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CORRUPTION

Trump Campaign Officials Started Pressuring Georgia’s Secretary of State Long Before the Election

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ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Long before Republican senators began publicly denouncing how Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger handled the voting there, he withstood pressure from the campaign of Donald Trump to endorse the president for reelection.

Raffensperger, a Republican, declined an offer in January to serve as an honorary co-chair of the Trump campaign in Georgia, according to emails reviewed by ProPublica. He later rejected GOP requests to support Trump publicly, he and his staff said in interviews. Raffensperger said he believed that, because he was overseeing the election, it would be a conflict of interest for him to take sides. Around the country, most secretaries of state remain officially neutral in elections.

The attacks on his job performance are “clear retaliation,” Raffensperger said. “They thought Georgia was a layup shot Republican win. It is not the job of the secretary of state’s office to deliver a win — it is the sole responsibility of the Georgia Republican Party to get out the vote and get its voters to the polls. That is not the job of the secretary of state’s office.”

Leading the push for Raffensperger’s endorsement was Billy Kirkland, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign who was a key manager of its Georgia operations. Kirkland burst uninvited into a meeting in Raffensperger’s office in the late spring that was supposed to be about election procedures and demanded that the secretary of state endorse Trump, according to Raffensperger and two of his staffers.

When reached by phone, Kirkland directed the request for comment to the Trump campaign, which did not respond. The White House and the Georgia Republican Party also did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Joe Biden has been projected as the winner of the presidential election in Georgia by a margin of roughly 14,000 votes. The state is now conducting a hand recount at the Trump campaign’s request. Raffensperger’s office has said that the recount won’t swing enough votes to tip the state into Trump’s column.

As the Georgia results have become increasingly clear, Republicans have unleashed intense criticism on the secretary of state’s office, accusing it without evidence of mismanaging the election and allowing Biden to carry the state by fraudulent means. Georgia’s U.S. senators, Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, both of whom failed to win majorities for reelection on Nov. 3 and face Democratic opponents in January runoffs, called for Raffensperger’s resignation. All of the Republicans representing Georgia in Congress also signed a letter sent to Raffensperger’s office from the personal email account of the chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Earl “Buddy” Carter, criticizing the office for a series of supposed irregularities.

Rep. Doug Collins, who recently lost a bid for Loeffler’s Senate seat, has been particularly vocal. On Monday, Collins tweeted, “In a year of political division in Georgia, few things have unified Republicans and Democrats — one of them is Brad Raffensperger’s incompetence as Secretary of State.” Raffensperger has reserved some of his sharpest responses for Collins, calling him a “failed candidate” and a “liar” on social media.

On Monday, The Washington Post reported that Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, had phoned Raffensperger to see if the secretary of state had the authority to toss out legally cast ballots. Graham has said that he was simply asking how the process works. Two members of Raffensperger’s staff who were on the call told ProPublica that the secretary of state’s account was accurate and that they were appalled by Graham’s request.

Raffensperger said that the Trump campaign “scapegoated” him. Its contention that he ineffectively managed the election amounts to “hot air and hyperbole,” he said. “In Georgia, it is not new to see failed candidates claim fraud or suppression. At the end of the day, the Trump campaign’s messaging didn’t resonate with 50% plus one of the voters.”

The campaign’s formal efforts to gain the secretary of state’s endorsement began on Jan. 10, when Kirkland emailed Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs, assuming that Raffensperger would welcome the opportunity to serve in an unofficial role. “We are getting ready to release the campaign’s statewide leadership team and wanted to make sure you were good to be listed as an honorary co-chair?” he wrote, according to an email obtained by ProPublica. At the direction of Raffensperger, Fuchs declined.

“It is our standard practice not to endorse any candidate. This policy is not directed at any specific candidate, but all candidates, as the Secretary oversees elections and the implementation of new voting machines here in Georgia,” she wrote.

Kirkland has a long history in Georgia Republican politics. He has also worked for the Trump White House — first in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and then for Vice President Mike Pence. He left the White House in the fall of 2019 to become a Georgia-based senior adviser to the Trump campaign. He also serves as a senior adviser to Pence’s leadership PAC. FEC filings show that Kirkland is paid for consulting by the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee. Loeffler hired Kirkland to be her campaign manager in January.

It’s not unusual for candidates to ask for the endorsement of state elected officials, including secretaries of state, said veteran Republican elections attorney Ben Ginsberg. “But usually, campaigns accept the answer they are given if they know how to behave,” Ginsberg said.

The Trump campaign did not accept Raffensperger’s refusal. After Raffensperger announced that his office would mail absentee ballot applications to every registered voter in the state ahead of its June primary, a move opposed by the Trump campaign, the executive director of the Georgia Republican Party, Stewart Bragg, requested a meeting. He told Raffensperger’s staff that he wanted to discuss election law and outstanding public records requests for voter data filed by the party.

Kirkland crashed the meeting shortly after it began. “A lot of people have noticed you didn’t endorse,” he said, according to two staffers. Raffensperger again made clear that any endorsements were against office policy, he told ProPublica.

Raffensperger had to leave the meeting early for another event. When the meeting came to a close, one of his staffers offered to continue the conversations at a later date and asked if there was any additional publicly available voter data that the party needed. “We’ll see how helpful you are in November,” Kirkland said, before leaving the office and slamming the door behind him, according to the staffers.

Trump has repeatedly and baselessly questioned the Georgia results on Twitter, accusing both the secretary of state’s office and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp — a Trump loyalist who, unlike Raffensperger, did agree to be an honorary campaign co-chair — of coordinating with activist and former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams to make Georgia’s elections less secure.

“The Consent Decree signed by the Georgia Secretary of State, with the approval of Governor \@BrianKempGA, at the urging of \@staceyabrams, makes it impossible to check & match signatures on ballots and envelopes, etc. They knew they were going to cheat. Must expose real signatures!” Trump tweeted over the weekend.

Nothing about the consent decree — which was aimed at addressing the disparity in signature matches among racial groups — prevents clerks from verifying signatures. Raffensperger said his office has repeatedly and publicly explained the process for signature matches, and he laughed at the idea that he would coordinate with Abrams, who has criticized his office over issues such as long lines at the polls in minority neighborhoods in prior elections.

Trump and the Republican legislators have pressed their allegations even as the National Republican Senatorial Committee has distributed talking points implicitly acknowledging that Biden won the election, according to an internal memo obtained by ProPublica. That message contrasts with what Trump, his campaign and his administration are telling supporters.

The memo was circulated last week among Georgia field staff, who are preparing for two runoff elections in January that will determine which party controls the upper chamber. It contains a series of “key” talking points directed at prospective voters. One says that the Democratic candidates, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, “are funded by out of state liberals because they’ll be a rubber stamp for their radical agenda to defund the police, open our borders, and pack the courts.” Another states that, should Warnock and Ossoff get elected, “Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi will have the votes they need to transform our country into a socialist state.”

The talking points omit any mention of Biden, but none of the outcomes outlined by the NRSC, which did not respond to requests for comment, would be possible with a Republican president.

Raffensperger expressed frustration at the lack of action by Republicans from the White House down to proactively address issues of election integrity. “If Trump and Collins were concerned about voter fraud, they would have proposed and passed legislation to fix it.” Instead, he said, “they did nothing, absolutely nothing.”

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CORRUPTION

Politicians Accepting a ‘Gratuity’ After Official Acts is Legal, Supreme Court Rules

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The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that politicians may accept a gratuity after making an official act, and that laws against bribery do not apply.

In the case, Snyder v. U.S., former Portage, Indiana mayor James Snyder gave Great Lakes Peterbilt two contracts with the city, purchasing five garbage trucks for $1.1 million in 2013. The following year, Peterbilt paid Synder $13,000. Though the DOJ and FBI said the payment was likely a gratuity for the contract, Snyder said the money was merely payment for his consulting services.

A federal jury disagreed, convicting him of violating a 1984 law that banned gratuities to state and local officials. The law mirrors a statute barring federal officials from taking either bribes — defined as a payment or gift before an official act — or gratuities — defined as a gift after such an act.

READ MORE: Clarence Thomas Accepted Millions in Gifts – Far More Than All Other Justices Combined

Snyder was sentenced to 21 months in prison. He appealed, arguing that the specific law only applied to bribes, not gratuities. Though the Seventh Circuit upheld the conviction, the Supreme Court reversed it, agreeing with Snyder.

The Supreme Court ruling was 6-3, along ideological lines. Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the Court’s opinion, arguing that though local governments may regulate the gifts public officials can accept, the federal statute does not, leaving it to the states to determine what gratuities are legal.

“Gratuities after the official act are not the same as bribes before the official act. After all, unlike gratuities, bribes can corrupt the official act—meaning that the official takes the act for private gain, not for the public good. That said, gratuities can sometimes also raise ethical and appearance concerns. For that reason, Congress, States, and local governments have long regulated gratuities to public officials,” Kavanaugh wrote, adding that “different governments draw lines in different places.”

Kavanaugh also argued that a 1986 amendment to the 1984 law updated it to mirror the prohibition against bribery only. In this particular case, Indiana state law prohibits bribery of local officials, but has no such rule on gratuities.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote the dissent, arguing that the original law used “expansive, unqualified language.” She criticized the reading of the law that banned bribery but not gratuities.

“Snyder’s absurd and atextual reading of the statute is one only today’s Court could love,” Jackson wrote, citing that the text of the law “expressly targets officials who ‘corruptly’ solicit, accept, or agree to accept payments ‘intending to be influenced or rewarded.'”

“The Court’s reasoning elevates nonexistent federalism concerns over the plain text of this statute and is a quintessential example of the tail wagging the dog,” she added.

The decision comes in the wake of controversy over Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas accepting a number of gifts from billionaire Harlan Crow without declaring them until earlier this month.

 

 

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CORRUPTION

Monica Lewinsky Calls for Judge Aileen Cannon to be Impeached, But Is That Possible?

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monica lewinsky

Anti-bullying activist Monica Lewinsky called for federal Judge Aileen Cannon, who is presiding over former President Donald Trump’s classified documents case, to be impeached. But what’s the process for that?

“i awakened angry about the documents case in florida. it is INSANE that it hasn’t moved forward to trial, and i hope judge cannon is impeached. IF the documents had been declassified (which they weren’t) then all trump had to do was xerox them and return originals that were being asked for and explain they were declassified (again, for those in back, which they weren’t). IF it had been an honest (ahem) mistake to take them… just return them — LIKE EVERY OTHER PRESIDENT WHO WAS FOUND TO HAVE CLASSIFIED MATERIALS IN THEIR PRIVATE POSSESSION. (which still would have warranted an investigation but maybe not resulted in a trial.) the danger and damage done by this judge is mind-numbing,” Lewinsky posted to X Tuesday morning.

READ MORE: Trump Focuses on Another Federal Judge – This Time Defending ‘Impartial’ Aileen Cannon

Cannon has been a controversial figure in the Trump documents case. The Trump-appointee been frequently criticized for delaying the trial indefinitely so it won’t be decided prior to the November election. She has been holding hearings for many of the defense’s motions, even when precedent says they should be dismissed out of hand.

Legal experts have called her “incompetently bad” and “wildly lawless,” and said she’s “perplexed” by basic rules of law. Multiple experts have predicted she could be removed from the case, though thus far, she’s held tight.

But can Cannon be removed from the case or even impeached? The short answer is yes — but the former is more likely than the latter.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals technically has the power to reassign a judge in cases “where the trial judge has engaged in conduct that gives rise to the appearance of impropriety or a lack of impartiality in the mind of a reasonable member of the public.” according to MSNBC.

Legal analyst Harry Litman said that the 11th Circuit Appeals Court would like to replace her, according to Newsweek. The court may get the chance, Litman said, if she declines to put Trump under a gag order over concerns he would engender threats against those involved in the case. If she refuses, the prosecution would likely appeal. And while Trump has faced gag orders in other trials, Cannon appears skeptical that Trump’s comments would lead to direct threats, according to Politico.

That said, trial judges have a large amount of discretion, which makes a reassignment order difficult, MSNBC reported. And a replacement could lead to further delay.

But Lewinsky specifically called for impeachment; how likely is that?

Not very. Impeaching a federal judge is similar in process to impeaching a president. The House must conduct a vote of impeachment. If it passes, it’s up to the Senate to convict. Only 15 judges have been impeached — the most recent in 2010 — and of those, only eight have been successfully convicted and removed from the bench.

Given that the Republicans control the House, it is unlikely that the House would move to impeach Cannon. (House Republicans did vote in December 2023 to formalize an impeachment query into President Joe Biden, however.)

In the event that the Republicans did move to impeach Cannon, it would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate. Though the Democrats currently control the Senate, it’s by a razor thin 51-49 margin.

So, barring any utterly egregious behavior from Cannon, it’s likely she’s on the bench for good, whether or not she stays on the Trump documents case.

Featured image of Monica Lewinsky taken from TED Conference/Flickr under the Creative Commons license. The photograph was taken by James Duncan Davidson/TED.

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BAD PRESIDENT

Ex-GOP Head Says Judge in Trump Documents Case ‘Wasted Countless Months on Frivolous Motions’

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Former head of the Republican National Committee Michael Steele accused the judge of dragging her feet in former President Donald Trump’s case about improper handling of classified documents.

On Friday, Trump’s defense lawyers put forth a motion to dismiss special counsel Jack Smith under allegations that he was illegally appointed, according to the Associated Press. Despite admitting that Smith’s appointment appears to be supported by precedent, Trump-appointed Judge Aileen Cannon agreed to a three-day hearing to determine the challenge’s validity, according to The Washington Post. While defense attorneys will often challenge the standing of the prosecution, not every challenge necessarily warrants a full hearing.

Steele called out Cannon on Sunday’s edition of Inside with Jen Psaki on MSNBC. He called the particular challenge against Smith a “long shot,” according to The Hill, and said most judges would dismiss it out of hand.

READ MORE: Judge Cannon’s ‘Mind Boggling’ Move Could Put Witnesses at Risk, Experts Warn

“But apparently, Judge Cannon just had to have a hearing about it. It’s the last delay tactic from a judge who’s wasted countless months on frivolous motions. She has all but refused to allow Trump’s case to go to trial and still, still hasn’t even set a date for the trial to begin,” Steele said. He also accused Cannon of “effectively putting the prosecution on trial.”

Cannon has faced much criticism over her handling of the Trump documents case. In May, she postponed the trial indefinitely, putting the kibosh on hopes that the case would be heard before the November election. Her reasoning was that it would be “imprudent and inconsistent with the Court’s duty to fully and fairly consider the various pending pre-trial motions before the Court,” referring to motions like the one to dismiss Smith.

Rulings like this have led legal experts to trash Cannon. Constitutional law professor Anthony Michael Kreis called Cannon “incompetently bad.” George Conway, a lawyer and founder of the conservative anti-Trump The Lincoln Project, said Cannon “doesn’t know the most basic rule governing criminal conspiracies.” Conway’s comment was in response to Cannon appearing unfamiliar with the Pinkerton rule, which holds that everyone involved in a conspiracy can be held liable for crimes committed by co-conspirators. This appears to back up NBC News legal analyst Joyce Vance’s statement that Smith has to “spoon feed… the law” to Judge Cannon.

One month ago, Laurence Tribe, a top constitutional scholar and University Professor Emeritus at Harvard, said that Cannon would likely be removed from the Trump documents case.

“Cannon’s wildly lawless rejection of Special Counsel Smith’s clearly correct request for a gag order against fake and dangerous claims that the FBI was ordered to assassinate him is good news,” Tribe wrote on X. “It’s the smoking gun that will finally lead to her removal from the stolen secrets case.”

 

 

 

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