Trump, in Taped Call, Pressured Georgia Official to ‘Find’ Votes to Overturn Election

By Michael D. Shear and Stephanie Saul

The president vaguely warned of a “criminal offense” as he pressured Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in the call, according to an audio recording.

President Trump has spent almost nine weeks making false conspiracy claims about his election loss.
President Trump has spent almost nine weeks making false conspiracy claims about his election loss.Credit...Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Trump pressured Georgia’s Republican secretary of state to “find” him enough votes to overturn the presidential election and vaguely threatened him with “a criminal offense” during an hourlong telephone call on Saturday, according to an audio recording of the conversation.

Mr. Trump, who has spent almost nine weeks making false conspiracy claims about his loss to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., told Brad Raffensperger, the state’s top elections official, that he should recalculate the vote count so Mr. Trump, not Mr. Biden, would end up winning the state’s 16 electoral votes.

“I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have,” Mr. Trump said during the conversation, according to a recording first obtained by The Washington Post, which published it online Sunday. The New York Times also acquired a recording of Mr. Trump’s call.

The president, who will be in charge of the Justice Department for the 17 days left in his administration, hinted that Mr. Raffensperger and Ryan Germany, the chief lawyer for secretary of state’s office, could be prosecuted criminally if they did not do his bidding.

“You know what they did and you’re not reporting it,” the president said during the call. “You know, that’s a criminal — that’s a criminal offense. And you know, you can’t let that happen. That’s a big risk to you and to Ryan, your lawyer. That’s a big risk.”

The effort to cajole and bully elected officials in his own party — which some legal experts said could be prosecuted under Georgia law — was a remarkable act by a defeated president to crash through legal and ethical boundaries as he seeks to remain in power.

By any standard measure, the election has long been over. Every state in the country has certified its vote, and a legal campaign by Mr. Trump to challenge the results has been met almost uniformly with quick dismissals by judges across the country, including a Supreme Court with a conservative majority.

By trying to bend Mr. Raffensperger to his will, Mr. Trump was asserting the power of his office in ways that recalled his 2019 phone call to Ukraine’s president, during which Mr. Trump pressured President Volodymyr Zelensky to begin a bogus investigation into Mr. Biden by withholding vital military aid to the country. That call was the centerpiece of the scheme for which Mr. Trump became the third American president to be impeached for committing high crimes and misdemeanors.

As he did when he urged Mr. Zelensky to “do us a favor,” Mr. Trump on Saturday pleaded with Mr. Raffensperger to help him politically. The results of the 2020 race are expected to be certified by Congress during a session on Wednesday despite efforts by some of Mr. Trump’s allies in the House and the Senate, who have said they will challenge the results in several states, including Georgia.

Mr. Trump said he hoped Mr. Raffensperger’s office could address his claimed discrepancies before Tuesday’s Senate runoff election in Georgia, one that will decide the balance of power in the Senate. The president is slated to campaign on Monday night in Georgia for the two Republican incumbents, Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.

“I think we should come to a resolution of this before the election,” Mr. Trump said. Otherwise, he said, “you’re going to have people just not voting.”

“They don’t want to vote,” he said. “They hate the state. They hate the governor and they hate the secretary of state.”

He added: “The people of Georgia are angry, the people of the country are angry. And there’s nothing wrong with saying that, you know, um, that you’ve recalculated.”

Mr. Raffensperger politely but firmly rejected the president’s entreaties, standing by the election results in his state and repeatedly insisting that Mr. Trump and his allies had been given false information about voter fraud.

“Well, Mr. President, the challenge that you have is the data you have is wrong,” he said.

Legal experts said Mr. Trump might have violated Georgia state laws against solicitation of voter fraud and extortion by seeking to exert pressure on Mr. Raffensperger.

One state law makes it a felony to “solicit, request, command, importune or otherwise attempt to cause another person to engage in election fraud.” By urging election officials to “find” votes that were not legally cast for him, Mr. Trump could be prosecuted under that law, said Ryan C. Locke, a criminal defense lawyer and former public defender in Atlanta.

“He’s telling the secretary of state to ‘find votes so that I can win — votes that are not due to me,’” Mr. Locke said. “The recording alone is certainly enough to launch an investigation. It’s likely probable cause to issue an indictment.”

He said Mr. Trump could also be in violation of laws prohibiting extortion. But he and other legal experts said it was unlikely that prosecutors would pursue a case against Mr. Trump in the waning days of his administration.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris — at a drive-in rally for Georgia’s Democratic Senate candidates in Garden City, Ga. — referred on Sunday to Mr. Trump’s call, saying it was “the voice of desperation — most certainly that.”

“And it was a bald, baldfaced, bold abuse of power by the president of the United States,” she added.

Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and one of the leaders in the Senate, said the call was “more than a pathetic, rambling, delusional rant,” calling the president “unhinged and dangerous” and saying that Mr. Trump’s Republican allies “are putting the orderly and peaceful transition of power in our nation at risk.”

Former Speaker Paul D. Ryan, a Republican who has largely stayed silent in recent weeks, urged his former colleagues on Sunday to abandon their challenge to the results, calling it the most “anti-democratic and anti-conservative act” he could think of.

“The Trump campaign had ample opportunity to challenge election results, and those efforts failed from lack of evidence,” he said. “If states wish to reform their processes for future elections, that is their prerogative. But Joe Biden’s victory is entirely legitimate.”

The 10 living former secretaries of defense, from both parties, echoed that sentiment in an opinion article on Sunday in The Post. They said the military should not be used in any way to alter the outcome of the election, saying: “Governors have certified the results. And the Electoral College has voted. The time for questioning the results has passed.”

The call from the White House to Mr. Raffensperger’s office came on Saturday afternoon at 2:41, after 18 other calls by the White House switchboard to the office during the past two months, according to a person familiar with the conversation. Saturday’s call was the first time Mr. Raffensperger had talked with Mr. Trump directly despite the president’s repeated tweets disparaging him.

Officials in the secretary of state’s office recorded Saturday’s call, and Mr. Raffensperger told his advisers that he did not want to release a transcript or a recording unless the president attacked state officials or misrepresented what had been discussed, according to a person familiar with his direction.

As expected, that attack came in a tweet on Sunday morning, in which Mr. Trump claimed that Mr. Raffensperger “was unwilling, or unable, to answer questions such as the ‘ballots under table’ scam, ballot destruction, out of state ‘voters’, dead voters, and more. He has no clue!”

In a response on Twitter, Mr. Raffensperger wrote: “Respectfully, President Trump: What you’re saying is not true. The truth will come out.” The recording of the call was made public several hours later.

David Shafer, the chairman of the Republican Party in Georgia, tweeted that the decision to release the audio was “lawlessness.”

During the call, the president again embraced several conspiracy theories, including debunked charges that ballots in Fulton County, Ga., were shredded and that voting machines operated by Dominion Voting Systems were tampered with and replaced. Mr. Germany can be heard telling the president that such charges are flatly untrue, even as Mr. Trump insists otherwise.

“You should want to have an accurate election. And you’re a Republican,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Raffensperger, who replied that “we believe that we do have an accurate election.”

Mr. Trump responded: “No, no, no, you don’t, you don’t have, you don’t have, not even close. You guys, you’re off by hundreds of thousands of votes.”

In addition to Mr. Trump and Mr. Raffensperger, others on the call from the Georgia secretary of state’s office included Mr. Germany and Jordan Fuchs, Mr. Raffensperger’s deputy. On the line as well were Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, and Cleta Mitchell and Kurt Hilbert, lawyers working for Mr. Trump.

Ms. Mitchell and Mr. Meadows repeatedly sought to challenge the voting in Georgia and pressed Mr. Raffensperger to reveal confidential voter data in an effort to back up their claims. They were rebuffed by Georgia’s election officials. Ms. Mitchell, a partner at the firm Foley & Lardner, was on the call with Mr. Trump despite the fact that nearly all lawyers with top-tier firms have refused to represent the president in his attempts to overturn the election.

The firm said in a statement early Monday that it had not been retained by Mr. Trump and “any involvement from a Foley attorney in this matter is solely in his or her capacity as a private citizen.”

But the tape is dominated by the president, who spoke for the bulk of the call, at times interrupting Mr. Raffensperger. At one point, when Mr. Trump alleged that 5,000 dead people voted in Georgia, Mr. Raffensperger said the president was mistaken.

“The actual number were two,” Mr. Raffensperger said. “Two. Two people that were dead that voted. And so that’s wrong.”

At another point, when Mr. Trump claimed that a video of the vote-counting at State Farm Arena in Atlanta revealed that one employee was guilty of flagrant ballot stuffing, Mr. Raffensperger responded that the video was selectly edited by Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani and other lawyers.

“They sliced and diced that video and took it out of context,” Mr. Raffensperger said. “The events that transpired are nowhere near what was projected.”

When Mr. Germany told the president that some of the accusations had been looked into and deemed untrue by both the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the F.B.I., Mr. Trump responded that the agents were wrong.

“Then they’re incompetent,” he said. “There’s only two answers — dishonesty or incompetence.”

Mr. Raffensperger said Mr. Trump’s accusation that ballots were scanned three times was incorrect. “We did an audit of that and we proved conclusively that they were not scanned three times,” he told the president.

The president appeared unable to conceive of a reality in which he lost Georgia, repeatedly reeling off statistics that he said proved he had won the state by “hundreds of thousands of votes.”

“You even see it by rally size, frankly,” Mr. Trump said, adding that he wanted to go over some of the numbers. He alleged that 250,000 to 300,000 ballots were “dropped mysteriously into the rolls,” a problem he said occurred in Fulton County.

“We think that if you check the signatures, a real check of the signatures going back in Fulton County, you’ll find at least a couple of hundred thousand of forged signatures,” the president said, citing one conspiracy theory after another.

“People have been saying that it was the highest vote ever,” he told Mr. Raffensperger, alleging that the cases of fraud were “many, many times” more than Mr. Biden’s margin of victory. “The political people said that there’s no way they beat me.”

Michael D. Shear reported from Washington, and Stephanie Saul from New York. Michael S. Schmidt contributed reporting from Washington.