Former President Trump’s legal trouble in Georgia just got worse.
A brand-new audiotape of Trump urging a Georgia election official to find the “right answer” while checking ballots for irregularities could help prosecutors build a case against him, legal experts said.
The six-minute tape from December follows the infamous hourlong call between Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, which helped launch a criminal investigation into Trump, led by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, over potential election fraud. Experts say this new recording could help prosecutors overcome one of the biggest challenges they face: proving Trump’s state of mind.
In late December, when Georgia was conducting an audit of ballot signatures from the November election, Trump placed a call to the lead investigator, Frances Watson, who reacted with surprise that the president of the United States would take time to reach out to a mid-level state election official. At the time, Georgia was among a handful of key battleground states Trump needed in his column in order to flip his 2020 defeat into a victory—and the margin was razor-thin.
“Something bad happened,” Trump told Watson, according to a recording obtained by VICE News. “When the right answer comes out, you’ll be praised.”
“We’re only interested in the truth,” Watson replied.
“I’m very honored that you called,” Watson said. “Quite frankly, I’m shocked that you would take time to do that.”
The recording was first released by the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday evening.
Trump was more succinct and restrained on this six-minute call than he was in a subsequent, hour-long, taped call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. In that previously-released conversation, on January 2, Trump urged Raffensperger to help him “find” exactly enough votes to let him win the state, and switched tones between flattering, cajoling, and threatening.
This new call doesn’t appear to contain any outright criminal behavior, legal experts said. But the context still matters.
Trump’s strongest defense against a prosecution over attempted election fraud may be to argue that he genuinely believed the election was stolen from him, said Rebecca Roiphe, a former New York prosecutor who now focuses on prosecutorial ethics at New York Law School. That argument would likely prove very difficult to disprove beyond a reasonable doubt, Roiphe said, and represents a significant impediment to any future case.
Repeated, unusual actions all aimed at a single goal might help build up proof of Trump’s intentions, she said.
“The way that prosecutors prove intent in cases is to use lots of little pieces of evidence that all add up to proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Roiphe said. “You could use this piece as evidence of his state of mind. It could show a pattern and practice.”
Demonstrating that pattern may also help with a more ambitious element of Willis’ investigation, legal experts said: a possible racketeering case.
Willis has signaled she’s examining whether to apply the Georgia Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as Georgia RICO, to the Trump team’s attempts to reverse his 2020 electoral defeat in the state. Willis recently hired an expert on Georgia’s RICO law named John Floyd.
RICO laws were originally created at the federal and state levels to target organized crime, and generally require prosecutors to show two more crimes linked together in a pattern of activity.
Nothing Trump said in this new call appeared to be a crime in itself, said Ryan Locke, a criminal defense attorney based in Atlanta. But stitching together multiple calls together could help show a pattern of behavior aimed at overturning the election, he said.
“This new call can be used as evidence of Trump's motive or plan to change the Georgia results,” Locke told VICE News.
Trump spokesman has denied any wrongdoing, and dismissed Willis’ investigation as a witch hunt.
“This is simply the Democrats’ latest attempt to score political points by continuing their witch hunt against President Trump, and everybody sees through it,” spokesman Jason Miller told VICE News.
The secretary of state’s office said that the call showed local officials’ commitment to an accurate vote count.
“This phone call is just one more example of how Secretary Raffensperger’s office’s public comments also reflect what was said in one-on-one conversations: We would follow the law, count every legal vote and investigate any allegations of fraud,” Ari Schaffer, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office, said in a statement. “That’s exactly what we did, and how we arrived at the accurate final vote tally.”