Georgia stood its ground against Trump, and now reckons with his trial

Brian Kemp, David Ralston, Geoff Duncan

Gov. Brian Kemp (left), Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan hold a joint press conference. (Credit: Georgia House of Representatives)

ATLANTA — It’s a brazen — and some might say potentially career-ending — series of moves, but Georgia’s government leaders are all in.

Georgians have a history of doggedly defending their way of life and their causes, even when they’re lost ones.

Now, not only did state lawmakers and officials go so far as to defy a sitting president, but they’ve criminally charged him and his allies with meddling in their state elections.

Former president and 2024 Republican presidential frontrunner Donald J. Trump may have met his match in Georgia.

Leaders in the Republican–dominated state’s executive and legislative branches have held fast against Trump’s steamrolling tactics and claims of election fraud that have served him better elsewhere. Meanwhile, the state’s judicial branch has even-handedly kept all the players in check, including Trump, his lawyers, and the prosecutors.

Jeff Mullis
Former Sen. Jeff Mullis. (Credit: Georgia Senate)

 “Our governor and many other elected officials, as quaint as it sounds, we took an oath of office on the Constitution of the State of Georgia in the United States and we're living up to our oath,” retired Republican Sen. Jeff Mullis, who left the Legislature this year after 22 years, told State Affairs. 

Unlike the three other court cases against Trump, Georgia’s 98-page, 41-count indictment is oceanic in scope and grievous. It connects the dots of similar alleged criminal acts in other states and it names names. It’s an exhaustive dossier that could have the former president spending several years behind bars instead of behind a desk in the Oval Office again.

Georgia may have just trumped Trump. 

“There’s been nothing quite like this, of this magnitude. He’s charged with a crime,” Charles Bullock III, a University of Georgia political science professor and the state’s political guru, told State Affairs. “They’re risking their reputation. They’re confident the elections were fairly conducted. And it certainly helps that [Secretary of State Brad] Raffensperger had that hand count.”

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks in the Fulton County Government Center during a news conference, Monday, Aug. 14, 2023, in Atlanta. Donald Trump and several allies have been indicted in Georgia over efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks in the Fulton County Government Center during a news conference, Monday, Aug. 14, 2023, in Atlanta. Donald Trump and several allies have been indicted in Georgia over efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

Relying on the state’s racketeering law, Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis has charged Trump and 18 others of engaging in a wide-ranging conspiracy to overturn the results of the federal election. Each faces multiple felonies and potentially years in prison. 

While Georgia is pushing back, critics are describing its recent move against the former president as prosecutorial overreach and a violation of Trump’s constitutional rights.

Trump turned himself in to Fulton County authorities last Thursday and was released on $200,000 bond. The nation’s 45th president is now inmate no. P01135809 at the Fulton County Jail. 

How Georgia became ensnared in Trump’s multi-state web of election interference and intrigue unfolds like a Shakespearean play.

And it all began with a series of phone calls.

Demanding phone calls

Brad Raffensperger
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger speaks in front of the Richard B Russell Courthouse. (Credit: Georgia Secretary of State)

During the now infamous hour-long Jan. 2, 2021 call, Trump unleashed a torrent of allegations of instances of election fraud in Georgia that his team had catalogued. They ranged from thousands of dead Georgians voting to ballots being shredded and scanned multiple times. He demanded Raffensperger investigate them all.

Before refuting point-by-point Trump’s claims, which had already been investigated and dismissed as meritless, Raffensperger calmly delivered simple but direct rejoinders.

“We don’t agree that you have won,” he said.  “… Mr. President, the challenge that you have is the data you have is wrong.”

As the call continued, Trump seemed to become exasperated. That’s when he made some striking remarks. They include insinuations to Raffensperger that he faced criminal exposure if he didn’t comply with Trump’s demands. 

In her indictment, Willis deemed that parts of the call were an attempt to get the secretary to violate his oath of office by altering the electoral count. 

Raffensperger did not attempt to “find” any new votes, and chose instead to stick with his certification of the election based on three separate ballot counts, one involving a hand count of nearly 5 million ballots. Along the way, he continued to receive a public browbeating from Trump and some other Republicans, and death threats from many quarters. 

He  wasn’t the only state official pressured by the former president. A month earlier, Trump called Gov. Brian Kemp and David Ralston, the late speaker of the house. He urged both Republicans to call a special session of the Legislature to overturn Biden’s victory in Georgia. They refused.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr honors local police officers in August 2021. (Credit: Office of Gov. Brian Kemp)

Trump and company’s multi-pronged pressure campaign is at the heart of the conspiracy narrative woven by Willis in an indictment which contains a multitude of legal sins. Among them: making false statements and soliciting Raffensperger, Kemp, Ralston and other state legislators to violate their oaths of office.

Trump also called Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr in early December, to warn him against opposing a lawsuit filed against Georgia and three other states in the U.S. Supreme Court by the Texas attorney general, which sought to throw out millions of votes. Carr issued a statement the same day saying the lawsuit was “constitutionally, legally and factually wrong.” 

Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, believes Trump’s unrelenting pursuit of “The Big Lie” has landed him in his current legal peril. 

Sen. David Lucas
Sen. David Lucas. (Credit: Georgia Senate)

“We had a fair election,” said Lucas, 73, now approaching his 50th year in the General Assembly. “There were enough folks who were mad at Donald Trump about the kind of stuff he was doing that they decided not to elect him back in office. And then he comes up with this cockamamie scheme to steal an election. … Kemp didn’t go along with Trump and his foolish lies.”

Lucas, a senior member of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, credits Raffensperger, Kemp and Ralston “for standing their ground.” 

“Brad Raffensperger had enough sense to record the conversation. Had he not, they would’ve lied on him, too, and Trump would be off the hook,” Lucas said.

But some Republicans and conservatives are troubled by claims made in the sprawling Georgia indictment.

 “At the time [Trump] made these statements, I strongly suspect that he did not know they were false,” John Malcolm of the Heritage Foundation said of Trump’s Jan. 2 call to Raffensperger. “In fact, I think that he believes that to this day. So he filed lawsuits, testing the procedures and results of the election. He has a First Amendment right to do that.”

John Malcom
John Malcolm of the Heritage Foundation. (Credit: Heritage Foundation)

A constitutional scholar, Malcolm leads a legal center at the foundation and was a former federal prosecutor in Atlanta in the 1990s.

By the time of the Raffensperger call, Trump had already filed a lawsuit claiming widespread voter fraud in the Georgia presidential election, Malcolm noted. “And he knew darn well that in order for him and his legal team to prevail in that lawsuit, he had the burden of finding one more vote than what was at that time, the differential,” Malcolm added. “But there's nothing in that statement that is directing Brad Raffensperger to find that.” 

The transcript shows Trump said twice ‘I  have to find votes,’ not 'You have to find votes,’ Malcolm said.

 “He said nothing about directing Brad Raffensperger to do anything. … I am not going to crawl into Donald Trump’s head and interpret what he wanted Brad Raffensperger to do or not to, but there is nothing in this transcript that is crystal clear” to show Trump told Raffensperger to “‘just, willy nilly, take out your eraser, erase stuff, and add votes for me,’ “ said Malcolm, “…And at no point in this transcript did Brad Raffensperger say, ‘You're asking me to do something improper and I won’t do it.’ All of these statements are at best equivocal.”

Malcolm also disputed claims that Trump threatened Raffensperger by telling the Georgia officials that his failure to further investigate claims of voter fraud might be a crime.

“He's suggesting that they’re doing something improper by not looking into it, which is a stupid thing to say, but it’s not an illegal thing to say.”

Georgians react to indictment

For some Georgians, the indictment is cathartic. Others are reluctantly bracing for the next political battle in our country’s deeply-divided electorate.

James Corwell
James Corwell, East Atlanta resident. (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

“It’s about time for Trump to face justice,” said James Corwell, 56, who was at a coffee shop in his East Atlanta neighborhood on Thursday, the day Trump was booked.

The Democrat who runs a plant-based seafood company said he’s been following the Trump saga the past few years, and is pleased with the scope of the Fulton indictment.

“It's imperative to see our judicial system working when somebody obfuscates the law, even if they're, you know, a president,” he said. “It’s his right to challenge results that he doesn’t think are right. But when you go beyond that, and actually outright ask to find votes to cheat, you have to face some penalties.”

Corwell praised the state’s leaders for not buckling under Trump, Giuliani, and others named in the indictment, whom he said had made “a mockery of our legal and judicial systems.”

“God bless Raffensperger for stepping up and doing what he did,” Corwell said, adding that Kemp “stuck to his guns and is on the right side of history here.”

McDonough resident Tommy Smith is tired of the political drama that has subsumed the country and, frankly, he’s tired of Trump. The retiree spent more than 30 years in local politics in Henry County, some of it as a Republican. He’s now an independent.

“I think the general public is fed up with this. Enough is enough.Where it ends up, who knows? But I have gotten out of the loop,” said the 77-year-old former chairman of the Henry County Board of Commissioners, adding that he tries his best to stay out of politics these days.

Trump’s quest to find more votes in Georgia was “very, very, very inappropriate,” Smith said. “... It probably reaches the level of being criminal. I don’t know. I’m not a lawyer. Trump's biggest problem is he can’t keep his mouth shut. To be an effective elected official, you’ve got to know when to shut the hell up.”

Smith believes the federal government or state officials should have taken on the case rather than the DA of predominantly-Democratic Fulton County. For that reason, Smith says  the case and subsequent trial could be seen as a political ploy by Democrats. “Right now, it’s tarnished a little bit,” he said.

Georgia members of the Politically Conservative Republican Watchdogs group on Facebook are looking for vindication of Trump’s insistence on election fraud in the trial.

“Kemp did nothing to address the election fraud that clearly happened in Georgia,” posted Scott McEntyre. “I can’t wait for Trump and his legal team to present evidence during a trial.”

The prosecutor 

Willis has become a lightning rod for criticism and praise during the two and a half years she has presided over the investigation of Trump and his alleged co-conspirators. She has built the case, flushing out and knitting together a legal tome, soldering together hours and dozens of testimonies obtained through two grand jury proceedings.

The Fulton indictment charges Trump and 18 others with engaging in a criminal enterprise involving 41 counts, including felony Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) charges as well as state crimes such as forgery and impersonating a public official (something the “fake” electors allegedly did); filing false documents (including a lawsuit filed by Trump claiming voter fraud); and conspiracies to commit computer theft and to defraud the state (charges that lawyers and election workers in Coffee County who allegedly orchestrated a breach of election machines and voter data are facing). 

RICO is a federal law often used to go after organized crime syndicates and drug cartels. The Georgia RICO law is broader, allowing prosecutors to pursue people who’ve engaged in two or more related criminal acts as part of a common criminal enterprise. 

Willis has made a name for herself bringing RICO indictments against 35 teachers involved in the 2009 Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal as well as street gangs like Young Slime Life, or YSL, an alleged affiliate of the national Bloods gang.

At, 6-foot, 3-inches tall, Trump stands nearly a foot taller than Willis, yet the former president is up against a formidable force in the tough and thorough litigator in stilettos. 

“She’s shown herself to be very capable and competent,” Derrick Boazman, a former Atlanta city councilman who is now a community activist and radio personality, told State Affairs. “I've not always agreed with her on some things that she has either not supported or not prosecuted.”

Her moves are calculated and career-building. The Trump case, if successful, is a major career booster. “She loves every minute of this,” Boazman said.

Those who’ve seen her in action say she is determined, sometimes brusque, and someone you wouldn’t want to tangle with in court or elsewhere. 

“I would hate to have Fani Willis after me,” Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter was once quoted as saying. “She is a superb trial lawyer and the real deal.”

Sen. Elena Parent. (Credit: Tammy Joyner)

State Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, agrees.

“In terms of Fani Willis being a bulldog, I do think she is not someone who can be bullied,” Parent said.

But Trump characterizes Willis in a different way: “I guess they say that she was after a certain gang and she ended up having an affair with the head of the gang or a gang member,” he  said in a campaign rally in Windham, N.H. “And this is a person that wants to indict me.” The incendiary, baseless statement has been refuted by Willis and others. 

Prompted by what he sees as  a “political persecution” of Trump, Republican State Sen. Colton Moore last week called for a special session of the Legislature to investigate Willis’s conduct. He was joined by Charlice Byrd, R-Woodstock. 

It would take either a call by the governor or  three-fifths of each chamber in the General Assembly — more than 150 state representatives and 43 senators — to agree to assemble to consider ousting Willis. 

Meanwhile, Politico reported last Thursday that the U.S. House Judiciary Committee is now probing the Fulton indictment. Chair Jim Jordan, R - Ohio, in a letter to Willis, said the “indictment and prosecution implicate substantial federal interests, and the circumstances surrounding your actions raise serious concerns about whether they are politically motivated.” He asked for an accounting of federal funds spent by her office.

“False” electors  

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, has blasted the district attorney as “politically motivated and biased” in the wake of the indictment, which referenced him as one of 30 unnamed co-conspirators. Jones is one of 16 alleged “false” electors in Georgia who gathered at the state capitol on Dec. 14, 2020 to cast ballots for Trump and then sent their false certification of his victory to the National Archives and the governor’s office. 

Three of them were indicted for doing so, including state Sen. Shawn Still, R-Norcross, and David Shafer, the former chair of the Georgia Republican Party.

Willis was barred from including Jones in her investigation by Fulton Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney when it came to light that she had hosted a political fundraiser for Jones’ Democratic opponent during the 2020 campaign, representing a conflict of interest. 

Since her indictment was filed, the state Prosecuting Attorneys Council has announced it is now seeking a special prosecutor to investigate Jones’s conduct relating to the election interference charges.

Mullis numbers among some Republicans who believe that it was right for state leaders to keep Trump and his team in check, but who now see the indictment of Trump and others as politically motivated. 

“I hate that it has come to this, but it wasn’t our fault,” he said. “We're just upholding the law. That’s what we’re elected to do.”  

Georgia judges      

Georgia’s judicial branch has dealt well with multiple challenges posed by Trump and his lawyers, as well as reining in the prosecution, said Anthony Michael Kreis, an assistant professor of law at Georgia State University. 

Anthony Michael Kreis
Anthony Michael Kreis (Credit: Georgia State University)

“Judge McBurney has been, I think, really key in ensuring the investigation has been done in a way that the integrity of the investigation is unimpeachable,” including, he said, “keeping Fani Willis in check by disqualifying her” from prosecuting Lt. Gov. Jones.  

Kreis noted that the Georgia Supreme Court was asked multiple times “to intervene and provide extraordinary relief to Trump.” The first time was in December 2020, when Trump's lawyers attempted to get the Supreme Court to block the state’s official electors. “And they just dismissed it,” he said.

“And … perhaps even more notably,” said Kreis, “in the recent attempt [by Trump] to … block Fani Willis and disqualify her and block the special grand jury's work, I think they [the Supreme Court] really routed the argument that somehow there was something amiss in the process that Donald Trump could object to.” 

Eight of the nine members of the Georgia Supreme Court were appointed by Republican governors.

Election overhaul

As Americans await Trump’s trial, it’s important to note that Georgia has engaged in a massive effort to safeguard its election processes in the aftermath of the 2020 election. 

State leaders have fought among themselves — and with civil and voting rights groups — over the best way to ensure elections are fair and tamper-proof.

Holding statewide elections amid lockdowns during the pandemic in 2020 “required innovation, and the promulgation of new rules for voting,” Kreis said. More ballot drop boxes were added and absentee ballots were sent to all registered voters.

In 2021, in response to record voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election and allegations of voter fraud, state lawmakers instituted the most sweeping and controversial election reform in recent memory with Senate Bill 202, also known as the Georgia Election Integrity Act.

The law banned anyone but poll workers from giving food or drink to voters waiting in line, shortened the deadline for requesting mail-in ballots, limited the number of drop boxes and banned private grants to finance local election administration. Another consequence: Counties can face a takeover of elections by state-appointed officials.

“There was really no reason for SB 202 to take some of those measures back, when Brad Raffensberger had said the 2020 election was secure and accurate, and that  [increased] access did not in any way invite or open the door to election fraud, or other kinds of irregularities,” Kreis said. “And given that baseline fact, you have to ask, ‘Well, why did SB 202 even happen?’ It's ultimately because Donald Trump made people believe there was something wrong with the system, and that some kind of change was required.”

Mullis, an SB 202 sponsor, was among the legislators seeking to change how people vote. 

“I thought it [the new law] made sure that the elections were fair and free and open,” Mullis recalled. “Senate Bill 202 was never the bill that a lot of folks who were giving us a hard time thought it was. The problem we were having was with the absentee ballots. That's where the lack of security was.”

SB 202 cost the state a lot. Civil rights groups, along with former President Jimmy Carter and Delta Air Lines, accused the Republican-backed legislation of trying to suppress voting, especially among Black voters. Major League Baseball yanked its multimillion dollar All-Star games out of Atlanta in protest of the law, dubbed “Jim Crow 2.0.” 

Parts of the law have been upheld, struck down, or are still being contested in court.

And now, to have one of the nation’s most powerful and influential politicians come into the state and  interfere with the state’s elections system is unconscionable to many. And ironic in a part of the country with a history of interfering in elections.

Sixty years ago, “grandfather clauses,” white primaries, job intimidation and even death were tactics used in Georgia to keep Blacks from voting. More recently, long lines, voter roll purges, insufficient equipment and other vote-limiting measures have done the trick, some scholars say.

“It’s ironic that Georgia has resumed a posture of limiting access to elections in a situation where they were unable to provide the relief that the presidential candidate in their party was requesting,” said Adrienne Jones, a political science professor at Morehouse College. “Since the mid-2000s, they have resumed a posture of attempting to regulate the electorate as opposed to drawing new voters into their fold. History dies hard in the United States. White supremacy does not go down without a fight.”

The trial and the weight of history

Georgia’s top lawmakers have a lot riding on the outcome of the trial.

CHARLES S. BULLOCK, III, holds the Richard B. Russell Chair in Political Science and is Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor and University Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia.
Charles S. Bullock, III, holds the Richard B. Russell Chair in Political Science at the University of Georgia. (Credit: University of Georgia)

They’ve got some real skin in the game. Not just their reputation for integrity but conceivably, it could hurt politically,” Bullock said. “It also says Georgia Republicans [may] like Donald Trump but they're not going to follow him down the road as readily as a lot of other Republicans [in other states].”

In the future, when Americans look back at this case, Georgia will “look very good,” said Bullock, who has tracked Georgia politics for 55 years. “Whereas those who knuckled under, I don’t think they’re going to be treated that favorably by history.”

From the post-Civil War Reconstruction period on, Kreis noted, “Georgia has failed historically in a very long arc to defend the rights of people to vote freely, fairly and to have their ballots counted. That dark history extends right into the 1950s and 60s, where we had literacy tests and poll taxes and things of that nature. 

“This is perhaps the first moment where Georgia has taken a national lead on the right to vote, and the right to free and fair elections, and may be able to model for the rest of the nation what it means to have a democratic society that respects the outcomes of elections and the peaceful transfer of power.”

The hard part has just begun, he said.  

“People still need to have resolve to see this trial, or these trials, through,” Kreis said. “People still need to be willing to courageously testify and accurately provide evidence when asked. It also requires the public to pay attention, which is a really hard thing to do in 2023, to ask them to sit down and watch chunks of legal proceedings. There’s a real opportunity that Georgia will provide here for some kind of national conversation that could be healthy for us long-term. But that requires a lot of actors to do the right thing.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Contact Jill Jordan Sieder on Twitter @journalistajill or at [email protected] and Tammy Joyner on Twitter@lvjoyner or at [email protected].
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