Georgia Prosecutors Open Criminal Inquiry Into Trump’s Efforts to Subvert Election

By Richard Fausset and Danny Hakim

State officials are being instructed to preserve documents related to “attempts to influence” the Georgia election, just weeks after former President Donald J. Trump asked an elections official to “find” votes.

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An investigation has been opened into former President Donald J. Trump’s call pressuring Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to overturn the state’s election results. Here are excerpts from that call.CreditCredit...Erik S Lesser/EPA, via Shutterstock

ATLANTA — Prosecutors in Georgia have started a criminal investigation into former President Donald J. Trump’s attempts to overturn Georgia’s election results, including a phone call he made to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in which Mr. Trump pressured him to “find” enough votes to help him reverse his loss.

On Wednesday, Fani T. Willis, the recently elected Democratic prosecutor in Fulton County, sent a letter to numerous officials in state government, including Mr. Raffensperger, requesting that they preserve documents related to “an investigation into attempts to influence” the state’s 2020 presidential election.

While the letter does not mention Mr. Trump by name, it is related to his efforts to change the outcome of Georgia’s election, according to a state official with knowledge of the matter. A copy of the letter was obtained by The New York Times.

Of particular note in Ms. Willis’s letter was the wider scope of the investigation. Potential violations of state law include “the solicitation of election fraud, the making of false statements to state and local governmental bodies, conspiracy, racketeering, violation of oath of office and any involvement in violence or threats related to the election’s administration,” the letter states.

The state official said that, in addition to the call to Mr. Raffensperger, Ms. Willis’s inquiry would encompass Mr. Trump’s outreach to other Georgia officials in an attempt to reverse his loss. These include a call to a top elections investigator in which Mr. Trump asked the official to “find the fraud”; a call in which Mr. Trump urged Gov. Brian Kemp to call a special session of the legislature to review the election results; and a conversation with the attorney general of Georgia, Chris Carr, in which Mr. Trump warned him not to interfere in a Texas lawsuit seeking to overturn the results in Georgia and other states.

The investigation will also look into the events surrounding the abrupt resignation in January of Atlanta’s federal prosecutor, Byung J. Pak, after Mr. Trump complained to Justice Department officials that Mr. Pak was not pursuing his claims of election fraud, the official said.

In the letter, Ms. Willis said that her office would request subpoenas “as necessary” when the next Fulton County grand jury convenes in March. In addition to Mr. Raffensperger, the letter was sent to Mr. Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Mr. Carr, all of whom are Republicans.

“At this stage, we have no reason to believe that any Georgia official is a target of this investigation,” Ms. Willis wrote.

The investigation goes beyond Mr. Trump himself, and could touch on the conduct of his aides and allies. A spokesman for the district attorney’s office said that Mr. Duncan, the lieutenant governor, received one of the letters because he presides over the State Senate. In December, Rudolph W. Giuliani, one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers, appeared before the Senate and advanced false claims that the election was stolen.

The inquiry comes as Mr. Trump faces a second impeachment trial in Washington this week, for his role in stirring up the mob that attacked the Capitol on Jan 6. The violence that day followed weeks of false claims by the former president that election fraud deprived him of victory, including in Georgia, where he lost by about 12,000 votes. Mr. Trump’s hourlong call to Mr. Raffensperger on Jan. 2 is cited by the House in its article of impeachment.

Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Mr. Trump, said in a statement on Wednesday that “the timing here is not accidental given today’s impeachment trial. This is simply the Democrats’ latest attempt to score political points by continuing their witch hunt against President Trump, and everybody sees through it.”

The inquiry makes Georgia the second state after New York where Mr. Trump faces a criminal investigation. And it comes in a jurisdiction where potential jurors are unlikely to be hospitable to the former president; Fulton County, the state’s most populous county, encompasses most of Atlanta and overwhelmingly supported Joseph R. Biden Jr. in the November election.

ImageElection workers count absentee ballots in Atlanta in November.
Election workers count absentee ballots in Atlanta in November.Credit...Audra Melton for The New York Times

Ms. Willis has been weighing for several weeks whether to open an inquiry, after Mr. Trump’s Jan. 2 phone call to Mr. Raffensperger alarmed election experts who called it an extraordinary intervention into a state’s electoral process. For two months after Mr. Biden was declared the winner, Mr. Trump relentlessly attacked state officials in Georgia, including Mr. Raffensperger and Mr. Kemp, claiming they were not doing enough to uncover instances of voting fraud that might change the outcome.

Former prosecutors had previously said Mr. Trump’s calls might run afoul of at least three state laws. One is criminal solicitation to commit election fraud, which can be either a felony or a misdemeanor; as a felony, it is punishable by at least a year in prison. There is also a related conspiracy charge, which can be prosecuted either as a misdemeanor or a felony. A third law, a misdemeanor offense, bars “intentional interference” with another person’s “performance of election duties.”

It is unclear what actions might have violated state racketeering law. Clark D. Cunningham, a law professor at Georgia State University, said that Georgia, like many other states, has a statute similar to the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. Like the federal statute, the state law is meant to target organized criminal enterprises and prohibit patterns of crimes that seek to further those enterprises’ illegal aim.

Mr. Cunningham said this could include trying to change the election results in Georgia. He also noted that the Georgia statute specifically covers false statements and writings made to state officials.

In one of her best-known cases as an assistant district attorney, Ms. Willis in 2014 accused a number of Atlanta public school teachers and administrators of violating the state RICO statute when they took part in a standardized test cheating scandal.

In the Wednesday letter, Ms. Willis also argues that her office was the one agency in Georgia with jurisdiction that was not hobbled by a conflict of interest, because it was not a “witness to the conduct’’ that is being investigated. She notes that unnamed “subjects of the investigation” had made contact with the secretary of state, the attorney general and the U.S. attorney’s office in Atlanta.

Fani Willis speaks during a news conference following sentencing for defendants convicted in the Atlanta public schools test-cheating trial in April 2015.Credit...Pool photo by Kent D. Johnson

The letter did not go into detail about the contact that was made. But Mr. Trump’s acting deputy attorney general, Richard Donoghue, relayed to Mr. Pak, the former U.S. attorney for the Atlanta area, that Mr. Trump was dissatisfied with his efforts to investigate the president’s claims of election fraud. Mr. Donoghue did so in a phone call shortly before Jan. 4, the day Mr. Pak resigned.

Ms. Willis’s office also suggested that the inquiry would look at the actions of others who might have sought to undermine the election results. Jeff DiSantis, a spokesman for Ms. Willis, noted Mr. Duncan’s role in presiding over the State Senate, saying that the Senate “may have evidence of efforts to interfere with the proper administration of the election.”

Anyone who participated in those efforts, he said, “is potentially a subject of this investigation, and that would include a variety of people.”

During appearances before state legislative committees on Dec. 3 and Dec. 10, Mr. Giuliani — who spent weeks peddling Mr. Trump’s conspiracy theories about election fraud — aired a series of false and sometimes outlandish claims that angered state election officials and Mr. Kemp. In a recent interview, Gabriel Sterling, a top aide to Mr. Raffensperger, said that he was in a legislative hearing room on a different floor during one of Mr. Giuliani’s appearances, trying to set the record straight.

“I literally was refuting everything one story down,” he said.

The Georgia investigation comes as Mr. Trump is also facing an ongoing criminal fraud inquiry into his finances by the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., and a civil fraud inquiry by the New York attorney general, Letitia James. Separately, the attorney general in the District of Columbia, Karl Racine, has said Mr. Trump could face a misdemeanor charge there for his role in inciting the mob violence at the Capitol; his office said Wednesday that it was still examining potential charges for inciting the rioting on Jan. 6.

The Georgia inquiry will be a test for Fulton’s new district attorney, who took office last month.

“Just because they start an investigation doesn’t mean that D.A. Willis is going to take it to a grand jury,” said Joshua Morrison, a former senior assistant district attorney in Fulton County who once worked closely with Ms. Willis. He expected a lengthy inquiry, given the stakes. “Look at the impeachment trial,” he added. “With this, he’s facing prison time. They’re going to throw everything they have at the wall.”

If Mr. Trump were to be convicted of a state crime in New York or Georgia, a federal pardon would not be applicable. In Georgia, Mr. Trump cannot look to Mr. Kemp for a state pardon, and not just because the two have a fractured relationship. In Georgia, pardons are granted only by the state board of pardons and paroles.