As the Trump era ends, America faces the prospect of a self-pardon that would exempt the President from federal prosecution, and an impeachment trial that may go nowhere in the Senate. Attention is rightly turning to other venues of accountability.
Regardless of the outcome in the Senate, we believe that Georgia should take the lead in putting President Trump on trial. Yes, Georgia, and not New York, the President’s erstwhile home.
Of course, the Manhattan District Attorney should focus on financial and tax-related crimes, but it is even more important that there be a full airing of the President’s heavy-handed effort to interfere personally in the electoral process.
That effort reached its zenith in Georgia.
In December and early January, that state became the focus of the President’s delusions and obsessions. He made a series of unsuccessful efforts to bully, intimidate, and entice officials to upend the results of the November election., starting with the Republican Governor and one-time Trump ally, Brian Kemp.
Then, he reached out to the state’s lead elections investigator, and finally on January 2, in a last, desperate effort to find the weak link in Georgia’s election apparatus, he contacted the Georgia Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger.
In his call to the governor, Trump criticized Kemp for certifying the election results, but said he could still undo the damage. He urged the governor to convene a special legislative session to overturn President-elect Biden’s victory in the state and to order an audit of absentee ballot signatures.
Kemp refused, so Trump turned his attention to the state’s lead elections investigator. During a conversation on December 23, he repeatedly prodded the investigator (whose name has been withheld because of the risk of harassment and threats) to “find the fraud.” Trump also tried enticement, promising that if he did so he would be a “national hero.”
Still no luck.
On January 2 Trump tried a third tack, when he reached Raffensperger. For more than an hour the President mostly talked, repeatedly going over familiar ground about election fraud and claiming that he had really won Georgia in a landslide. Raffensperger mostly listened.
Trump berated, flattered, and pleaded with him. Along the way he told him that he wanted the Georgia Secretary of State to “find 11,780 votes,” one more than Biden’s margin of victory in that state.
The President euphemistically observed: “And there’s nothing wrong with saying, you know, um, that you’ve recalculated.”
When Raffensperger resisted, Trump went into bully mode, threatening him and his office’s chief legal counsel (who was also on the call) with unspecified criminal charges. The President warned that they were taking a “big risk” in not reopening the election results.
Raffensperger was unmoved—defying the old adage that “third time’s the charm.”
A recording of their shocking conversation subsequently was provided to The Washington Post.
It provoked an immediate uproar, and we would still be talking about it were it not for the horrifying January 6 attack on the Capitol. But the call should not be forgotten: one former federal prosecutor said that it was “not much different” from the wiretapped conversations involving mafia bosses he used to hear.
Now it appears that authorities in Georgia might reward Trump’s efforts with real criminal charges.
The President may have violated several state laws. One prohibits criminal solicitation with the intent to commit election fraud. Another involves conspiracy to commit election fraud. A third makes it a crime to intentionally interfere with another person’s “performance of election duties.”
If Fulton County’s new district attorney, Fani Willis, goes forward with these charges, she would provide the nation an unparalleled chance to focus specially and directly on Donald Trump’s assault on American democracy.
A criminal trial with the President in the dock would be both a galvanizing national seminar on democratic values and a chance for officers of the court to question the President in a forum where he could neither obfuscate nor intimidate.
Most importantly, since Donald Trump would be a defendant, he would have the chance to present exculpatory evidence and to subpoena anyone his defense team desired.
The core of his defense would likely be, “How could the call possibly be construed as coercive, or as an illegal act of extortion if the President was acting on the belief that the election was stolen?”
The President could make his case for election fraud before a jury of his peers as well as national and international media which would livestream it all.
Were such a trial to occur, Americans could watch the presentation and cross-examination of evidence and witnesses by Atlanta’s first African American woman prosecutor in a city which also has an African American woman as its mayor and its own complex, troubled racial history.
Whatever the outcome, Donald Trump’s delusional belief that he could not possibly have lost the election would be on full display, and at least some of the actions he committed to support that delusion would be judged by the very democratic and legal processes he regularly demeaned.
America cannot recover from the Trump years without a full reckoning. But where the reckoning takes place is a vital component of any healing process.
At the end of World War II, the Allies recognized this when they chose Nuremberg for trials of the war criminals in part because of its key role in the diffusion of Nazi propaganda and its mythic place in the Nazi mind.
Atlanta, Georgia, once a bastion of the Confederacy with its own post-Civil War Reconstruction past, is today a bright symbol of the new South and what The Guardian newspaper calls a “city of black power.” These features make it a unique spot to take a much-needed step in America’s own truth and reconciliation process.
And it would all be done in the “heart of Dixie.” That’s sweeter than just about any peach cobbler or pecan pie.