ATLANTA — Prosecutors in Georgia have started a criminal investigation into former President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn Georgia’s election results, including a phone call he made to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in which Trump pressured him to “find” enough votes to help him reverse his loss.
On Wednesday, Fani Willis, the recently elected Democratic prosecutor in Fulton County, sent a letter to numerous officials in state government, including 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 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 Willis’ 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 Raffensperger, Willis’ inquiry would encompass 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 Trump asked the official to “find the fraud”; a call in which 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 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 Pak, after Trump complained to Justice Department officials that Pak was not pursuing his claims of election fraud, the official said.
In the letter, Willis said that her office would request subpoenas “as necessary” when the next Fulton County grand jury convenes in March. In addition to Raffensperger, the letter was sent to Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and 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,” Willis wrote.
The investigation goes beyond Trump himself and could touch on the conduct of his aides and allies. A spokesperson for the district attorney’s office said that Duncan, the lieutenant governor, received one of the letters because he presides over the state Senate. In December, Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s lawyers, appeared before the Senate and advanced false claims that the election was stolen.
The inquiry comes as 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. Trump’s hourlong call to Raffensperger on Jan. 2 is cited by the House in its article of impeachment.
Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Trump, said in a statement 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 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 President Joe Biden in the November election.
Willis has been weighing for several weeks whether to open an inquiry, after Trump’s Jan. 2 phone call to Raffensperger alarmed election experts who called it an extraordinary intervention into a state’s electoral process. For two months after Biden was declared the winner, Trump relentlessly attacked state officials in Georgia, including Raffensperger and Kemp, claiming they were not doing enough to uncover instances of voting fraud that might change the outcome.
Former prosecutors had previously said 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 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 aims.
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, 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, 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.
The letter did not go into detail about the contact that was made. But Trump’s acting deputy attorney general, Richard Donoghue, relayed to Pak, the former U.S. attorney for the Atlanta area, that Trump was dissatisfied with his efforts to investigate the president’s claims of election fraud. Donoghue did so in a phone call shortly before Jan. 4, the day Pak resigned.
Willis’ 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 spokesperson for Willis, noted 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 Dec. 3 and Dec. 10, Giuliani — who spent weeks peddling Trump’s conspiracy theories about election fraud — aired a series of false and sometimes outlandish claims that angered state election officials and Kemp. In a recent interview, Gabriel Sterling, a top aide to Raffensperger, said that he was in a legislative hearing room on a different floor during one of Giuliani’s appearances, trying to set the record straight.
“I literally was refuting everything one story down,” he said.
The Georgia investigation comes as Trump is also facing an ongoing criminal fraud inquiry into his finances by the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus 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 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 Jan. 6 riot.
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 DA 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 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 Trump were to be convicted of a state crime in New York or Georgia, a federal pardon would not be applicable. In Georgia, Trump cannot look to 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.