In Georgia, Trump’s election attacks still haunt Republicans

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ATLANTA – The impeachment charge House Democrats have filed against President Trump stems from his role in inciting a mob to attack the U.S. Capitol last week. But included in the resolution is another element of Mr. Trump’s behavior that also draws condemnation as an abuse of presidential power: his lobbying campaign to persuade Georgian officials to reverse his electoral loss in the state.

Before inspiring a host of supporters to attack the Capitol, Mr Trump had previously sought to “subvert and obstruct” the results of his failed re-election effort, reads a draft impeachment article published on Monday, citing in especially the extraordinary intervention of the president in Georgia.

Even if the Democrats’ second push to remove the president from office fails or wears off, Mr. Trump’s efforts to overthrow the will of Georgian voters will continue to resonate, both for the president and for Georgian politicians. State election officials continue to face harassment and death threats. A number of Georgia Republicans are now blaming Mr. Trump’s baseless accusations of electoral fraud for the losses suffered by the state’s two Republican senators this month.

And in Atlanta, the Fulton County District Attorney is considering whether to open a criminal investigation into Mr. Trump over a phone call to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in which the President urged him to “find” the votes who would rescue Mr. Trump. victory.

This call was part of a much larger push by Mr. Trump and his allies to overturn the election results in Georgia. The effort spanned two months and was ultimately based on allegations of fraud that were constantly debunked by fellow Republicans tasked with overseeing the state’s elections.

Gabriel Sterling, one of the more outspoken of those officials, said in an interview this week that the president’s efforts were both inappropriate and rude.

“There’s never been a comprehensive strategy,” Sterling said, adding, “It was a series of tactical moves to try to get a different outcome here. The president shouldn’t be trying to do things to put his thumb on the scales. I don’t care if it’s a Republican or a Democrat, no president should.

Mr. Trump’s relentless campaign to change the outcome first gained public attention in a surprising act of intra-party discord six days after Election Day.

On November 9, the two Republican senators forced into the second round in Georgia, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, released a joint statement calling for the resignation of Mr. Raffensperger, a fellow Republican. The senators, who were both loyal to Trump, made vague claims that Mr. Raffensperger’s oversight of the election was marred by “mismanagement and lack of transparency.”

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An official in the Secretary of State’s office, who requested anonymity due to continuing threats, said the office learned the same day that Mr. Trump was behind the statement; he had warned the two candidates that he would turn his Twitter account against them if they did not publicly call on Mr Raffensperger to resign.

The state official learned of the threat during a phone call with consultants from one of the two senators’ campaigns.

There had been other quieter attempts to move Mr. Raffensperger, a longtime Trump supporter and Republican, more firmly and publicly into Mr. Trump’s camp. In January of last year, he rejected an offer to be honorary co-chair of the Trump campaign. He also rejected subsequent efforts to have him publicly endorsed by the president, according to two state election officials. The efforts, which Raffensperger rejected on the grounds that it should be viewed as impartial, were first reported by ProPublica.

The assault on Mr. Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp, who is also a Republican, came as Mr. Trump saw his chances of victory wane, with shifting states counting mountains of absentee mail-in votes that tipped over the race for his Democratic Challenger, Joseph R. Biden Jr.

In Georgia, David Shafer, chairman of the state Republican Party, attacked the vote counting process in Fulton County, which encompasses much of Atlanta. Soon a succession of Trump allies and aides, some much more powerful than Mr. Shafer, began to pressure state officials to overturn the election results.

One of them was Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. He called Mr Raffensperger later that month and asked if he had the power to cast mail-in votes from certain counties, according to Mr Raffensperger’s appeal account, which Mr Graham challenged .

The president unleashed a barrage of tweets baselessly contesting his loss and calling for a special session of the legislature to consider overturning the results. Conspiracy theories have flourished on the far right of the internet.

On December 1, Mr. Sterling, in a moving press conference, implored Mr. Trump to stop claiming that the election had somehow been “rigged” against him.

“Sir. Mr. President, you have not condemned these actions or this language,” he said, expressing his fury at the threats that election officials and agents were receiving. “This has to stop. “

He does not have. On December 3, Mr. Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph Giuliani came to Georgia for a state Senate hearing and made a series of specious allegations about voter fraud, even as office officials Secretary of State debunked these claims in a separate hearing that took place just one floor below. The next day, the Trump campaign launched a lawsuit in Georgia in an attempt to overturn the state’s election results and was joined by the state party.

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On December 5, Mr. Trump called on Mr. Kemp to pressure him to call a special session of the Legislature to overturn Mr. Biden’s victory in the state. Hours later, the president again criticized Mr Kemp and Mr Raffensperger at a rally that was supposed to boost the electoral chances of Ms Loeffler and Mr Perdue.

Two days later, after two debriefs, Mr. Raffensperger certified Mr. Biden’s victory.

By this time, the schism within the party had widened. A senior official in the secretary of state’s office said at the time that the state party should “stop passing the buck for not handing Georgia over to Trump.”

In the days before Christmas, Mr Trump called the lead investigator from the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, urging the investigator to “find the fraud,” those who learned of the call said. At about the same time, Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, made a surprise visit to Cobb County, accompanied by Secret Service agents, to see an audit underway there. (“It smacked of desperation,” Sterling said in the interview. “It was a twist.”)

The lobbying campaign culminated in a Jan. 2 appeal by Mr. Trump to Mr. Raffensperger, which was first reported by the Washington Post. “I just want to find 11,780 votes,” Trump said on the call, in which Raffensperger and his aides once again dismissed the baseless fraud allegations.

Of all of Mr. Trump’s efforts to change Georgia’s results, it is this appeal, recorded and made public, that could end up causing him the most trouble. The impeachment resolution quotes the appeal as saying the president “threatened the integrity of the Democratic system.”

The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

On January 5, Ms Loeffler and Mr Perdue lost their race, giving Democrats control of the Senate. A day later, supporters of Mr. Trump stormed the Capitol.

The ramifications of Mr. Trump’s false allegations of electoral fraud continue in Georgia. Mr Sterling said his home, along with Mr Kemp’s, appeared on a website called “enemies of the people” which the FBI said was part of an Iranian effort to disrupt the election.

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“I got doxxed on Gab again last night,” Sterling said Monday, referring to a site favored by right-wing extremists.

Republicans in Georgia were already facing the disheartening prospect of a Democratic Party reinvigorated by changing demographics and the growing disgust among commuters for Mr. Trump’s political style. Now they are left with a party that is badly divided between Trump supporters who continue to believe the election was stolen from him and those who believe Mr. Trump’s fight to reverse the results was wrong.

“I think going so far beyond even the date Al Gore conceded hurt the Republican Party in the second round,” said Martha Zoller, who chairs Georgia United Victory, the political action committee. the most prominent who supported Ms. Loeffler’s candidacy. “I think he had a right to pursue the tracks, but he should have called for peace and unity much sooner.”

The legal ramifications of Mr. Trump’s attempts to overturn the elections here are uncertain – and complicated. Some legal scholars have said that Mr. Trump’s appeal to Mr. Raffensperger may have violated state and federal laws, although many note that a charge can be difficult to prosecute.

A spokesperson for Fani Willis, the new Fulton County district attorney, did not return calls seeking comment this week.

In a January 3 letter to Mr. Raffensperger, David Worley, a Democratic member of the state’s board of elections, said a probable cause could exist that Mr. Trump violated a Georgian law regarding solicitation to commit a crime. electoral fraud. State law makes it illegal to “solicit, demand, order, intrude” or encourage others to engage in voter fraud.

In an interview this week, Anthony Michael Kreis, a constitutional law expert at Georgia State University in Atlanta, said Ms. Willis faced a difficult decision to use her office’s time and resources to go after President, given her significant challenges. at home, including an increase in the crime rate in Atlanta.

But Mr Kreis argued that the nature of the debate may have changed since the mob attacked the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday.

“Now it might well be worth its time,” he said, “because there have been real life and death consequences for these lies, as well as the president who attacked those responsible for the State and local to make his attempt to annul the election in an anti-democratic push. “

Astead W. Herndon and Nick Corasaniti contributed reporting.

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