WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump pressured Georgia's Republican secretary of state to “find” enough votes to overturn Joe Biden's win in the state's presidential election, repeatedly citing disproven claims of fraud and raising the prospect of a “criminal offense" if officials did not change the vote count, according to a recording of the conversation.
The phone call with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Saturday was the latest step in an unprecedented effort by a sitting president to press a state official to reverse the outcome of a free and fair election that he lost. The Republican president, who has refused to accept his loss to Democratic President-elect Biden, repeatedly argued that Raffensperger could change the certified results.
“I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have. Because we won the state," said Trump, who is scheduled to be at a rally in Georgia Monday evening.
In an interview Monday, Raffensperger told The Associated Press that he is confident in Georgia’s general election outcome, despite an electoral college challenge supported by some Republicans in Congress.
“If they support a challenge of the electors for Georgia, they’re wrong, dead wrong,” Raffensperger said. Members of Congress will have to make a decision about the other states, he added, “but in Georgia, we did get it right. I’m not happy with the result, as a Republican, but it is the right result based on the numbers that we saw cast.”
Georgia counted its votes three times before certifying Biden's win by a 11,779-vote margin.
“President Trump, we’ve had several lawsuits, and we’ve had to respond in court to the lawsuits and the contentions," Raffensperger told Trump on the call. "We don’t agree that you have won."
Raffensperger said the White House reached out to his office and he assumed the president wanted to talk about the status of the November election. The secretary of state said his deputy previously met with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows when Meadows was in Georgia last month, but that he hadn’t had any other direct contact with the White House since the general election.
Asked if he felt as if the president was pressuring him to do something illegal, Raffensperger said, “I think he was looking for any kind of advantage he could get, and I just don’t see how he’s going to get it.”
David Worley, a Democratic member of the Georgia State Election Board, sent an email to Raffensperger Sunday night requesting that his office open an investigation into the call.
“To say that I am troubled by President Trump’s attempt to manipulate the votes of Georgians would be an understatement,” Worley wrote.
Worley cited two violations of Georgia law that he said the president might have committed based on his reading of a transcript of the call: conspiracy to commit election fraud and criminal solicitation to commit election fraud.
Once the secretary of state’s office completes an investigation, Worley wrote, the board will determine whether there is probable cause to refer the matter to the state attorney general and Fulton County district attorney.
Audio of the conversation was first posted online by The Washington Post. The Associated Press later obtained the audio from a person on the call.
Trump's renewed intervention and the persistent and unfounded claims of fraud came nearly two weeks before he leaves office and two days before twin runoff elections in Georgia that will determine which political party controls the U.S. Senate.
At Trump's rally in Georgia on Monday night, he is supposed to boost the two Republican candidates in close races. In a rage after the Raffensperger call, Trump floated the idea of pulling out of the rally, which would have potentially devastated GOP chances of maintaining Senate control.
But Trump was persuaded to go ahead with the rally as a stage from which to reiterate his claims of election fraud and to present, as he tweeted Monday, the “real numbers” from the race. Republicans, though, were wary as to whether Trump would focus only on himself and potentially depress turnout by undermining faith in the runoff elections and not promoting the two GOP candidates.
The president used Saturday's hourlong phone conversation to tick through a list of claims about the election in Georgia, including that hundreds of thousands of ballots mysteriously appeared in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta. Officials have said there is no evidence of that happening.
Also during the conversation, Trump appeared to threaten Raffensperger and Ryan Germany, the secretary of state’s legal counsel, by suggesting both could be criminally liable if they failed to find that thousands of ballots in Fulton County had been illegally destroyed. There is no evidence to support Trump’s claim.
“That’s a criminal offense,” Trump says. “And you can’t let that happen."
Others on the call included Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, and attorneys assisting Trump, including Washington lawyer Cleta Mitchell. Trump lost the Electoral College to Biden by 74 votes, and even if Georgia, with its 16 votes, were to end up in his column, it would have no impact on the result of the election.
The call was the first time Raffensperger and Trump spoke, though the White House had tried 18 previous times to set up a conversation, according to officials.
Democrats and a few Republicans condemned Trump's actions. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a member of the GOP House leadership team, deemed the call “deeply troubling.” And Democratic Reps. Ted Lieu of California and Kathleen Rice of New York made a criminal referral to FBI Director Christopher Wray and called for an investigation into the president.
Trump said in a tweet Sunday that he had spoken with Raffensperger. He attacked how Raffensperger conducted Georgia’s elections, tweeting, “He has no clue!” and he said the state official “was unwilling, or unable” to answer questions.
Raffensperger’s Twitter response: “Respectfully, President Trump: What you’re saying is not true. The truth will come out.”
Various election officials across the country and Trump's former attorney general, William Barr, have said there was no widespread fraud in the election. Republican governors in Arizona and Georgia, key battleground states crucial to Biden’s victory, have also vouched for the integrity of their state elections. Nearly all the legal challenges from Trump and his allies have been dismissed by judges, including two tossed by the Supreme Court, which has three Trump-nominated justices.
Still, Trump has publicly disparaged the election, raising concerns among Republicans that GOP voters may be discouraged from participating in Tuesday's runoffs pitting Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler against Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican David Perdue against Democrat Jon Ossoff.
Biden also campaigned in Georgia on Monday. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris stumped in Garden City, Georgia, on Sunday, slamming Trump for the call.
“It was a bald, bald-faced, bold abuse of power by the president of the United States,” she said.
Loeffler and Perdue have largely backed Trump in his attempts to overturn election results. But on Sunday, Loeffler said she hadn't decided whether to join her Republican colleagues in challenging the legitimacy of Biden’s victory over Trump when Congress meets Wednesday to affirm Biden's 306-232 win in the Electoral College.
Perdue, who was quarantining after being exposed to the coronavirus, said he supports the challenge, though he will not be a sitting senator when the vote happens because his term has expired. Still, he told Fox News Channel he was encouraging his colleagues to object, saying it's “something that the American people demand right now.”
Amy reported from Atlanta. Lemire reported from New York. Additional reporting contributed by Associated Press writers Kate Brumback in Atlanta, Russ Bynum in Garden City, Ga., and Zeke Miller in Washington.