(Reuters) – In late December, when then-US President Donald Trump falsely claimed that rampant electoral fraud caused his election loss in Georgia, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows made an unexpected visit to a suburb of Atlanta in hope to watch an exam of thousands of voter signatures.
FILE PHOTO: Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows arrives at the U.S. Capitol on the first day of former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial in the Senate in Washington, DC on February 9, 2021. Chip Somodevilla / Pool via REUTERS /
The Georgia secretary of state said he had given Meadow’s arrival in Cobb County just 45 minutes in advance and had him locked out of the room where state investigators were examining signatures for the postal vote. The day before, Trump publicly complained that the verification was too slow after unfounded claims that the Georgian signature verification system was fraudulent.
Meadows’ trip sparked a series of meetings and talks in a print campaign by Trump and his allies that culminated in a phone call on Jan. 2 in which Trump asked Georgia’s Secretary of State to “find” the voices he needed to implement to win. That call, which Meadows and others are joining, is now the focus of an investigation in Atlanta into whether Trump and his allies criminally interfered in the 2020 election to overcome his loss in Georgia to Democrat Joe Biden’s affair.
Meadows’ trip also underscores the prominent role the top aide played in the events under investigation by Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis. According to a transcript, he was one of the eight participants identified in the January 2 call, and he started the call by introducing all participants. Meadows later urged Georgian officials to request access to legally private voter information, a request they denied, Minutes show.
A person with direct knowledge of the district attorney’s investigation told Reuters that the office would likely issue summons of evidence to most or all of the call participants.
A Meadows spokesman declined to comment. Willis, a Democrat, declined to comment on her investigation.
The Atlanta investigation is one of two known criminal investigations against Trump, who also faces a number of other legal threats. Manhattan prosecutors are investigating Trump’s private company for possible fraud. Reuters identified four other ongoing investigations against Trump and at least 17 active lawsuits.
Since Willis opened her investigation in February, she has added several high-profile lawyers to her team, including John Floyd, a national extortion agency. Willis is investigating possible extortion charges related to Trump’s campaign to pressurize state officials, and Floyd will deliberate on this investigation as well as other extortion cases, Reuters reported on March 6. (For a full story click reut.rs/30W9mCT reut.rs / 30W9mCT))
Georgian Foreign Secretary Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, opened the Cobb County’s review after alleging the county failed to properly verify signatures during the June primaries. The audit followed two statewide recounts that confirmed Trump had lost to Biden by about 12,000 votes in Georgia, a dramatic political shift in the traditionally Republican state. State officials found no evidence of Trump’s fraud claims.
During Meadows’ visit on December 22nd, Georgia Assistant Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs, a Republican, greeted him in the hallway of the Cobb County Civic Center in the city of Marietta. She prevented him from entering the room where the signature checks were carried out, the secretary of state told Reuters.
Meadows also spoke to Secretary of State Frances Watson, who worked with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to review approximately 15,000 signatures. Meadows collected contact information from Watson and Fuchs, including their cell phone numbers.
Trump called Watson the next day, urging them to find the “dishonesty” he claimed cost him the election with no evidence.
“If the right answer comes out, you will be commended,” Trump told Watson, according to the audio of the call, which was checked by Reuters and first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
After his visit to Georgia, Meadows called Fuchs to request a call between Trump and the Secretary of State, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter. When Fuchs asked Meadows what Trump wanted to talk about, Meadows didn’t give a clear direction, the source said.
Trump’s call to Raffensperger on Jan. 2 was one of 18 calls the White House attempted to make to the secretary of state after the November election, a state official said. Raffensperger initially avoided the calls out of concern because they represented a conflict of interest, said his office.
On the January 2 conference call, Trump pressured Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes,” the number Trump needed to win in Georgia.
“There is nothing wrong with saying you recalculated,” Trump said, according to a transcript of the call.
Other attendees included three attorneys advising Trump – longtime Republican attorney Cleta Mitchell and Georgia-based attorneys Kurt Hilbert and Alex Kaufman – as well as Fuchs and Secretary General of the State, Ryan Germany.
Mitchell declined to comment. Hilbert, Kaufman and Germany did not respond to requests for comment.
When Willis announced her investigation in February, a Trump representative Jason Miller said “there was nothing inappropriate or unpleasant” about the Jan. 2 call.
PRINT TO ACCESS PROTECTED VOTING DATA
Fifty-seven minutes into the conversation, Meadows asked Germany, the General Counsel of Raffensperger’s office, to allow Trump access to the Secretary of State’s voter records to “validate or invalidate” fraud claims.
When Germany refused to divulge the data, finding it was protected by state law, Meadows pushed him again, asking Trump and Raffensperger’s lawyers to work together on a plan to grant access. “If we get off that phone call and you can get together and work out a plan to go over some of what we have with your attorneys, where we can, we can actually see the data,” said Meadow’s transcript call.
Raffensperger was required by state law to protect confidential voter information. Lawyers familiar with Georgian law say prosecutors could argue that Meadows committed a crime in attempting to disrupt the secretary’s performance of that duty.
“You have put the secretary of state under very strong pressure to share some data,” said Kurt Kastorf, an Atlanta attorney and former attorney general for the US Department of Justice. “If the data we were looking for were confidential, it would be a pretty strong argument that it is a disruption to the dialing operations.”
Prosecutors are also likely to investigate Trump’s six-minute call on Dec. 23 with Watson, the election investigator. During the call, Watson confirmed the meeting with Meadows on December 22nd while the chief of staff was visiting Cobb County. Trump told Watson that he called her at Meadows’ request before pressuring her to investigate allegations of election fraud.
Watson declined to comment.
Clark Cunningham, a Georgia State University law professor, said prosecutors will likely want to know the reason for Meadows’ visit to Georgia and the testimony of state officials conducting the election test.
“There was clearly some kind of interaction between Meadows and Watson that Trump uses to make the call,” he said.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
A week after Meadows’ Georgia trip, his legislative adviser, Cassidy Hutchinson, reached out to Fuchs. This comes from an email received by the American Oversight ethics monitoring group under Georgia’s Open Records Act. In a phone call, Hutchinson Fuchs asked if there was anything the White House could do to show appreciation to the people doing the audit, a source knowledgeable of their discussion said.
Hutchinson did not respond to requests for comment.
At the time, investigators who did the signature verification and worked up to 15 hours a day during their family vacation were discouraged by Trump’s tweet claiming the officers were “very slow” in checking, the source said.
Meadows, the source said, was “just trying to smooth that out.”
Reporting by Linda So; Adaptation by Jason Szep and Brian Thevenot