Mar 18, 2024

The Georgia election interference case.

The Georgia election interference case.
Former President Donald Trump's election interference case in Georgia is going through some changes. Image: Gage Skidmore

Plus, a reader question about AI-generated video.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

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Today, we are breaking down some updates in the election interference case in Georgia. Plus, a reader question about AI-generated video.

Some big news.

On Sunday, we released Episode 1 of our first ever limited podcast series: The Undecideds. We're following five voters — all Tangle readers — who are undecided about who they are going to vote for in the 2024 election. In Episode 1, we introduce you to those voters.

Sold out (again).

Last week, we released more tickets to our New York City event on April 17th, and they got gobbled up quickly. Our general admission tickets are now sold out; but we still have some VIP seats left for purchase. Get them here


Quick hits.

  1. Vladimir Putin won re-election in Russia with over 87% of the vote. Putin faced few challenges after a harsh era of crackdown on dissidents, and in a victory speech called the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny an "unfortunate incident." (The election)
  2. James Crumbley, the father of the Oxford High School shooter in Michigan, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Crumbley's wife Jennifer had been convicted in February (our coverage here), becoming the first parent in the U.S. to ever be found criminally responsible for their child carrying out a mass killing. (The convictions)
  3. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is reportedly going to name California attorney Nicole Shanahan as his running mate. Shanahan, who funded Kennedy's Super Bowl ad, is a top Democratic donor who was once married to Google cofounder Sergey Brin. (The report)
  4. The Supreme Court is hearing arguments today in a case about how far the federal government can pressure social media companies to remove content it deems misinformation. (The case)
  5. The United Nations food agency released a new report warning that famine in northern Gaza is likely between now and May. Separately, World Central Kitchen delivered its first seaborn humanitarian aid to Gaza on Friday, but the aid has yet to be distributed. (The aid)

Today's topic.

The Georgia election interference case. Last week, there were two major developments in the 2020 election interference case in Georgia. First, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee dismissed six counts in the sprawling indictment against former President Donald Trump and 14 co-defendants, including three counts specific to Trump.

Trump and 18 other defendants were charged under Georgia's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). Four have pleaded guilty to lesser charges already. Six of the dismissed counts involved soliciting public officers to violate their oaths. One of the counts that was thrown out was a charge brought because of the now infamous call Trump made to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in which Trump asked him to "find" 11,780 votes. Judge McAfee said the counts did not allege sufficient detail regarding the nature of the violations.

"The lack of detail concerning an essential legal element is, in the undersigned’s opinion, fatal," McAfee wrote. "They do not give the Defendants enough information to prepare their defenses intelligently."

The most serious charges against Trump and the remaining 14 defendants — the racketeering charges — still remain. In his order, McAfee said the issues with the six dismissed counts could be easily remedied, though appealing or refiling the indictments would likely delay the case. 

Then, on Friday, McAfee issued a separate decision that Fani Willis, the prosecutor bringing the case against Trump, could stay on the case as long as the deputy she had been having a romantic relationship with resigned.

Willis, the Fulton County prosecutor who brought the charges against Trump, was accused by lawyers representing Michael Roman — one of the 18 co-defendants — of engaging in impropriety by having a relationship with Nathan Wade, her deputy. Roman's lawyers argued that Wade, Willis, and the entire office should be removed from the case for a conflict of interest since Willis had hired someone she was having a relationship with.

McAfee said the now-ended relationship created the "appearance of impropriety" and removing Wade or Willis was his proposed remedy. The order means the case can move forward with Willis at the helm, but the judge's assessment — and Wade's removal — was still damaging for Willis and her team. Not only did it delay the trial, but it called into question Willis's judgment.

Judge McAfee, who once served under Willis, had to navigate Georgia’s conflict of interest rules for prosecutors, and ultimately said that the defendants failed to show how Willis’ conduct influenced the case. However, he said it was necessary to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, thus giving Willis or Wade the option to step down. 

McAfee also wrote that Willis displayed a "tremendous lack of judgment" and suggested the issue could be further investigated in other forums like the state bar or an ethics commission. He even implied Willis may have perjured herself by denying when her relationship began, saying there were "reasonable questions" about whether Willis and Wade "testified untruthfully" about when they started dating.

Together, the rulings mean the case will move forward but in a slightly different form. There will be six fewer counts on the indictment, including three fewer attached to former President Trump, and Willis will no longer have her top deputy on board.

Today, we're going to examine some arguments from the left and right about McAfee's decisions, then my take.


What the left is saying.

  • The left supports the judge’s decision not to remove Willis from the case, suggesting there was no legal basis for removing her after all.
  • Some criticize the ruling for impugning Willis’s honesty. 
  • Regarding the dropped charges, most say they won’t impact the trajectory of the case. 

In CNN, Norman Eisen, E. Danya Perry, and Joshua Kolb said McAfee “got the Fani Willis call right.”

“McAfee recognized Friday that there was no actual disqualifying conflict of interest proven, even though he criticized Willis for her conduct, since her relationship with Wade looked terrible. To resolve the situation, McAfee told the DA’s office Wade must step down if Willis is to remain on the case. Wade immediately did so, recognizing that it was the right — indeed the only — thing to do. We have recommended since the beginning of this sideshow that Wade depart in order to return the focus to what the case is about: the mountain of evidence that Trump and his co-conspirators engaged in one of the most serious alleged crimes in American political history.”

“McAfee was also correct to suggest that the weight of the evidence did not conclusively show that Willis and Wade’s relationship began before Wade was hired — contrary to the defense’s assertions that the DA hired her boyfriend, and puncturing the theory that she did so to benefit her romantic partner,” Eisen, Perry, and Kolb wrote. “Thankfully, nothing that transpired during these disqualification proceedings diminishes the underlying strength of the case against Trump and his alleged co-conspirators.”

In The Daily Beast, Shan Wu argued McAfee’s ruling “is a mess.”

“McAfee gradually lost control of the disqualification hearing process. He allowed the hearing to become an unfettered spectacle of smear, allowing Trump lawyers to even disparage Willis’ father,” Wu said. “Worse, at the end of all that, McAfee produced a poorly written, poorly reasoned ruling. McAfee had promised the prosecution and defense that he would have his decision out today and that ‘no ruling of mine is ever going to be based on politics. I’m going to be following the law as best I understand it.’ Of those three promises, the only one he fulfilled was he got the ruling out on time.”

“The judge paternalistically scolded Willis for ‘bad choices,’ as though he was sitting in judgment of her personal life rather than whether her personal life had any prejudicial effect on the defendants,” Wu added. “But the most offensive part of the opinion is Judge McAfee’s pompous characterization of the matter as troubling to him because ‘an odor of mendacity remains.’ Mendacity means not telling the truth, and as a judge, he decides whether Willis and Wade were lying or not. It is the height of judicial impropriety to decline to find that they lied but then impugn their character by saying there is an ‘odor’ about their truthfulness.”

In MSNBC, Steve Benen wrote about why Trump “isn't eager to talk about” the dismissed charges. 

“The former president didn’t tout the developments on his social media platform and didn’t hold a press conference. His 2024 campaign team didn’t issue a written statement, and neither did the super PAC aligned with his political operation. Trump and his team received some good legal news — which isn’t an altogether common occurrence — but it appeared that they weren’t at all interested in letting anyone know. The reason, as the Republican’s lawyers likely made clear to him, was that the news wasn’t that good.

“The judge in Fulton County didn’t say Trump was innocent, he said a few of the pending criminal counts in the indictment needed additional clarity. Local prosecutors can refile the charges with more detail, or they can appeal the ruling, though both steps would delay the overall process. There's a reasonably good chance that they'll simply proceed with their case and the charges that remain intact,” Benen said. “It makes sense that the former president wasn’t overly eager to talk about it.”


What the right is saying.

  • The right sees McAfee’s decision as too lenient given the evidence presented against Willis. 
  • Some say the end result of allowing Willis to stay on is still a win for Trump.
  • Others focus on the decision to dismiss some of the charges, calling it legally sound.

In The New York Post, Jonathan Turley said McAfee “throws Fani Willis a lifeline, when he should have tossed [the] whole case.”

Willis and Wade’s “personal controversies have derailed the case and mired the prosecution in scandal. Ethically, this should not have been a difficult question. They should have stepped aside. That conclusion is more than evident in McAfee’s decision, which shreds their claims on the stand and outside of the courthouse,” Turley wrote. “McAfee has done a fair job throughout the case. Moreover, he makes a valid point when he notes that this evidence does not establish a strong basis for claiming that the case was brought or pursued due to this relationship or possible financial gain.”

“The problem is that the court casts doubt on Wade’s testimony on the relationship, but ignores that Willis effectively ratified those claims in her own testimony,” Turley added. “If he disqualified Willis, he would likely have had to disqualify her entire office. That would throw the entire case (and certainly the pre-election schedule) into doubt… It does not, however, serve the interests of justice. Willis will now prosecute defendants for false statements as her own questionable testimony is likely to be investigated by the state and the bar.”

In Hot Air, Ed Morrissey wrote “McAfee splits the Fani baby.”

“So Willis acted unprofessionally in the courtroom and contributed to an ‘odor of mendacity,’ establishing ‘an appearance of impropriety’... but McAfee wants to let Willis resolve the situation because she's just so darned trustworthy, or something,” Morrissey said. “The problem with splitting the baby is that the baby dies. That seems to be what happened here in McAfee's attempt to be Solomonic. If he wanted Fani Willis to remain in charge of the case, he needed to exonerate her from all of these issues. Instead, he admitted what everyone could see on live television, and then refused to act on it.

“That sets up an appeal, of course, based on the factual record that McAfee established in this order. And one has to wonder whether that is McAfee's intent – to punt this to the state appellate court rather than risk the ire of Fulton County voters by disqualifying Willis. Declare her guilty, fail to act, and let the next set of judges with more political insulation deal with the issue themselves. Or maybe even more quickly, letting the Georgia State Bar and the Attorney General deal with the ‘odor of mendacity’ and pre-empt the whole issue by suspending Willis' law license.”

In Fox News, Andrew C. McCarthy suggested McAfee’s decision to dismiss some of the charges offers “a vital look at our legal system.”

“The solicitation counts are among the most pernicious in Willis’s indictment. Americans have a constitutional right to petition government. As long as they are not doing so by bribery or extortion, they are allowed to ask legislators and executive officials to use their powers in ways that would be uncontroversial – and even potentially unlawful,” McCarthy wrote. “The Court’s interpretation of the law was entirely correct, and the case demonstrates how our system is supposed to work.”

“It is not a crime to ask the state officials to question election results,” but “the charges that McAfee dismissed are not necessarily out of the case. Judge McAfee said that prosecutors could refile (or ‘supersede’) the indictment, adding more specificity about exactly what duties of office were implicated – i.e., how the performance of those particular duties is reflected by the terms of the oath of office that the officials take.”


My take.

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  • Wade getting removed from this case makes sense; I think McAfee made the right call, and I think it hurts Willis.
  • It’s also bad for Willis that those charges were dismissed, delaying the case even further.
  • It isn’t totally good news for Trump, as the big racketeering charge remains, but Willis took the bigger hit.

There are two threads here and they are both pretty bad for Fani Willis.

The one that has dominated the headlines is all about her alleged impropriety and the question of whether appointing Wade created a conflict of interest. As I wrote when this case first came out, I thought the argument that she should not be disqualified was more convincing. Georgia law seems clear that a prosecutor should only be disqualified from a case when their conflict of interest could prejudice them into an improper conviction.

The lawyers pursuing Willis's disqualification were essentially arguing that the relationship itself created a conflict of interest without really pinning down why, beyond the fact Wade got paid $650,000 after she hired him and the two traveled together. It is quite obviously problematic that she was in a romantic relationship with her top deputy and taking vacations with him while he got paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money, but the lawyers pursuing her dismissal did not make a strong argument that she made any improper prosecutorial decisions that were influenced by that relationship.

As Richard Painter argued in The Atlantic, that doesn't absolve Willis. He suggested that she should step down voluntarily, even if McAfee shouldn't force her to resign. He also correctly predicted this outcome: That Wade would voluntarily step down to resolve the dispute. I cited Painter’s arguments as the most compelling I had seen in our initial coverage of Willis’s testimony, and I’m glad I did. 

The whole drama of when the relationship started was a huge distraction, and I’m glad McAfee moved it from the court without completely resolving some of its open questions. Willis's timeline of the relationship — that she and Wade did not start dating until after he was hired — was undercut by witness testimony (and some text messages), while the star witness against her turned out to be operating in very untrustworthy ways, including by helping build the case against her outside of court and then refusing to cooperate as a witness inside of court. Truly, the entire thing was a mess, which I think was apparent in McAfee’s order. 

Where McAfee landed seems to be in line with the law, and it also feels right. Given that he is an elected official with an election coming up, I'm sure he appreciated having an obvious "down the middle" approach to take, too. Those who argue this ruling is “splitting the baby” (like Ed Morrissey, under ‘What the right is saying’) have it backward: McAfee’s decision threads the needle of adhering to the law, offering sufficient repercussions for misconduct, and also leaving open legal avenues to investigate Willis down the line.

However, the drama surrounding Willis and her relationship is far less interesting to me than the case’s legal arguments and its general stagnation. 

Since the beginning, I've been skeptical about Willis's decision to pursue RICO charges and questioned how she could pull this case off on the proposed timeline. In that vein, what happened earlier in the week — when McAfee threw out six counts, including three against Trump — was much more important. McAfee effectively told Willis that some of the charges she brought lacked clarity, meaning she can either refile them differently (and potentially delay the case further) or appeal the ruling (and definitely delay the case further).

The most striking aspect of McAfee’s decision is that the charges he dismissed were what I've described as Trump's most egregiously bad actions: His calls to election officials. Trump’s call to Raffensperger, in which he asks him to “find” votes, the recording of which sparked this case, resulted in a "Solicitation of Violation of Oath by a Public Officer" charge. That that charge must be respecified, appealed or dropped entirely is the strongest example yet of just how difficult it is to criminally prosecute some of Trump's post-election actions.

Now, it isn't all good news for Trump. Willis is staying on and 10 of the 13 counts he faces are moving forward — including “the big one” — the racketeering charge he faces along with the 15 other defendants who haven’t already pled guilty. Still, the last week has been validating for the many conservative commentators who argued that Willis overcharged her case with novel legal ideas and that her prosecutorial team was too disorganized to win this case. With Willis taking a reputational hit and with the case getting further delayed, those arguments now seem quite prescient.

Take the poll: What do you think of the updates on the Georgia case? Let us know!

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Your questions, answered.

Q: Kind of a random question, but am I the only one who's worried about how much more advanced AI-generated videos are becoming now that we're officially in election season? AI-generated videos becoming more advanced could potentially make it harder to tell fact from fiction, and I am NOT feeling optimistic about that at all.

— Janna from Florida

Tangle: As a general rule, if you ever find yourself asking “Am I the only one who…” the answer is “No, definitely not.” Lots of people are worried about AI’s influence on the upcoming election. And that influence might not just be through video, either — you should be careful about audio clips shared without context, pictures that might seem strange, and any news story coming from an unfamiliar source or a person you don’t know.

That’s not me saying “only trust big media,” just stressing that you should be more discerning than usual as we enter this year’s election season. And it’ll be coming from both sides, too. Here are two recent examples of audio and visual fakes that made headlines.

From the right, there have been fake AI-generated images of Donald Trump with black people that are believed to be an attempt to influence the black community to vote for Trump. There is no evidence to suggest that the Trump campaign was directly involved in creating or distributing the images, but you should be aware of the effort nonetheless.

From the left, we recently shared the story of the AI-generated fake Joe Biden robocalls that were discouraging people from voting in their primaries, and the recent discovery that the person behind them was a consultant for Dean Phillips’s presidential campaign, Steve Kramer. Phillips and Kramer hold firm that he acted independently. Kramer says that he was trying to warn about the dangers of AI, and compared his collaboration with an out-of-work magician faking the voice of the president to Paul Revere warning about the British coming.

And that isn’t even to mention AI-generated videos, or deepfakes, which are sure to be prevalent leading up to the election. Detecting those can be very hard — but it isn’t impossible. The MIT Media Lab published an excellent piece giving tips on how to spot deep fakes, which include examining the consistency of cheek and forehead skin and the movement of lips and hair. 

The point is, this election season, we’re going to have to rely on much more than just journalists or our own eyes for the truth. We’re going to have to rely on technology experts trained in spotting fake content to help us navigate the waters. 

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


Under the radar.

It could get much cheaper to sell your home after the National Association of Realtors (NAR) agreed on Friday to pay $418 million in damages and introduce new rules related to broker commissions. The agreement, which still needs court approval, will impact the nearly 90% of home sales handled by real estate agents who are affiliated with NAR. Previously, NAR required sellers to determine a commission rate — usually around 6% — before listing homes on its property database. Homeowners are typically on the hook to pay that fee, but it could now come down, making home selling cheaper but also impacting over a million real estate agents' compensation. CBS has the story.


Numbers.

  • 217. The number of days since Donald Trump and 18 others were indicted in Georgia in the 2020 election interference case. 
  • 10. The number of felony counts that remain against Trump in Georgia after Judge McAfee dismissed some of the charges. 
  • 51%-48%. Trump’s lead over Joe Biden in Georgia, according to a CBS News/YouGov poll released last week. 
  • 55%. The percentage of likely voters in Georgia who say they wouldn’t consider Trump fit to serve as president if he were found guilty in the election interference case. 
  • 43%. The percentage of likely voters in Georgia who say they are more concerned that the charges in the election interference case are politically motivated than that Trump tried to overturn the election. 
  • 36%. The percentage of likely voters in Georgia who say they are more concerned that Trump tried to overturn the election than that the charges against him are politically motivated.

The extras.

Thursday’s poll: 734 readers took our poll on Hur’s testimony with 67% finding his testimony to be mostly strong. “He let neither side put words in his mouth…which was refreshing!”, one respondent said.

What do you think of the updates on the Georgia case? Let us know!


Have a nice day.

A few weeks ago, after making a weekly return to his hosting position at The Daily Show, Jon Stewart gave a tearful eulogy for his recently deceased dog of twelve years, Dipper. He described how he and his children were doing a bake sale in front of Animal Haven, a no-kill animal shelter in Manhattan, when they put Dipper in his lap to drive donations. Stewart ended up adopting him. Now, his televised story drove a new, and larger, round of donations for the shelter. "We're just shy of $50,000," Tiffany Lacey, Animal Haven's executive director, told CBS News on Friday, four days after the show aired. "This is a big deal, and it's unexpected.” CBS News has the story.


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