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Georgia investigates Trump's efforts to overturn election

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Georgia prosecutors are investigating former President Trump's attempts to overturn the state's 2020 election results. Greg Bluestein, a political reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, joins CBSN to discuss the criminal inquiry, plus Georgia Republicans' newly introduced bills that look to tighten voting rules.

Video Transcript

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Well, last week, Georgia prosecutors opened up a criminal investigation into former President Trump's attempts to overturn the 2020 election and his unprecedented long phone call with the state's top election official.

DONALD TRUMP: I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have. There's nothing wrong with saying that, you know, that you've recalculated.

BRAD RAFFENSPERGER: Well, Mr. President, the challenge that you have is the data you have is wrong.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Georgia recounted ballots three times, and each time, Mr. Trump lost to now President Joe Biden. Still, the former president falsely insisted there was widespread voter fraud and even accused Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his general counsel of a cover-up.

So for more on this, let's bring in Greg Bluestein. He is a political reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Greg, when you listen to the comments on the phone call, it appears that at least three different state laws may have been broken. So what, to our audience, is the former president accused of doing?

GREG BLUESTEIN: Yeah, this is a wide-ranging investigation that centers on that phone call with Brad Raffensperger. But it also can conclude many other things, like Governor Kemp's calls with President Trump, where President Trump tried to get him to call a special session to overturn the election results, like a State Senate hearing that featured Rudy Giuliani promoting false conspiracy theories. So Fani Willis made clear that this is a broad investigation that could include election fraud, false statements, conspiracy, racketeering, violation of oath of office. So there's a broad range of charges that she could be looking into.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So this is the second state where the former president is facing charges. New York is the first one, but that has to do with his family business, his financial affairs. You know, you brought up racketeering, conspiracy as possible charges. These are charges that, you know, you don't have just one person in a conspiracy. It usually means many people are vulnerable. What do you see as what is significant about the case that could be-- that is being built in the peach state?

GREG BLUESTEIN: Yeah, Fani Willis, the DA of Fulton County, has been-- is known to use a novel use of racketeering charges when she prosecuted teachers involved in Atlanta public school cheating scandal a few years back. So she has a broad range of experience using racketeering charges, conspiracy charges to bring against public officials.

And in this case, I assume-- she hasn't spoken too much about this, but what she says is that it's like peeling back an onion. The more you investigate it, the more you dig in, the more you could find. And that's why her letters went to-- this notice of her investigation were not only to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, but also to Governor Kemp, Lieutenant Governor Duncan, and Attorney General Chris Carr. And there could be more to come with more officials and more people who might have been involved in what she sees as a potential conspiracy to overturn Georgia's election results.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: So one of the things that is under consideration here is that phone call between former President Trump and Georgia's Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger. It was mentioned in the article of impeachment that Mr Trump was acquitted of. You know, it's remarkable to me, and Anne-Marie, I think you and I have talked about this in the past, where, you know, one of the things that the president-- the former president says, is he specifically asks to find 11,780 votes, which, you know, there have been wiretaps.

The FBI has wiretapped mob bosses in the past, where the language is like, if you're just listening to it, you wouldn't really know what they're talking about because they're using all sorts of weird language. You know, we've got to go pick up the donuts and make sure we drop them off at this guy.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Right, coded.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: And the FBI-- right, and the FBI is able to say, you know, the donuts are actually drugs, right? And you have to convince a jury that that's exactly what is happening, right? You have to convince a jury of that. Here, you've got former President Trump asking to find the votes. So, you know, A, what are you hearing from officials about that language? And I guess, B, what are voters or people in Georgia saying about it?

GREG BLUESTEIN: Yeah, great question. First off, you're exactly right. Usually, President Trump is a lot more opaque in his language. That's why this call was so remarkable because for about an hour long, you could hear him, in his own words, badger, pressure, cajole, intimidate, however you want to put it, Brad Raffensperger to find exactly enough votes that he needed to overturn the election results.

When it comes to Georgia voters, Fulton County is one of the bluest counties in Georgia. President Trump only got about a quarter of the vote there. So broadly, he couldn't have picked a worse venue for this case to be heard. But on another level, there's also some voters we've talked to, Republicans and Democrats in Fulton County, who'd rather the DA be focused on rising crime rates in Atlanta, other issues rather than focusing on indicting or potentially indicting a former president. So there is a little bit of friction in Fulton County over this.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So let's talk about Fani Willis. She's newly elected, just as the Democratic DA of Fulton County. She's only been there six weeks. She's taking on an ex-president. Give us some background. Who is she? How confident is she that she could actually get a conviction out of this?

GREG BLUESTEIN: Yeah, and she's a long-time assistant district attorney with decades of experience in the courtroom, including trying that very high profile Atlanta public schools cheating case I mentioned a little bit earlier. And she beat her former boss, Paul Howard, who had been the district attorney, the very powerful district attorney in metro Atlanta for decades.

So she won that race basically in part on a campaign of pledging to crack down on public corruption, pledging to bring-- to beef up the county's public integrity unit. And so this goes to the heart of what she promised to do in her words. She says this is her dream job. She's not looking for attention. She's not looking for, you know, a national profile as a stepping stone. This is the job she always wanted. And, you know, here she is, right in it, right in the middle of the-- she's probably the most watched local prosecutor in the nation right now.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: You know what's also interesting to me, Greg, is just Georgia in general when it comes to the dynamics of the state. I mean, it will really remain to be seen if, in 2022 or 2024, the state really is tilting blue. We know that Republicans are gearing up to challenge Raphael Warnock because his seat is up in two years.

And there are reports that, you know, Perdue is looking to get back into the race, that Kelly Loeffler is looking to get back into the race. So the question becomes then, with regards to this investigation, how is the GOP viewing the investigation, as they look ahead to the upcoming midterms and even further?

GREG BLUESTEIN: Yeah, well, national Republicans have been talking about it as a continuation of what they say the witch hunt against President Trump. Local Republicans have not spoken out against it so much. We haven't heard Governor Kemp. We haven't heard Secretary of State Raffensperger. We haven't heard Jeff Duncan. We haven't heard any of them say, you know, it's a fascicle investigation, in part because they might be called as witnesses to a grand jury.

And by the way, this is going to be moving fairly quickly. I mean, the DA said that the next Fulton County grand jury is set to convene in March and that her office could begin requesting grand jury subpoenas as necessary at that time. So this is much faster moving than some of those other cases in New York that you mentioned earlier.

But, you know, when it comes to Georgia in 2022 and 2024, those battles are already heating up. You had former Senator David Perdue file paperwork yesterday to explore a potential comeback bid, this time against Senator Warnock, the newly elected Democrat of Georgia.

So already, I'm not sure how much these investigations will play into it because when you look back at impeachment of last year, how much did that actually play into the vote in November? Those events were overtaken by the pandemic, by the economy, by the protests for racial justice. So a lot of other things could happen. But certainly, this will be something that keeps Georgia in the spotlight for the next few months.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So this criminal investigation has expanded to include Senator Lindsey Graham. Now there's no recording, but it has been alleged that he made a very similar phone call, similar to the one the former president did. What is his role in this?

GREG BLUESTEIN: Yeah, we're not exactly sure yet. He says all he was doing was calling Secretary of State Raffensperger to find out some more details on how this state was vetting these absentee ballots. What Secretary of State Raffensperger said on the record several times was that he was being pressured by Lindsey Graham to toss out what he saw as legal absentee ballots to tilt the scales in President Trump's direction.

So this will all be vetted. I didn't get the sense that this would become a major part of the investigation from the aides to Fani Willis that I talked to. But it will certainly be part of a broad investigation. Again, it speaks to how far ranging this is. This goes beyond that call with Raffensperger. I think that will still be the centerpiece. That will be what we're all writing and talking about for the most part. But she's looking at all sorts of different avenues here surrounding that call.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Let me ask you now about voting rules in Georgia. There's a new package of bills introduced by the GOP Monday after record turnout resulted in wins for Democrats, including President Biden's run for the White House and the bids by Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock for the US Senate. Explain to our viewers what these proposed measures would do and what the likelihood of them passing is.

GREG BLUESTEIN: Yeah, we've seen a range of Republican proposals to ban ballot dropboxes, to end at-will absentee voting, to shorten the time for voter registration, all sorts of efforts that that may or may not get much traction. I don't think they will. You've heard very little from Republican leaders, very little appetite to embrace some of these things that the Georgia GOP task force has embraced.

But one of the things we're watching most closely here in Georgia is an effort by Republicans to require some sort of voter ID, some sort of voter verification to cast a mail-in ballot. That does have support from Governor Kemp, from Lieutenant Governor Duncan, and from the House Speaker David Ralston. So that's one of those avenues.

A lot of these proposals were meant to get headlines and into gear, basically as base-pleasing initiatives to mobilize the Republican base, who do believe, at least some of them, in some of these falsehoods from President Trump about widespread voter fraud. So some of these were just geared up for the base. But I think these other proposals, like this voter ID proposal, is something that could actually get to the governor's desk in a few months. And that is one of those issues that we're very closely watching here in Georgia.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So, you know, voting fraud in Georgia, voter suppression in Georgia, these are conversations that we have been hearing for a while coming out of that state. But I can't ignore what we have been seeing over the last presidential election-- the emergence of QAnon, the impact of these conspiracy theories, the impact of misinformation that people are finding online. Has that seeped into what is an ongoing discussion about voting rights in Georgia? Are we seeing the impact of some of these conspiracy theories? What's your take on it?

GREG BLUESTEIN: Yeah, this deranged QAnon conspiracy theory has dovetailed with all these falsehoods about Georgia's election voting machines. And I talked to voters at some of these rallies, these stop the steal rallies that were happening well after the November election and right before the January 5th runoffs, where voters were were, frankly, just-- they believed these falsehoods and they were-- you could see the confusion, the frustration etched on their face because they didn't trust the voting systems in Georgia. And yet, they also were told that mail-in ballots were fraudulent.

So they were genuinely asking, how do I vote? And I wanted-- and I told them, you can trust the voting systems. You can trust the mail-in ballots. All these conspiracy theories were debunked. They're not true. You know, trust the system. But they had been hearing so much of these QAnon-based falsehoods that, you know, frankly, a lot of them stayed home. And Democrats won. They swept these runoffs in Georgia because of soaring turnout, especially among African-American voters, but also because a lot of Trump supporters listened to him when he said that the vote was rigged.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Greg, before we let you go then, real quick question about as we look ahead to the midterms, what is the state of play in Georgia with regards to redistricting? I know there are a number of states where, you know, Democrats did not make enough inroads for them to control the process. I think I believe Texas is one of those states, where Republicans are going to be fully in control of that process. What's the deal in Georgia?

GREG BLUESTEIN: Yeah, Republicans maintain complete control of the Georgia statehouse and the governor's office. So they will control the redistricting process. The big question is, in Georgia, you've got two suburban Democratic seats. One, Lucy McBath represents the northern Atlanta suburbs, and Carolyn Bordeaux represents the northeastern Atlanta suburbs. She narrowly won. She was one of the only Democrats to flip a US House seat last year.

And so my hunch is the Republicans try to redistrict her seat and make it much harder for her to win next year and leave Lucy McBath, who won by a more comfortable margin, in next door more-- in a more comfortable position. So we'll see what happens. But Republicans definitely control the reins. And I'm sure they'll be trying to at least redistrict one of those Democratic incumbents out of their seats.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Yeah, and the reason I ask that is just for what you mentioned there, right? Which is that, you know, if Democrats lose the majority during the midterms, a number of those seats lost could come as a result of redistricting, not because voters have punished them, for example, for not carrying out the will of their constituents.

GREG BLUESTEIN: Oh, that's exactly right. But at the same time also, Georgia's population-- Georgia is much more of a split state now. It's much more of a 50/50 state, as we saw in November, where Joe Biden won the state by about 11,000 votes. The dynamics are very, very tight here. So even if Republicans try to redistrict those Democratic incumbents out of their seat, they will still be very close. It'll still be a very, very close dynamic here in Georgia.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Hm. All right, Greg Bluestein. Thank you so much, Greg.

GREG BLUESTEIN: Thank you.