WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump pressured Georgia's Republican secretary of state to "find" enough votes to overturn Joe Biden's win in the state's presidential election, repeatedly citing disproven claims of fraud and raising the prospect of a "criminal offense" if officials did not change the vote count, according to a recording of the conversation.
The phone call with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Saturday was the latest step in an unprecedented effort by a sitting president to press a state official to reverse the outcome of a free and fair election that he lost. The president, who has refused to accept his loss to Democratic president-elect Biden, repeatedly argued that Raffensperger could change the certified results.
"All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have," Trump said. "Because we won the state."
Georgia counted its votes three times before certifying Biden's win by a 11,779 margin, Raffensperger noted. "President Trump, we've had several lawsuits, and we've had to respond in court to the lawsuits and the contentions," he said on the call. We don't agree that you have won."
Audio snippets of the conversation were first posted online by The Washington Post. The Associated Press obtained the full audio of Trump's conversation with Georgia officials from a person on the call. The AP has a policy of not amplifying disinformation and unproven allegations. The AP plans to post the full audio as it annotates a transcript with fact check material.
Trump's renewed intervention and the persistent and unfounded claims of fraud come nearly two weeks before he leaves office and two days before twin runoff elections in Georgia that will determine political control of the U.S. Senate.
It also added a level of further intrigue to Trump's rally in Georgia Monday night — likely the last of his term — in which he is supposed to boost the two Republican candidates. In a rage after the Raffensperger call, Trump floated the idea of pulling out of the rally, which would have potentially devastated the GOP chances in what is expected to be a pair of razor-thin races.
But Trump was persuaded to go ahead with the rally as a stage from which to reiterate his claims of election fraud and to present, as he tweeted Monday, the "real numbers" from the race. Republicans, though, were wary as to whether Trump would focus only on himself and potentially depress turnout by undermining faith in the runoff elections and not promoting the two GOP candidates.
The president used Saturday's hourlong phone conversation to tick through a list of claims about the election in Georgia, including that hundreds of thousands of ballots mysteriously appeared in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta. Officials have said there is no evidence of that happening.
The Georgia officials on the call are heard repeatedly pushing back against the president's assertions, telling him that he's relying on debunked theories and, in one case, selectively edited video.
"It was pretty obvious pretty early on that we'd debunked every one of those theories early on," Raffensperger told ABC's "Good Morning America" on Monday, "but President Trump continues to believe them."
At another point in the conversation, Trump appeared to threaten Raffensperger and Ryan Germany, the secretary of state's legal counsel, by suggesting both could be criminally liable if they failed to find that thousands of ballots in Fulton County had been illegally destroyed. There is no evidence to support Trump's claim.
"That's a criminal offense," Trump says. "And you can't let that happen."
Others on the call included Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, and attorneys assisting Trump, including Washington lawyer Cleta Mitchell.
Democrats and a few Republicans condemned Trump's actions, while at least one Democrat urged a criminal investigation. Legal experts said Trump's behavior raised questions about possible election law violations.
Biden senior adviser Bob Bauer called the recording "irrefutable proof" of Trump threatening an official in his own party to "rescind a state's lawful, certified vote count and fabricate another in its place."
"It captures the whole, disgraceful story about Donald Trump's assault on American democracy," Bauer said.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in that chamber, said Trump's conduct "merits nothing less than a criminal investigation."
Trump confirmed in a tweet Sunday that he had spoken with Raffensperger. The White House referred questions to Trump's reelection campaign, which did not respond Sunday to an emailed request for comment. Raffensperger's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump has repeatedly attacked how Raffensperger conducted Georgia's elections, claiming without evidence that the state's 16 electoral votes were wrongly given to Biden.
"He has no clue!" Trump tweeted of Raffensperger, saying the state official "was unwilling, or unable" to answer questions.
Raffensperger's Twitter response: "Respectfully, President Trump: What you're saying is not true. The truth will come out."
Various election officials across the country and Trump's former attorney general, William Barr, have said there was no widespread fraud in the election. Republican governors in Arizona and Georgia, key battleground states crucial to Biden's victory, have also vouched for the integrity of their state elections. Nearly all the legal challenges from Trump and his allies have been dismissed by judges, including two tossed by the Supreme Court, which has three Trump-nominated justices.
In Georgia, the ballots were counted three times. One was a mandatory hand count and one was requested by Trump.
Still, Trump has publicly disparaged the election, raising concerns among Republicans that GOP voters may be discouraged from participating in Tuesday's runoffs pitting Sen. Kelly Loeffler against Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican David Perdue against Democrat Jon Ossoff.
Rebecca Green, who helps direct the election law program at William and Mary Law School, said that while it is appropriate for a candidate to question the outcome of an election, the processes for doing so for the presidential election have run their course. States have certified their votes.
Green said Trump had raised "lots of questions" about whether he violated any election laws.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said Trump has shown "reprehensible and, possibly illegal, conduct."
Trump noted on the call that he intended to repeat his claims about fraud at a rally Monday night in Dalton, a heavily Republican area in north Georgia.
"The people of Georgia are angry, the people of the country are angry," he says on the recording.
Biden is also due to campaign in Georgia on Monday, and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris stumped in Garden City, Georgia, on Sunday, slamming Trump for the call.
"It was a bald, bald-faced, bold abuse of power by the president of the United States," she said.
Loeffler and Perdue have largely backed Trump in his attempts to overturn election results. But on Sunday, Loeffler said she hadn't decided whether to join Republican colleagues in challenging the legitimacy of Biden's victory over Trump when Congress meets Wednesday to affirm Biden's 306-232 vote win in the Electoral College.
Perdue, who was quarantining after being exposed to a staff member with the coronavirus, said he supports the challenge, although he will not be a sitting senator when the vote happens because his term has expired. Still, he told Fox News Channel he was encouraging his colleagues to object, saying it's "something that the American people demand right now."