Times that it was staffers within his office who recorded audio of the call, and that he had instructed advisers not to release its contents unless Trump attacked state officials or misrepresented the call’s contents.
The audio was eventually leaked after the president criticized the secretary in a tweet on Sunday morning.
Despite the Times’ reporting that the White House switchboard had made 18 other calls to the secretary’s office over the past two months, Raffensperger maintained that he had never spoken to Trump prior to their conversation on Saturday.
“No, I never believed it was appropriate to speak to the president. But he pushed out — I guess he had his staff push us. They wanted to call,” Raffensperger said.
Raffensperger described his office as “in a litigation mode with the president’s team against the state of Georgia. And whenever you say anything, then you do have to have your advisers there. They have to have their advisers there, with lawyers.”
Although “I just preferred not to talk to someone when we’re in litigation,” Raffensperger continued, “we took the call, and we had a conversation.”
The president “did most of the talking. We did most of the listening,” he said. “But I did want to make my points, that the data that he has is just plain wrong. He had hundreds and hundreds of people he said that were dead that voted. We found two. That’s an example of just — he has bad data.”
POLITICO also reported on Monday that Raffensperger’s advisers had recorded his call with Trump, with one of them saying that “it’s nice to have something like this, hard evidence, to dispute whatever he’s claiming about the secretary.”
After Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) allegedly pressured Raffensperger to discard some legally mailed ballots in November, “we decided maybe we should do this,” the adviser said of recording the president.
Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, another Republican official the president has attacked for refusing to parrot his baseless claims of widespread voter fraud, also fiercely condemned Trump’s call with Raffensperger — complaining that the new controversy would distract from the state’s crucial pair of Senate runoffs on the day before the election.
“I was disappointed. You know, I was disappointed at the tone, at the intent, at the questioning. I’ve continued to encourage everybody, including the president, to stay focused on tomorrow,” Duncan told CNN on Monday.
“That phone call did absolutely nothing to help, you know, drive turnout for Republicans here in Georgia for Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue,” Duncan added. Both senators are locked in tight races that will determine which party controls the chamber in the opening years of Biden’s presidency.
Asked whether the phone call should be referred for investigation by Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, Duncan said that while he was not a lawyer, he was “100 percent certified to tell you that it was inappropriate. And it certainly did not help the situation.”
Even Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a staunch Trump ally who plans to join a group of at least 12 Republican senators in challenging Biden’s Electoral College win, offered a negative assessment of the president’s call on Monday.
“One of the things, I think, that everyone has said is that this call was not a helpful call,” she told Fox News.
But Perdue, one of the two Republican senators on the ballot in Georgia on Tuesday, stuck by the president and promoted his criticism of Raffensperger.
“To have a statewide elected official, regardless of party, tape without disclosing a conversation — [a] private conversation — with the president of the United States, and then leaking it to the press is disgusting,” he told Fox News on Monday.
On Capitol Hill, two House Democrats wrote to FBI Director Christopher Wray on Monday morning, urging him to authorize a criminal investigation of Trump’s call with Raffensperger for potential violations of federal election fraud statutes.
“As Members of Congress and former prosecutors, we believe Donald Trump engaged in solicitation of, or conspiracy to commit, a number of election crimes,” Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) wrote. “We ask you to open an immediate criminal investigation into the President.”
The lawmakers also suggested that Trump violated Georgia laws against soliciting election fraud, and they said that if Wray agreed, he should formally refer the matter to Georgia’s attorney general or a local district attorney.
“The evidence of election fraud by Mr. Trump is now in broad daylight. The prima facie elements of the above crimes have been met,” they wrote. “Given the more than ample factual predicate, we are making a criminal referral to you to open an investigation into Mr. Trump.”
Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.
*Quint Forgey is a breaking news reporter for POLITICO. Quint previously worked as a digital producer and editorial intern for POLITICO, a freelancer and news intern for The Wall Street Journal. Quint graduated from Louisiana State University, where he served as editor in chief of the student newspaper, The Daily Reveille.