In a recorded phone call on Jan. 2, then-President Donald Trump pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to help “find” votes to reverse his election defeat.
The former president and 18 others are now facing criminal charges in connection with their efforts to illegally overturn President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory in the Peach State, violating the Georgia Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, conspiring to commit forgery in the first degree and conspiring to file false documents.
“The most basic principles of a strong democracy are accountability and respect for the Constitution and rule of law,” said Raffensperger, in response to the indictment. “You either have it, or you don’t.”
The Georgia secretary of state certified the results after Trump’s allies demanded a recount, and days before January 6, Trump held the hour-long call during which he demanded Raffensperger “find” enough votes to swing the results in his favor.
The indictment filed by an Atlanta-area grand jury is the fourth to implicate Trump in criminal wrongdoing, but for many of the conspirators, this is the first time being called to account for their actions.
Charged along with Trump are: Rudy Giuliani, Mark Meadows, John Eastman, Kenneth Chesebro, Sidney Powell, Jenna Ellis, Jeffrey Clark, Ray Smith, David Shafer, Shawn Still, Mike Roman, Stephen Cliffgard Lee, Harrison Floyd, Trevian Kutti, Misty Hampton, Cathy Latham, Scott Hall, and Robert Cheeley.
It follows a 2½-year investigation by Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis that also resulted in charges against Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and several of Trump’s advisers.
If he is convicted, Trump could be forced to endure conditions that are remarkably different from the glitzy accommodations at his overpriced hotels and resorts. Georgia has a long history of violence in its prisons, and it is not clear that Trump will continue to have Secret Service protection if he becomes an inmate.
The U.S. Department of Justice launched a sweeping investigation of Georgia prisons in September 2021, after Sara J. Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, identified “the human rights crisis that is unfolding every day in Georgia prisons.”
“In 20 years doing prison work, I have never seen such horrific and chaotic conditions in Georgia prisons,” Totonchi said. “The violence, the treatment of people who are ill, and the apathy of those who run the prisons are unconscionable and unacceptable.”
Donald Trump’s social media posts are cited liberally throughout the indictment, which argues that the messages — pushing debunked claims of fraud or simply highlighting favorable news coverage — represent acts furthering the conspiracy that the district attorney accuses him of orchestrating.
One of them described Georgia’s secretary of state, claiming, “He has no clue!”
The grand jury issued arrest warrants for the 19 people charged, and they have until noon on Aug. 25 to voluntarily surrender, Willis said.
Trump, who leads the field in the 2024 race for the Republican presidential nomination, is the first former U.S. president to face criminal charges.
The nearly 100-page indictment details dozens of acts by Trump or his allies to undo his defeat, including beseeching Georgia’s Republican secretary of state to find enough votes for him to win the battleground state; harassing an election worker who faced false claims of fraud; and attempting to persuade Georgia lawmakers to ignore the will of voters and appoint a new slate of electoral college electors favorable to Trump.
One particularly brazen plot involved a Trump lawyer trying to access voting machines in a rural Georgia county and stealing data from a voting machine company.
“The indictment alleges that rather than abide by Georgia’s legal process for election challenges, the defendants engaged in a criminal racketeering enterprise to overturn Georgia’s presidential election result,” said Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, whose office brought the case, said at a late-night news conference.
Willis launched the investigation in February 2021, shortly after taking office in January 2021. Her six-term predecessor and former boss, Paul Howard, had refused to speak to her during the transition.
The new prosecutor announced her staff would investigate whether Trump or his allies, including U.S. Sen Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), illegally pressured Raffensperger after determining she had jurisdiction and that other officials who did, including the state attorney general and U.S. attorney for Georgia’s northern district, might have conflicts.
The indictment puts Willis at the center of national debates over presidential power and election tamping. Even her admirers wonder if her years of courtroom experience have prepared her for the legal, personal, and professional minefield that comes with probing a former president with a vast personal fortune and tens of millions of devoted followers.
Bob Rubin, a Decatur criminal defense attorney who taught Willis while she was a student at Emory Law School, described her situation: “It’s kind of like the dog who caught the car. You’ve got to be really careful that you don’t grab that bumper and get (dragged) all over the place.”
Willis’s investigation expanded to other efforts to overturn the result, culminating in 41 charges against 19 defendants in total.
Former president Donald Trump faces 13 counts, according to the indictment. These include violating the Georgia Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, soliciting a public officer to violate their oath, conspiring to impersonate a public officer, conspiring to commit forgery in the first degree, and conspiring to file false documents.
Violating Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
RICO was originally conceived as a tool to go after mafia kingpins who kept their hands clean by parking ill-gotten gains in shell corporations and leaving the dirty work to underlings. The law does not require prosecutors to prove that defendants directly engaged in criminal activity, just that they were part of a larger organization that did.
Unlike the federal charges he is facing as part of special counsel Jack Smith’s cases brought against him, Trump could not be pardoned by a president or pardon himself in Georgia if he is convicted because they are state charges.
Presidents may only issue pardons for federal crimes, such as Smith’s case accusing Trump of attempting to subvert the 2020 election or his allegations of mishandled classified records.
The only way a defendant can be pardoned in the state is by an independent board composed of five members appointed by the governor.
Additionally, “you must have completed all sentence(s) imposed upon you at least five (5) years prior to applying and have lived a law-abiding life since the completion of your sentence(s). You can have no pending charges against you. Your fines must be paid in full,” according to the State Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Trump could seek to move the case from state to federal court, as he unsuccessfully tried to do in the New York case accusing him of falsifying business records to pay hush money to a porn star.
Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, said that whether Trump can remove the Georgia case to federal court raises questions about the scope of the “federal officer removal statute,” which allows a basis for removal if the defendant is “acting under the color of their office,” according to the language of the statute.
“But even if Trump succeeds in removing the case, the offenses are still Georgia state crimes, not federal offenses subject to Article II,” Vladeck said, meaning the same pardon rules would apply.