World·Analysis

Some want Trump charged for call with Georgia official. His state of mind could be a defence

What a jaw-dropping phone call with the top election official in Georgia reveals about Donald Trump's view of his loss in the presidential election, and what it could mean for him and his party.

A key takeaway from all the arm-twisting: Trump sounds like he may actually believe he won the vote in Georgia

U.S. President Donald Trump campaigns with Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler on the eve of Georgia's run-off elections in Dalton, Ga. Trump has repeatedly contacted Georgia's top election official, Brad Raffensperger, about overturning the state's result in the Nov. 3 presidential election. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Some jaw-dropping snippets of audio of U.S. President Donald Trump begging, badgering, and possibly even threatening a Georgia election official on the weekend to overturn his defeat there in the presidential election had some people calling for charges.

A pair of federal Democratic lawmakers sent a criminal referral to the FBI. They alleged Trump broke two federal laws and one Georgia state law on election fraud.

A Democrat on the state elections board demanded a probe. And the district attorney for Atlanta's Fulton County called the recording disturbing and promised to consider the case if state election officials sent her a complaint.

So could Trump actually face charges over this?

It turns out that the president's state of mind could be central to any such hypothetical case, including whether, as per the words of the relevant criminal infractions, he knowingly and wilfully encouraged election fraud.

WATCH | The National's report on the call: 

Trump asked Georgia’s secretary of state to ‘find’ more votes

The National

12 days agoVideo
2:02
U.S. President Donald Trump called on Georgia's secretary of state to 'find' more votes so he could win that state. The recording of the phone call emerges as the new Congress is sworn in, and with some Republican senators days away from mounting their own challenge to the election results. 2:02

A well-known expert on American election law wrote that Trump deserves to be charged, and in an email to CBC News, he said it could happen, in theory.

"Potentially, yes," said Rick Hasen of the University of California, Irvine.

But he said he doubts it will get that far. The criminal laws cited in the lawmakers' letter to the FBI all refer to wilful intent. Hasen and several peers view prosecution as a long shot because of the challenge in proving Trump thought he was committing a crime.

"His prosecution would be unlikely given the difficulties of proving intent and going after a former president," Hasen said.

That points to one striking takeaway from the full hour-long recording of Trump's call last weekend with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, which also included White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and lawyers for both sides.

It's that Trump sounds like he may actually believe he won.

'Fellas, I need 11,000 votes'

Trump keeps insisting throughout the call, sometimes with a dejected sigh, sometimes with a defiant interjection, that he won the state of Georgia in a landslide in the Nov. 3 presidential election. 

Trump starts the call by mentioning his crowd sizes at rallies and keeps saying things like, "There's no way I lost Georgia. There's no way." 

He proceeds to cycle through a series of conspiracy theories, clinging to disparate scraps of testimonials posted on random corners of the internet to piece together a claim that he was defrauded in Georgia by hundreds of thousands of votes.

And that's the context of Trump's most stunning demand — that Raffensperger find the votes he needs to win.

WATCH | Trump asks Raffensperger to overturn his defeat:

Trump demands Georgia officials 'find' votes

CBC News

12 days agoVideo
1:30
The U.S. president is heard pleading with Georgia's election chief to overturn Joe Biden's win in the state, according to audio clips obtained by The Washington Post. 1:30

In effect, Trump is telling this official that he is the aggrieved party, wronged by hundreds of thousands of votes, and all he's seeking is a smidgen of justice, that a few thousand be corrected.

At different points in the call, Trump says:

"I just want to find 11,780 votes."

"I have to find 12,000 votes, and I have them — times a lot."

"I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes." 

Georgia's Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, seen here at a December news conference, allowed the recording and release of his call on Saturday with Trump. (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)

The Georgia officials keep insisting his claims are wrong — that they stem from deceptively edited video, from bad data, from events already investigated and dismissed by state and federal police. 

Those Georgia officials, Raffensperger and state lawyer Ryan Germany, say claims about thousands of dead and out-of-state people voting are completely off.

"The data you have is wrong," Raffensperger says.

WATCH | Georgia election official debunks Trump's fraud allegations: 

Georgia election official: 'This has been thoroughly debunked'

CBC News

11 days agoVideo
2:51
Gabriel Sterling, Georgia's voting system implementation manager, accuses the legal team of U.S. President Donald Trump of intentionally misleading the public. 2:51

He tells Trump police have also examined claims about double-counting and found nothing.

"Then they're incompetent," Trump replies.

So, if a hypothetical case did require a demonstration of criminal intent, Trump's state of mind would become a key factor for investigators to consider. 

The case of the wounded ego

Some observers who have opined on the president's personality say his narcissistic tendencies will make it difficult for him to ever accept defeat.

"We know that narcissism is associated with aggression following [an] ego threat and what bigger threat than a presidential [election] loss?" said Joshua Miller, a clinical psychologist and director of clinical training at the University of Georgia who has been using Trump as a case study in his work for more than a decade.

Donald Lynam, a distinguished professor of clinical psychology at Purdue University in Indiana, agreed.

"This is what psychoanalysts call a grave narcissistic wound. … He is cut to his core. Now he reacts with absolute rage," he said.

"I think the next two weeks will be awful."

We're now approaching high noon in Trump's confrontation with the reality of defeat.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Congress votes to certify president-elect Joe Biden's win.

Trump is encouraging supporters to flock to Washington, D.C., where thousands are expected at protests around the U.S. Capitol. Fearing the potential for violence, Washington's mayor has activated the National Guard, and also issued a warning that anyone thinking of carrying firearms must respect the city's strict gun laws.

Trump wants Republicans in Congress to block the election certification. Dozens will indeed contest the vote on his behalf, which will prolong by several hours what's already been the most protracted battle over an American election result in nearly 150 years.

Trump, seen here in 2017 in the Oval Office talking on the telephone, continues to try to overturn the result of November's presidential election. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

And then Trump will lose.

Less than a quarter of Republican senators have said they'll back Trump's bid, while a far larger share of Republicans in the House of Representatives are expected to do the same.

There's no sign the momentum is moving in Trump's favour. In fact, it may have slowed since the Washington Post published the recording of Trump's phone call with Raffensperger. 

Hours later, a staunchly pro-Trump senator, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and several others said they'd vote to certify the election.

The current numbers are likely trending toward approximately 85 per cent of the U.S. Senate and 70 per cent of the House of Representatives voting to cement Biden's election win.

Divisions in the Republican Party

Trump will keep fighting.

His efforts to discredit the election process have a receptive audience. In a late-December poll for the Economist magazine, only eight per cent of self-identified Republicans said they had "a great deal" or "quite a bit" of confidence the election was fair.

Fealty to Trump, and to the discredited narrative of his unfair defeat, could potentially tear at his party for years, remaining a dividing issue in Republican politics.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden campaigns for Democratic U.S. Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock at a rally in Atlanta ahead of runoff elections on Tuesday. Trump continues to try to overturn Biden's decisive victory in November's presidential election. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Cotton was deluged with threats of a primary in five years when he's up for re-election.

In Florida, protesters have gathered at Marco Rubio's house and warned the senator he will face a primary next year unless he backs Trump.

Trump has referred to the senators not backing him as the surrender caucus. And he's warned them: Republican voters will never forget.

That's a legacy that could easily outlast the impact of this audio.

About the Author

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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