Sunday, November 28, 2021

Georgia prosecutors launch criminal probe into Trump efforts to influence election

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By Linda So

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Prosecutors in Georgia’s biggest county have opened a criminal investigation into former U.S. President Donald Trump’s attempts to influence the state’s 2020 election results, ordering government officials to preserve documents in the second known criminal probe facing Trump.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis sent letters to state officials, including Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Governor Brian Kemp, both Republicans, notifying them of the investigation and seeking to preserve “all records potentially related to the administration” of the state’s Nov. 3 election.

The investigation includes “potential violations of Georgia law prohibiting the solicitation of election fraud, the making of false statements to state and local government bodies, conspiracy, racketeering, violation of oath of office and any involvement in violence or threats related to the election’s administration,” Willis said in the letters, dated Feb. 10 and seen by Reuters.

The investigation by Willis, a Democrat, is the most serious probe facing Trump in Georgia after he was recorded in a Jan. 2 phone call pressuring Raffensperger to overturn the state’s election results based on unfounded voter fraud claims.

Although the letters do not specifically name Trump, a spokesman for Willis said the investigation would include the former Republican president’s Jan. 2 call in which he urged Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn his Georgia loss to Democrat Joe Biden. The transcript quotes Trump telling Raffensperger: “I just want to find 11,780 votes,” which is the number Trump needed to win.

Prosecutors in Willis’ office have already begun reviewing Trump’s Jan. 2 call and relevant case law to assess the strength of potential charges against Trump, according to two people familiar with the investigation. Willis has also recently hired several high-level prosecutors who could be assigned to work the case if it goes to trial, the sources said.

In addition to the January phone call, Trump made another call in December to Georgia’s chief elections investigator, Raffensperger’s office has said.

In a statement, Jason Miller, a senior Trump adviser, accused Democrats of attempting “to score political points by continuing their witch hunt against President Trump,” adding “everybody sees through it.”

The letters, which were first reported by The New York Times, asked state officials to preserve records, including “those that may be evidence of attempts to influence the actions of persons who were administering that election.” Willis’ office will begin requesting grand jury subpoenas as soon as March, the letters said.

“HIGH PRIORITY”

The Georgia probe highlights the growing legal cases Trump faces after leaving the White House and losing the presidential protections that shielded him from prosecution. An investigation by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr into Trump’s business dealings has intensified in recent months, Reuters reported this week.

Legal experts say Trump’s phone calls may have violated at least three state criminal election laws: conspiracy to commit election fraud, criminal solicitation to commit election fraud, and intentional interference with performance of election duties. The possible felony and misdemeanor violations are punishable by fines or imprisonment.

“His intent was to influence the secretary of state in the performance of his duties and to have him manufacture votes to affect the election and that’s crystal clear in the tape,” said Michael Moore, the former U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia and a former Democratic state senator. “He’s simply calling to flip the election in his favor.”

If Trump were prosecuted, he would likely argue that he genuinely believed the election was rigged against him, the experts said, noting that criminal laws generally require a guilty state of mind or a deliberate intent to carry out a crime – and that this may be a high hurdle to clear in this case.

On Monday, Raffensperger opened his own fact-finding investigation into the call.

“This matter is of high priority,” Willis wrote. “I am confident that as fellow law enforcement officers sworn to uphold the Constitutions of the United States and Georgia, our acquisition of information and evidence of potential crimes via interviews, documents, videos and electronic records will be cooperative.”

Raffensperger’s office declined to comment.

Willis was sworn in last month as the first woman and second African-American to hold the job of top prosecutor in Georgia’s most populous county, a region that encompasses most of the state capital Atlanta. The county overwhelmingly backed Biden in the Nov. 3 presidential election, part of a historic shift in the once-reliably Republican state.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Jason Szep and Aurora Ellis)

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