Trump’s Legal Battle in Georgia: Navigating the Indictment

On August 31, 2023, Fani Willis, the district attorney of Fulton County, filed criminal charges against the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, for his alleged involvement in efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election in Georgia. The charges encompass a range of offenses, including forgery, racketeering, and solicitation of a public official to violate their oath of office, with Trump himself facing a total of 13 counts. These charges span from conspiracy to impersonate a public officer to the filing of false documents, all related to his attempt to secure a second term as U.S. president for 2020-2024. Throughout the indictment process, Trump and his associates steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, maintaining that their actions were aimed at ensuring transparency and fairness in the 2020 election. However, Willis states otherwise in a news conference where Trump opted for “a criminal racketeering enterprise to overturn Georgia’s presidential election result” instead of “abid[ing] by Georgia’s legal process for election challenges.” The filing of these charges marks a significant development in the ongoing legal and political saga surrounding Donald Trump’s actions after the 2020 presidential election.

The 2020 presidential election was a contentious battle in which the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, defeated Trump by 74 electoral votes with a total of 306 votes. Not accepting his loss against Biden, Trump sought to undermine the election by a variety of ways like promoting conspiracy theories and making false claims about the electoral voting process. Biden’s victory was not the initial catalyst behind such claims as he had planted the seeds of doubt regarding the 2020 presidential election months before the election commenced in early November.

At the heart of his attempt to overturn the election is Trump’s mischaracterization of the vote-counting process of the presidential election as “suspicious” and government officials’ warnings of a potential delay in tallying votes from the rise of absentee voting. Many experts stated that Trump would have a lead in key states on election night, but the rise of absentee votes would gradually decrease his lead as mail-in ballots were counted. What studies and experts predicted came true as Trump’s initial leads in crucial states like Michigan and Georgia reversed. However, this phenomenon is not exclusive to Trump as Biden’s early leads in North Carolina and Ohio still resulted in Trump’s victory in those states. He also claimed that mail-in ballots “destroyed” the electoral voting process and “is a corrupt system” on November 5 following the results of the presidential election. However, the New York Times showed through various independent studies and reviews that voter fraud is “extremely rare in all forms, including mail-in voting.” In fact, Trump had voted via mail-in Florida where he said that it is “more secure” since the state uses absentee ballots instead of “mail-in ballots.” Such claims are independently verified to be false as there is no substantial difference between “absentee ballots” and “vote-by-mail ballots,” determining that both terms are used interchangeably. Both paper ballots are also secure modes of voting as they will be “marked by hand by the voter”—deemed by the non-partisan group comprised of public officials, National Conference of State Legislatures, as the “gold standard of election security.” Beyond such measures, a total of 27 states mandate “signature verification” for mail ballots while 12 ask for a witness or notary’s signature and others ask for other forms of verification.

Aside from claiming about the lack of security in the mail-in process, Trump also claimed that the election had taken too long in a speech after his loss at the White House: “We used to have what was called Election Day. Now we have election days, weeks and months, and lots of bad things happened during this ridiculous period of time.” This claim is also debunked by many as the 2020 presidential election was not the first election that took more than 1 day to release the results. Before the rise of technological advances like digital ballot machines, the New York Times notes that it would typically take “days, weeks, or even months passed before voters learned who had won in several elections in the 19th century.” Even with technological advances, narrow elections may take until the following morning like in the instances of 1960 and 1976. The 2000 presidential election was another example in which counting “took more than a month” and resulted in the federal Supreme Court to end Florida’s recount in the following December where George W. Bush won.

Another tactic of Trump’s to overturn the 2020 election was making false claims about “barred observers” and emphasizing a lack of verification within the electoral voting process. On X (formerly known as Twitter), he tweeted on November 6: “The OBSERVERS were not allowed, in any way, shape, or form, to do their job and therefore, votes accepted during this period must be determined to be ILLEGAL VOTES.” His complaint regarding how poll observers were prohibited “to do their job” was contradicted by his legal filings that recognized the presence of Republican poll observers in several states like Nevada, Georgia, and Arizona. There were “at least 134 Republican poll challengers” who were at the TCF Center in Detroit when the votes were being counted. In their brief, “Poll Watchers and Challengers,” the National Conference of State Legislature defined the role of a poll watcher as “to ensure that their party has a fair chance of winning an election” and “are prohibited from interfering in the electoral process apart from reporting issues to polling place authorities and party officials.” On the other hand, a poll challenger can be picked by a political party and “can challenge whether a person is eligible to vote.” However, the extent of that power is based on “actual knowledge” of the voter and “not an assumption.” As a part of his campaign that aims to discredit the results of the 2020 presidential election, Trump had relied on a series of affidavits to support his claim that the election was rigged in Michigan for the lawsuit he filed to the Michigan federal court. However, many state officials have stated that there were “multiple safeguards in place” to deter any form of election fraud in Michigan.

After the conclusion of the 2020 presidential election, Trump refused to acknowledge his loss and instead called for a recount in several pivotal states, including Georgia. Georgia law explicitly allows for “a losing candidate to request a recount if the margin between the candidates is within 0.5%.” As the results from Georgia’s Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger showed that Biden had a lead with 12,670 votes, Trump had requested for a recount of the votes. The recounting process was extensive as Georgia vote counters used “scanners that read and tally the votes” and made note of “discrepancies in vote totals in some counties.” To ensure that the recounts are accurate as they will become the official results of the electoral vote process, Raffensperger had those counties recount their results before recertifying the overall results of the Georgia election. Due to the close margin between Trump and Biden in Georgia’s election, the audit under Raffensperger’s direction meant that the 5 million votes had to be “recounted by hand” and ultimately reassured Biden’s win in that state.

Biden’s victory did not deter Trump as he and his associates continued their campaign of election fraud across numerous key states integral to his presidency for 2020. Former mayor of New York and Trump’s former lawyer, Rudy Giuliani persisted in his efforts to spread misinformation and support for Trump’s lost victory in the 2020 election by speaking out at Republican press conferences and social media platforms. Some of his rhetoric included how the polling machines were rigged—a statement that was met with criticism by voting machine companies and experts—but was very much welcomed by Trump’s supporters. David Shafer, also indicted by Georgia’s Attorney General, sent an email to Scott Graham Hall asking for help on “looking into election fraud” for Trump. According to Attorney General Willis, Shafer was aware that “there was no such fraud” but continued to do so due to his loyalty to Trump. Another Trump associate, his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, was in correspondence with U.S. Representative Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, aiming to discuss with Pennsylvania’s speaker and the “leader of the state’s legislature.”

Meanwhile, Trump and Giuliani tried to convince Arizona House Speaker and fellow Republican, Russell Bowers, to publicly support their cause to overturn the election results and appoint “Trump-supporting electors” (despite Biden’s win). To their dismay, Bowers was adamant in his refusal and testified to the U.S. House January 6 committee focusing on Trump’s deadly insurrection of the Capitol: “I would not break my oath.” Trump’s attorneys made “3 appearances before state lawmakers,” continuing to falsely claim that there was election fraud in hopes of persuading state officials to undermine Georgia’s “duly elected and qualified presidential electors” for Biden. One of their claims was a total of “2,506 felons, 10,315 dead people, and 66,248 underage citizens voted illegally” and it was widely shared with other swing states pivotal to Trump’s supposed victory. Trump even went as far as pressuring Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr to support a lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that aims to “block Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin from casting their collective 62 electoral votes for Biden.” The federal Supreme Court “unanimous[ly]” rejected the lawsuit, not allowing Texas to challenge Biden’s wins by stating: “Texas has not demonstrated a judicially cognizable interest in the manner in which another state conducts its elections.” This decision diminished Trump’s dream of vindication on the electoral college process as he had characterized this lawsuit as “the big one.”

A federal judge also dismissed a lawsuit in Georgia filed by several Trump associates such as former Trump lawyer, Sidney Powell. The lawsuit claimed that there was “widespread fraud” and aimed to undermine the results of the presidential race in Georgia as well. In the filing of this lawsuit, Trump’s team had requested for an “emergency injunction to ‘de-certify’ the election results in the state and includes a verification signed by Trump attesting to the truthfulness of the claims.” In his dismissal of the lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Timothy Batten said: “The plaintiffs essentially ask the court for perhaps the most extraordinary relief ever sought in any federal court in connection with an election. They want this court to substitute its judgment for that of 2 and a half million Georgia voters who voted for Joe Biden and this I am unwilling to do.” A month after the lawsuit’s dismissal, Trump made the “infamous” phone call to Raffensperger in which he urged the Georgia Secretary of State to “find 11,780 votes”—the exact number of votes needed to win Georgia—and persisted in several conspiracies Raffensperger had debunked.

On January 6, a deadly insurrection took place at the U.S. Capitol, instigated by a mob of Trump supporters who were incited by Trump’s allegations of a “stolen election.” The casualties included 5 deaths, 4 officer suicides after the attacks, and more than 1,100 people charged from the attack. In the wake of these legal challenges and escalating tensions, the events of January 6 unfolded, resulting in a tragic and chaotic day at the U.S. Capitol that left a lasting impact on the nation, with numerous casualties and legal repercussions. A day after January 6, Cathleen Latham—the Republican party chair in Coffee County—led “a team of investigators linked to election denier Sidney Powell” to illegally download data from Dominion voting machines. This breaching of election equipment was later downloaded by “un-indicted co-conspirators.”

These incidents related to Georgia’s elections had led to an Atlanta-based grand jury to indict Donald Trump and 18 other co-conspirators on “state charges stemming from their efforts to overturn the former president’s 2020 electoral defeat.” Trump’s associates include his “former lawyer Rudy Giuliani, former chief of staff Mark Meadows, conservative lawyer John Eastman, former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark and lawyers Sidney Powell and Jenna Ellis.” Fani Willis, the Fulton County’s District Attorney, used Georgia’s RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) Act to prosecute and indict Trump for his actions related to the 2020 election. According to Willis in her 41-count indictment, Trump persisted in spreading misinformation about his loss in the 2020 presidential election in hopes of undermining the results. He and his 18 other co-conspirators sought ways to overturn the election results together, in violation of Georgia’s RICO Act.

This RICO statute provides Willis the opportunity to include additional “unlawful activity that occurred outside the Atlantic area” such as “meeting[s] with Trump and his allies in Michigan to overturn the election results there.” According to Anthony Michael Kries, a Georgia State University law professor specializing in election law, the RICO statue also enables Willis to make her case as it “include[s] number of occurrences that might have otherwise seemed small or irrelevant, but might have otherwise seemed small or irrelevant, that taken as a whole, showcase that ‘every time one scheme failed, [the co-defendants] moved on to another.’” He further elaborates on Willis’ justification for the RICO charge: “the unlawful enterprise was built and established and maintained for the singular unlawful purpose to overthrow the election and deny Georgians their right to vote.” The RICO act helps prosecutors to piece together events that would have been thought to be independent from each other—such as Cathleen Latham leading election deniers to have access to Dominion voting machines’ data and Rudy Giuliani’s press conferences—to form a cohesive case to present to “the Georgia legislature.” For example, Mark Meadows’ visit to Cobb County and getting the county’s election supervisor involved in “auditing absentee ballots” may not be illegal. However, with the use of RICO, prosecutors alleged that Meadows sent the election supervisor’s phone number to Trump as an attempt to “influence election results.” Clark Cunningham, a Georgia State University, added that “all of these different things were being tried in hopes that some of them would work and prevent Biden from taking over the presidency.” Georgia’s RICO statute grants prosecutors the ability to pinpoint criminal activity without establishing that all parties “got together to plan and discuss every single alleged act.” As noted with cases that involve the RICO statutes, prosecutors aimed that some co-conspirators would take plea deals as this results in fewer people standing trial and “helping to strengthen the case among the remaining defendants.”

When the indictment became public, Willis allowed the defendants to voluntarily surrender by noon of August 25 and is currently seeking a trial date within 6 months. Willis further intends to try all 19 individuals, including Trump, collectively in this case. This is not the first case related to Trump’s efforts to subvert election results: a legal case handled by special counsel, Jack Smith, on Trump’s “retention of classified documents” at his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, and once again, his attempt to overturn the 2020 election. Despite these legal issues, Trump remains the leading Republican candidate for president in 2024 and continues to campaign for his presidency, characterizing himself as a victim of the Democratic agenda. Nevertheless, Trump did turn himself in at the Fulton County jail on August 24 after reaching an agreement to a $200,000 bond and a ban from social media to not “target his 18 co-defendants,” “any witnesses, and the 30 unindicted co-conspirators.” In contrast to the usual procedures in Fulton County, where individuals arrested are typically booked into jail and must appear before a magistrate judge within 72 hours, the defendants, in this case, have already been indicted and likely arranged for their release and bond before surrendering, which makes an “initial court appearance” highly unlikely.

Recently, Trump had pleaded not guilty to Willis’ indictment and waived his right to appear at an arraignment, like his co-conspirators. This plea prompted for the Georgia indictment to be at its “most frenzied period yet” as all 18 co-conspirators filed for conflicting motions to their arrest; some are aiming to have their cases presented in federal court, two asked for a “speedy trial to occur this fall,” and others are attempting to “sever” their case from others to “move at their own pace.” On the stand, Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, claimed that his participation in the illegal conspiracy to undermine the 2020 election results were “all part of his job as White House chief of staff” and did not do anything that was “outside [his] scope as chief of staff.” However, Willis’ team denied such claims as Meadows’ decisions were “political in nature and not performed as part of his official duties.” The judge for Meadows’ case aimed to “rule as quickly as possible,” but recognized the lack of “relative case law” and consequently needing “thorough consideration.” Should Meadows manage to escalate his case to “federal court,” this indicates that the jury pool would be more diverse than the Democratic Fulton County and a more closed-off trial—instead of the televised and photographed trial currently. As a former federal worker, Meadows hopes to dismiss the case in federal court on the grounds of immunity “that shields many federal workers from litigation.” However, it does not create an opportunity for Trump, should he secure reelection in 2024, or for any subsequent president to grant pardons, as all convictions would still fall under state jurisdiction. Others are attempting to follow in Meadows’ steps in moving their cases to federal court with possibly Trump in tow as his lawyers were in attendance at Meadows’ hearing.

On September 6, 2023, all 19 defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges for their alleged involvement in the presidential election. As the co-conspirators plead not guilty, some of them are using a common legal strategy to deflect the charges: blaming their actions on the mastermind behind the entire operation—in this case, Trump. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, spoke with Politico about the case and characterized Trump as a man who “doesn’t care about anyone but himself.” During Meadows’ hearing, Meadows’ very own lawyer, Michael Francisco, made note that Meadows’ involvement in the phone call with Raffensperger was “limited” and he “didn’t make a request that you [Meadows] change the totals.”

However, this entire courtroom had heard Trump’s voice making that very request, a strategy that has major implications for the case as it approaches the potential reality of a jury. Since the case is composed of various co-conspirators that have “smaller alleged roles” compared to Trump or his primary associates, defendants with the “smaller” roles may appear to bear less responsibility concerning Trump’s actions. Scott Weinberg, an attorney who represented an Oath Keeper in the infamous January 6 attack trial, made note of this strategy: “[I]f you are one of the lesser important players, you would definitely want to be in the same trial with Donald Trump. All of the focus is going to be on him… They don’t want the little guys, they want Trump. You’re always compared to who you’re next to.” This strategy has already been implemented by some co-conspirators where 3 defendants—David Shafer, Cathleen Latham, and Shawn Still—already stated in court that “nearly all of the charges they face were the results of instructions from Trump and his lawyers.” Meanwhile, Meadows indicated in his hearing that a part of Trump’s strategy to retain his presidency was using false electors, pushing for the false election agenda as he feared “be[ing] yelled at by the president of the United States.”

The intricate web of legal strategies and dynamics surrounding the trial process for all defendants in the Georgia indictment is nothing short of bewildering. Within this tumultuous landscape, a clear divide emerges as co-conspirators seek divergent ways to escape responsibility. On one side, some defendants are eager to expedite the trial, perhaps recognizing the potential benefits of a swift resolution. Their motivation might stem from a desire to distance themselves from the core of the alleged conspiracy, a strategy that implicates Trump as the mastermind behind the operation. For them, hastening the proceedings could mean a chance to mitigate their culpability and swiftly move past this. Conversely, Trump’s approach appears to be one of prolongation, aiming to stretch the trial well into the next year. This calculated move aligns with a broader strategy, involving both legal and political considerations. By delaying proceedings, Trump may hope to keep the legal cloud over his head from fully materializing before the 2024 presidential election, thus preserving his political ambitions.

In the wake of the legal tumult surrounding Donald Trump’s alleged involvement in the aftermath of the 2020 election in Georgia, the stage is set for a high-stakes legal battle. With charges filed against the former president and 18 co-conspirators, the prosecution is using Georgia’s RICO Act to build a case that alleges a concerted effort to overturn the election results. Trump’s recent plea of not guilty has intensified the legal proceedings, with co-conspirators employing a strategy that seeks to shift responsibility to the former president. As these legal battles unfold, the nation watches closely, knowing that the outcome will have far-reaching implications for the individuals involved and for the broader political landscape. Regardless of the outcome, these events serve as a stark reminder of the tumultuous aftermath of the 2020 presidential election and its enduring impact on American democracy.

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