Editor’s Note: Elie Honig is a CNN legal analyst and former federal and state prosecutor. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN. Watch Honig answer readers’ questions on “CNN Newsroom with Ana Cabrera” on weekends.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has now opened a grand jury investigation of former President Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election result in Georgia. This is a major step forward; the grand jury holds the power, by way of subpoenas, to compel witnesses to testify and to turn over other evidence, whether they want to or not.
Yet it seems the most powerful evidence is already in the public record: multiple recordings of Trump, in his own words, trying desperately to convince Georgia officials to throw the election in his favor.
The district attorney’s Exhibit A ought to be Trump’s now-infamous December 2020 phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. In that call, Trump advised Raffensperger that “there’s nothing wrong with saying that, you know, um, that you’ve recalculated” and implored him to “find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have.”
Trump’s own words in this call convey his underlying intent: He asked Raffensperger not merely to count all the votes and let them fall where they will, but rather to “find” precisely enough votes to enable Trump to win Georgia by a single vote.
And now we have Exhibit B: a six-minute recording of a December 23, 2020 phone call from Trump to Frances Watson, the chief investigator for the Georgia Secretary of State. In that call, Trump used familiar pressure tactics: he urged Watson to find “the right answer,” suggested that she focus on heavily Democratic Fulton County, and promised that, if she does as he wishes, “you’ll be praised.”
It’s inappropriate enough for the sitting president to contact local and state elected officials (like Raffensperger) to pressure them about an election; it’s simply beyond the pale to attempt the same with respect to a non-elected, non-political state investigator like Watson. To her credit, Watson politely but firmly rebuked Trump’s corrupt entreaties, assuring him that “we are only interested in the truth and finding the information that is based on the facts.”
Beyond his recorded calls to Raffensperger and Watson, Trump also contacted Georgia Governor Brian Kemp (asking him to convene a special session of the Georgia legislature to overturn the election) and state Attorney General Chris Carr (imploring him not to contest a legal effort to overturn Georgia’s election results). It’s hard to say what’s more surprising about Trump’s effort to steal Georgia: that he spent so much time begging, threatening, flattering and cajoling so many different officials, or that he actually thought his gambit to steal the election would succeed.
The bottom-line question under Georgia law against election interference is this: Did Trump, truly believing he won the election, merely seek to have local officials count up every ballot and come to a fair outcome? Or did he try to convince those officials to throw votes that he did not actually receive, and the election itself, in his favor?
Trump’s own words on the two recorded phone calls make increasingly clear that it’s the latter. Prosecutors (and jurors) can and must use basic common sense in interpreting the words and actions of their subjects. Here, there’s simply no common sense way to interpret Trump’s words as some innocent effort to make sure that every last vote was counted fairly and accurately. That’s not what Trump realistically meant when he pointed Watson toward Fulton County and pressured her to find “the right answer,” or when he asked Raffensperger to “find” exactly 11,780 votes (inherently, only votes for Trump, because if any of those 11,780 votes were for President Joe Biden, Trump would still have lost the state).
The Fulton County DA’s investigation is still in its early stages. But the most powerful evidence may already be right in front of her.
Now, your questions:
Ariel (New Jersey): Will cameras be allowed in the courtroom for the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the charged murder of George Floyd, and how common or uncommon is this?
Yes, there will be cameras in the courtroom for the Chauvin trial, and the trial itself will be broadcast live as it happens. Prosecutors had argued against allowing cameras in the courtroom, contending that live coverage might compromise the privacy and safety of witnesses and cameras could “create more problems than they solve.” But Judge Peter Cahill rejected that request and decided that the extraordinary national and international public interest in the proceedings – plus concerns about overcrowding of the actual courtroom, given the Covid pandemic – weighed in favor of a live broadcast. Here’s how unusual that is: While the law regarding cameras in the courtroom varies state by state, this will be the first time ever that a Minnesota state court has allowed cameras in the courtroom for a criminal trial.
Alex (Wisconsin): What’s the process for the investigation regarding the allegations against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo?
New York Attorney General Letitia James has now appointed two outside lawyers to run the investigation into sexual harassment allegations that have been made publicly by former state employees and others against Cuomo. One of those outside lawyers, Joon Kim, is a former federal prosecutor. I worked with Kim at the Southern District of New York (he was several years senior to me), and Kim was deeply respected within the office for his work as a prosecutor. Anne Clark, an experienced employment litigation attorney, also will run the investigation. Importantly, Kim and Clark will have subpoena power – meaning the legal power to compel witnesses to testify or produce other evidence. Kim and Clark will report to James regularly on their findings and, at the end of the investigation, they will issue a final report, which will be available to the public.