Two days after Election Day in 2020, President Donald Trump’s eldest son traveled to the Georgia Republican Party headquarters in Atlanta to deliver a message.
The presidential race was still too close to call in the state and in the country. Georgia Republicans were scrambling to prepare for two runoff elections that would determine control of the U.S. Senate. But Donald Trump Jr. urged them to focus on another task: helping his father win the state by proving that widespread fraud had tainted the results.
If you do not support my dad 100 percent, we have a problem, Donald Trump Jr. told the group, a Trump campaign staffer familiar with the meeting testified to the House committee that investigated the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
The state party chairman, David Shafer, emerged looking “like he had seen a ghost,” the staffer said.
The message was received. That evening, Republican leaders in Georgia held a rally-style news conference in support of Trump.
The same week, the president’s allies circulated a video falsely accusing a Georgia election worker of throwing away ballots, making her the immediate target of harassment and threats. And White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and others began evaluating a plan for how legislatures in states like Georgia could overturn the will of voters.
The rapid series of events kicked off an aggressive pressure campaign that only intensified as weeks passed and the results more and more firmly showed that Trump had lost.
In phone calls, speeches, tweets and media appearances, Trump and his allies pushed to overturn the 2020 election results in six swing states where certified results declared Joe Biden the winner, an effort that culminated in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol as Congress convened to confirm the results.
Nowhere was the effort more acute than in Georgia, where all of their strategies came together in a complex and multilayered effort that unfolded against the hyperpartisan backdrop of two ongoing U.S. Senate races.
Those close to Trump prodded state officials to identify fraud that would cast Biden’s victory in doubt. In the process, they personally targeted individual election workers with false claims of cheating, unleashing waves of threats, and amplified conspiracy theories about rigged machines that persist today. In the end, after Trump sought to use every lever of power to overturn the results, top state Republicans stood in his way, refusing to buckle under the pressure.
While much of what happened in Georgia has surfaced in leaked recordings, court proceedings and congressional testimony, the fullest story yet has emerged this week, when the grand jury indicted Trump 13 times for his efforts to overturn Biden’s victory in the state.
Trump has repeatedly denounced the criminal investigations into his actions around the 2020 election and has continued to claim without evidence, as recently as last week, that widespread fraud tainted his loss. Regarding Georgia, he and his allies have maintained that they were following the advice of counsel and were protected by the First Amendment as they advocated for investigations into alleged voting irregularities.
But there is little doubt that Georgia was a consuming focus of the president and his allies in the final weeks of 2020.
“So look, all I want to do is this,” Trump said, “I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have because we won the state.”
News of that explosive conversation, first reported by The Washington Post, quickly caught the attention of Fani T. Willis, the Atlanta-area district attorney who launched a criminal investigation in early February 2021 that has since expanded to the sprawling activities of Trump and his allies not only in Georgia but also in other states where he contested the results. On Monday night, a Georgia grand jury returned an indictment of Trump and 18 others.
The Justice Department is also examining criminal wrongdoing related to the 2020 election, with federal prosecutors announcing charges against Trump on Aug. 1 while continuing to issue subpoenas and gather evidence.
Spokespersons or lawyers for Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Giuliani, Eastman and Meadows declined to comment for this article or did not respond.
Willis, a Democrat, and her investigators have spent nearly 2 ½ years piecing together what happened in their state after Trump lost — and which laws maybe have been broken along the way. Willis’s office declined to comment for this article.
The hunt for fraud
At Trump’s insistence, his allies launched a mad chase of every accusation of fraud they could find, big or small. Some of the more fantastical claims came directly from Trump and his allies, who amplified baseless accusations on conservative media and unleashed new waves of outlandish tips from rank-and-file Republicans.
They spread false claims that thousands of mail ballots should be discarded because of questionable signatures, that a mother-daughter team of election workers in Atlanta had triple-tallied counterfeit votes, that voting machines had been programmed to flip votes from one candidate to another.
One claim came from a local election official in rural Coffee County, Ga., named Misty Hampton, who said on Nov. 10, 2020, in a public meeting of her local elections board that machines made by Dominion Voting Systems could flip votes from one candidate to the next.
Sinners, under orders to look under every stone for possible fraud, got wind of Hampton’s remarks and emailed her the same day seeking more information. Although he would quickly determine that her claim and many others like it were bogus, that didn’t stop Trump allies from pursuing it, even arranging, with Hampton’s help, to examine the equipment in Coffee County — a violation of state law.
As the days wore on and more and more key states certified their results for Biden, Trump struggled to persuade his campaign lawyers to continue contesting results. He and his allies were losing court case after court case, including at least a half-dozen in Georgia. In one, U.S. District Judge Steven D. Grimberg, whom Trump named to the bench in 2019, wrote that the president’s attempt to block certification of Biden’s win in the state “would breed confusion and potentially disenfranchisement that I find has no basis in fact or in law.”
To keep the fight alive, Trump assembled a new team led by Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, and including Eastman, a former law professor and onetime clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Giuliani drew national attention with a series of legislative hearings in two battlegrounds, Michigan and Pennsylvania, but his appearance with Eastman before a Georgia State Senate committee in Atlanta revealed the lengths Trump was willing to go to reverse his defeat.
Giuliani spoke to Georgia lawmakers on three occasions over three days in early December, little more than a week before presidential electors were scheduled to meet in each of the state capitols and cast ballots. In one of those meetings, Giuliani sat at a crowded table in a small hearing room and told lawmakers that they had the power to appoint Trump’s presidential electors.
“There was ample evidence to conclude that this election was a sham,” Giuliani said. “It was an embarrassment to the people of your state.”
He went on to say that state law did not prevent the legislature from “immediately taking this over and deciding this. There would have to be a substantial basis for it. And that’s really what we’re presenting to you, a substantial basis, even to the point that these votes are too illegitimate to certify.”
Eastman, piped into the hearing on a video screen, told the assembled senators that if the Republican-controlled legislature chose to appoint a pro-Trump slate of electors, it could fall to the president of the U.S. Senate — at the time, Vice President Mike Pence — to determine if that slate should be counted in Congress’s Jan. 6 joint session rather than the Biden electors appointed by the governor when he certified the election results in late November.
Although widely overlooked at the time, Eastman’s remarks indicated that Trump’s electors may have met and voted in seven states on Dec. 14 not merely to preserve their legal recourse in pending lawsuits, as many claimed, but also to prepare for Jan. 6, when Trump and his allies would heavily lobby Pence to block the final counting of the electoral college votes for Biden.
“Unfortunately, Section 15 of Title III is embarrassingly ambiguous about which of those slate of electors ought to be counted,” Eastman told the senators. “And the 12th Amendment is also a bit ambiguous about who has the final say. So in making that determination, I think a very credible argument can be made that it’s the president of the Senate as the presiding officer of that joint session of Congress.”
State Sen. Elena Parent, a Democrat, reacted incredulously to what Eastman was saying. “So correct me if I’m wrong here,” she said during the live broadcast. “Your argument is that essentially we have a failed election that would require the legislature to step in and assign electors. Am I correct?”
Eastman’s reply: “Yes.”
‘Someone’s gonna get killed’
Trump’s torrent of false accusations turned election workers in Georgia and other states into targets of harassment and threats.
Giuliani and his companions claimed during their legislative appearances that two election workers in Fulton County could be seen cheating on behalf of Biden on surveillance video at a massive vote-counting facility inside Atlanta’s State Farm Arena.
Showing choppy, black-and-white footage captured by overhead cameras, the team claimed that longtime Fulton County workers Ruby Freeman and her daughter, Shaye Moss, had pulled mystery “suitcases” full of forged ballots from under a table and run them, in some cases three times, through tabulation machines. They claimed that Freeman and Moss passed a memory stick between them to try to hack into the tabulation machines — an act that Giuliani described as a “powerful smoking gun.” In the ensuing days, the Trump campaign released ads featuring footage from the hearing. Trump himself called Freeman a “professional vote scammer and hustler.”
The claims were false, according to Gabriel Sterling, a top aide to Raffensperger who distributed and explained the full surveillance video in the days following the Senate hearing. He showed how Giuliani’s team had selectively edited the tape to suggest the boxes had been smuggled in. They had obscured the moment when the ballot boxes — not suitcases, but authorized storage cases for ballots — were placed under the table in open view of news media and Republican poll watchers, after county election officials had announced that they would be going home for the evening. It was only after Raffensperger’s office instructed the county not to suspend the count that evening that Freeman and Moss pulled the ballot cases back out from under the table to resume their work.
Yet the false accusations had already begun to spread. Freeman and Moss became targets of harassment, threats and racist attacks almost immediately. In one instance, a publicist for hip-hop artist and Trump ally Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, confronted Freeman at her home and urged her to confess to the fraud or she would go to jail.
Freeman refused. She also went into hiding.
The two women traveled to Washington last year to testify before the Jan. 6 committee. Both became emotional as they described how the president attacked them and how their lives were forever changed.
“I lost my name, I’ve lost my reputation,” Freeman testified. “I’ve lost my sense of security — all because a group of people, starting with Number 45 and his ally Rudy Giuliani, decided to scapegoat me and my daughter, Shaye, to push their own lies about how the presidential election was stolen.”
This year, in the midst of a defamation suit filed against him by Freeman and Moss, Giuliani declared in a court filing that he is no longer contesting their claims that his statements were false.
The pressure campaign was taking a toll.
“Someone’s gonna get killed” if the false fraud claims didn’t stop, Sterling angrily told a bank of cameras inside the state Capitol the same week Giuliani addressed state senators. He was visibly shaken as he described the flood of threatening phone calls and emails to election offices around the state, particularly after Trump had called Raffensperger an “enemy of the people.” He demanded that Trump take action.
Sterling said that day that the last straw came when a 20-year-old technician for the state’s voting machine contractor, Dominion Voting Systems, was targeted by far-right social media users who falsely claimed they’d caught him on camera manipulating election data. Some people called for the worker’s imprisonment, torture or execution. One tweet accused him of treason and included an animated image of a hanging noose.
“Mr. President, you have not condemned these actions or this language,” Sterling said. “Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence.”
The alternate electors
The plan to send “dueling” slates of electors to Washington, as Eastman suggested, was also coming together.
Sinners, Trump’s election day operations director, was put in charge of contacting Trump’s electors, most of whom believed their work was no longer needed because their candidate had lost, according to emails and interviews with the Jan. 6 committee.
Not so, Sinners told them. Under the direction of his boss on the campaign, Mike Roman, Sinners and his counterparts in six other states Biden had won contacted Trump’s designated electors and instructed them to be ready to meet on Dec. 14, the day when all appointed presidential electors were required cast their votes state by state.
“I must ask for your complete discretion in this process,” Sinners wrote on Dec. 13, 2020. “Your duties are imperative to ensure the end result — a win in Georgia for President Trump — but will be hampered unless we have complete secrecy and discretion.”
The next day, 16 Republicans gathered at the Georgia Capitol to sign certificates declaring themselves duly elected. Biden’s electors gathered in the House chamber down the hall.
Shafer, then the state party chair, presided over the meeting. Still, now a state senator but then the state GOP’s finance chair, stood at the door and initially blocked media and the public from entering the room where the electors would meet. Smith, the Trump lawyer, attended the meeting.
“All votes cast, paperwork complete, being mailed now,” Sinners wrote to Roman and other campaign officials that day, according to emails obtained by the House Jan. 6 committee. “Ran pretty smoothly.”
Similar messages came in from campaign operatives in the other states: Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. One such email showed the breadth of the operation, with a link to a “tracker” — a spreadsheet with a tab for each state detailing the names of Trump’s original electors, whether they were willing to vote and whether substitutes had been found where needed.
Shafer and Still did not respond to requests for comment. Smith’s lawyer, Bruce Morris in Atlanta, said his client “did not have anything to do with planning, setting up or organizing the meeting” and informed “those present that the process was to preserve the opportunity to cast votes for Donald Trump if the pending lawsuit was successful.”
Shafer has also said their purpose was simply to preserve the campaign’s legal remedies. The country’s electoral college is a complicated institution that requires presidential electors of the winning candidate to convene at the same time, on the same date, in every state capitol. Only electoral votes cast in this manner may be considered by the joint session of Congress on Jan. 6. If Trump’s electors had not voted, signed the certificates or mailed them to Congress and the National Archives, no more recourse would have remained.
Shafer has also said in public remarks that he had no knowledge of the plan to contest the electoral vote on Jan. 6, suggesting that he is not even sure the plan existed when he and the others convened on Dec. 14. Eastman’s testimony to the state Senate on Dec. 3 reveals, however, that the plan was very much in the works. In addition, Eastman’s remarks that day revealed that the campaign was also focused on persuading state lawmakers to designate Trump electors even in states where he had lost — a strategy that goes beyond Shafer’s explanation that the electors met only to preserve recourse in court.
The calls to Georgia
Throughout Trump’s months-long pressure campaign in Georgia, phone calls to the state’s top elected officials figured prominently. In November 2020, Graham, the South Carolina senator, called Raffensperger to ask if he had the power to toss all mail ballots in counties with high rates of non-matching signatures.
Graham’s inquiry had been based on false claims that thousands of mail ballots in Cobb County, outside Atlanta, had failed the state’s required signature-matching protocol, meaning they could be forgeries. It prompted Raffensperger to initiate a signature audit in Cobb.
On Dec. 5, Trump called Kemp to berate him for certifying Biden’s win in the state and to try to persuade him to call a special session of the legislature so that they could designate Trump’s electors rather than Biden’s, to set up the dueling elector scenario that Eastman had described, according to a Washington Post report at the time that Kemp later confirmed. Kemp told Trump that he did not have that authority.
But that was far from the end of it. For months, Trump continued to berate him on social media and in speeches.
A few weeks later, a senior Justice Department lawyer, Jeffrey Clark, drafted a letter to Kemp making the same argument, though he wound up not sending it. The draft letter, dated Dec. 28, claimed falsely that the department was “investigating various irregularities” in the presidential contest and that it had “identified significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election.”
Neither Graham nor Clark responded to requests for comment.
Around the same time, Atlanta-based U.S. Attorney Byung Jin “BJay” Pak said he was asked by his boss, Attorney General William P. Barr, to investigate claims of election fraud in Georgia. Pak later testified to the Jan. 6 committee that he concluded that the claims — including those made by Giuliani regarding ballot-counting at State Farm Arena — were false.
Pak later resigned after a senior leader at the Justice Department warned him that Trump wanted him fired for failing to identify fraud.
In late December, long after Biden’s win was certified in Georgia, Meadows traveled to Cobb to witness the signature audit. He returned to Washington with the cellphone number of Watson, then Raffensperger’s top investigator who was leading the Cobb inquiry. Trump called her the next day, urging her to scrutinize ballots in Fulton County too and asserting that she would find “dishonesty” there. He also told her that she had “the most important job in the country right now.”
“That was an ongoing investigation,” Raffensperger said at the time. “I don’t believe that an elected official should be involved in that process.”
The audit found “no fraudulent absentee ballots” and concluded that the Cobb County Elections Department had “a 99.99% accuracy rate in performing correct signature verification procedures.”
Still, Trump’s calls were not done. On a sunny Saturday morning in early January, Raffensperger’s phone rang. It was the White House switchboard, which patched him through to the president, who was taking the call in the residence upstairs. Downstairs in the West Wing, Meadows, who had arranged the call, was listening in along with several others, according to Jan. 6 testimony from his assistant. Raffensperger’s then-lawyer, Ryan Germany, was on too, along with Trump lawyer Cleta Mitchell.
In the one-hour call, Trump told Raffensperger he wanted to “find” enough votes to overturn his defeat. He alternately berated Raffensperger, tried to flatter him, begged him to act and threatened him with vague criminal consequences if the secretary of state refused to pursue his false claims, at one point warning that Raffensperger was taking “a big risk.”
“We hear they’re shredding thousands and thousands of ballots,” Trump said on the call.
“Mr. President, the problem you have with social media, they — people can say anything,” Raffensperger replied.
“Oh this isn’t social media,” Trump shot back. “This is Trump media. It’s not social media. It’s really not; it’s not social media. I don’t care about social media. I couldn’t care less. Social media is Big Tech. Big Tech is on your side, you know. I don’t even know why you have a side because you should want to have an accurate election. And you’re a Republican.”
“We believe that we do have an accurate election,” Raffensperger responded.
Two days later, two Democrats won the Senate race runoffs — much as many Republicans had privately predicted because of Trump’s relentless focus on fraud in the state.
The day after that, on Jan. 6, 2021, Pence presided over a joint session of Congress to certify the election results. They were interrupted when thousands of Trump supporters descended violently on the U.S. Capitol.
Armed Trump supporters descended on the Georgia Capitol that day, too — forcing Raffensperger and his aides to evacuate. The moment solidified his view of the president.
“People were spun up to just believing the lies that were told to them, and things got out of control,” Raffensperger testified to the Jan. 6 committee. “And it’s just one of those hinge points in American history.”