Aug 21, 2023

We're back: Trump's Georgia indictment.

We're back: Trump's Georgia indictment.
Photo by History in HD / Unsplash

Is this Trump's biggest legal threat?

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: 15 minutes.

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We have a longer than usual newsletter today. We're recapping everything we missed while we were away, plus diving into the Georgia indictment — which many legal experts believe is the biggest threat to Trump.

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Dear readers,

We were on vacation last week. Thanks for all the feedback and responses to our reposts, which, unsurprisingly, generated a lot of conversation. I'm going to try to get back to many of you this week.

I had a lovely vacation with family and friends, and I'm feeling recharged and ready to go as we head into the fall. Of course, the news didn't stop while we were away. Former President Donald Trump was indicted again, this time in Georgia, which we're covering today. He also announced he won't participate in the Republican primary debate on Wednesday, instead opting to compete for the prime time slot by sitting down for an interview with Tucker Carlson.

Elsewhere, Hunter Biden's plea agreement fell apart, and the Justice Department has now appointed a special counsel to his case, increasing the chances it goes to trial. We'll be covering that story later this week, along with the wildfires in Maui, Hawaii, which have become some of the most devastating in U.S. history. We're also working on a YouTube video about an unprecedented ruling in Montana, where a federal judge sided with youth plaintiffs who sued the state over climate change, arguing that their right to a clean and healthful environment, as outlined in the state constitution, was being violated.

Some other big stories while we were away:

  • Police raided the office of a small Kansas newspaper and a journalist's home while alleging it was investigating the newsroom for "identity theft." The raid sparked press freedom concerns.
  • Russia’s currency, the ruble, collapsed, then its central bank hiked key interest rates from 8.5% to 12%.
  • North Korea claimed the U.S. soldier who crossed into its territory was fleeing mistreatment in the army, while the U.S. continues to negotiate for his release.
  • Former high-ranking FBI agent Charles McGonigal pleaded guilty to working for a sanctioned Russian oligarch after retiring. He faces five years in prison.
  • A federal appeals court has ruled against previous changes that made the abortion pill mifepristone more accessible. The ruling will not go into effect until the Supreme Court reviews it, and in the meantime the drug will remain on the market.
  • North Carolina's Republican-controlled legislature overrode Gov. Roy Cooper's (D) vetoes on laws that ban gender transition surgery for minors, bar transgender girls from female sports teams through college, and limit instruction of gender education in public school.
  • The average 30-year fixed mortgage rate hit 7.09%, the highest level since 2002.

Of course, there was more — but those were the big ones.

We're excited to be back and jump in.


Today's quick hits.

  1. Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows undercut one of Donald Trump’s key defenses in his classified documents case, telling prosecutors he did not recall Trump ordering or discussing declassifying documents before leaving office. (The testimony
  2. Hunter Biden's lawyer told the Justice Department that President Biden would be a fact witness in any criminal trial involving his son. (The report
  3. President Biden announced a trilateral agreement with Japan and South Korea to deepen their security and economic commitments. (The commitment)
  4. Tropical storm Hilary made landfall in Southern California, the first time a tropical storm has hit the region in 84 years. (The storm
  5. Russia's Luna-25 lunar probe crashed while attempting to land on the moon's south pole over the weekend. (The crash)

Today's topic.

The Fulton County, Georgia, indictments. Last week, a grand jury in Fulton County, Georgia, indicted former President Donald Trump and 18 others over allegations of a sprawling conspiracy to overturn Joe Biden's election victory in Georgia.

The 98-page indictment says Trump and his alleged co-conspirators knowingly joined a conspiracy to unlawfully change the outcome of the election, and details 41 counts of criminal charges including conspiracy to commit forgery, influencing witnesses, computer theft, impersonating a public officer, and filing false documents.

Among those indicted were Trump; his former lawyers Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, and Jenna Ellis; and former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark. John Eastman and Kenneth Chesebro, who argued in legal memos that then-Vice President Mike Pence could block Electoral College votes from being certified, were also indicted.

In the indictment, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis cites text messages, emails, phone calls, and other evidence of the efforts she says the 19 defendants took to undermine the democratic process in Georgia and other battleground states including Arizona, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Nevada, and Michigan. In all, Trump is charged with 13 felonies, including attempts to pressure Republican officials to change the outcome of the race in Georgia.

Willis, a Democrat, spent two years investigating the alleged crimes, and ultimately used the state's anti-racketeering laws to lay out the alleged plot to overturn the will of Georgia voters. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) is a federal law, and since Willis is using Georgia's RICO statute as a foundation in the indictment, conviction would carry a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison.

Among Trump's actions cited in the indictment are a speech he gave declaring victory the day after the election and a phone call he made to Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in which he urged Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn the election.

Meanwhile, Powell is among several individuals charged with breaching voting machines in Coffee County, Georgia. Three other defendants were charged as "fake" or "alternate" electors after signing a certificate falsely stating Trump had won Georgia. Trump and Eastman are charged for filing a lawsuit in federal court that was allegedly based on lies, including that thousands of dead people and minors had voted in the 2020 election.

Trump criticized the indictment, saying the timing — two and a half years after the alleged actions — is designed to keep him from winning the upcoming presidential election, while Giuliani called the charges an "affront to American democracy." Trump has maintained publicly that his actions were protected on free speech grounds and repeatedly promised to reveal evidence supporting his belief that the election was stolen in Georgia, though he canceled a press conference scheduled for Monday to present that evidence and instead said his lawyers were going to put his arguments in court filings.

Since the 2020 election, Trump's legal team failed to win any cases in court proving widespread election fraud in Georgia and ultimately dismissed their own lawsuits there, nor have they proven allegations that thousands of dead voters cast ballots, corrupted machines switched votes from Trump to Biden, or that illegal ballot harvesting cost him the race. In Georgia, the results were recounted three times, and while there were small discrepancies in the vote in some counties, the statewide results remained unchanged.

Many legal experts consider this indictment to be the most threatening to Trump because of the mandatory minimum prison sentence and the fact it was filed at the state level, which means no president — including Trump, if he were to win in 2024 — can pardon him if he’s convicted. Georgia's governor also does not have the authority to pardon Trump, a power granted to the State Board of Pardons and Paroles only five years after someone convicted of a crime has completed their sentence.

This is the fourth time former President Trump has been indicted since leaving office. As of Monday morning, his polling lead in the GOP primary continues to grow, with a fresh CBS News poll finding that 62% of likely GOP voters support Trump while just 16% support Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is in second place.

Today, we're going to break down some reactions to this indictment from the left and right, then my take.


What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left focus on why this case stands out from the others against Trump and highlight the damning acts cited in the indictment.
  • Some argue that this trial will inevitably convince anyone outside the MAGA base of Trump's criminality.
  • Others suggest this indictment is the most dangerous for Trump, given the severity of the law in Georgia and the charges at hand.

In Slate, Richard L. Hasen broke down what makes this indictment distinct.

"If the recent federal indictment of Donald Trump on charges related to his attempt to subvert the 2020 presidential election was a streamlined surgical strike aimed at ensuring a clean case and a speedy trial of the former president before the 2024 election, Monday night’s Georgia indictment is the equivalent of a blitz," Hasen said. "With 19 defendants and 41 charges, the heart of the indictment is a sprawling state racketeering charge that places Trump at the center of a vast conspiracy to lie to state officials, pressure election officials to change vote totals, turn in phony slates of fake electors to Congress, influence witness testimony, and gain access to voting machinery and software, all in an effort to turn Trump from an Electoral College loser into a second-term president."

The indictment is full of legalese, but "it essentially tells the story of Trump and his allies’ attempt to subvert the outcome of the 2020 presidential election." It includes what you'd expect, such as "the pressure on Vice President Mike Pence" or "the infamous phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to 'find' 11,780 votes." But it also includes the stories of election workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, who "were eventually cleared of the false claims" that they were professional ballot stuffers while "Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani has essentially conceded in a civil defamation suit that the claims against the pair were false and made with knowledge of the falsity."

In The Daily Beast, Jay Michaelson wrote about two examples of criminality from the indictment that will move moderate voters.

"Consider the harassment of Georgia election workers Ruby Freeman and Wandrea 'Shaye' Moss by Trump’s team. It is now proven that Freeman and Moss did nothing wrong, and yet they were terrorized for months, including by Trump’s own associates. On Dec. 10, 2020, Rudy Giuliani allegedly said that they were 'quite obviously surreptitiously passing around USB ports as if they're vials of heroin or cocaine' at State Farm Arena (Act 56 of the RICO charge). That statement is false, racist, and hateful. It’s a lie, weaponized into harassment. It is not where the 'movable middle' is."

"Consider the Jan. 7, 2021 (yes, one day after Jan. 6) shenanigans at the Coffee County Board of Elections (caught on camera) in which Trump’s agents, led by Sidney Powell, allegedly 'stole data, including ballot images, voting equipment software and personal voter information,' and then copied Georgia’s statewide voting system software, which is supposed to be kept secure. They then removed ballots from the polling place (acts 142-155 of the RICO charge). This is all obviously criminal conduct—not free speech, not politics as usual, but anarchic, criminal thuggery."

In CNN, Jennifer Rodgers wrote about why this is hugely damaging for Trump.

”After each criminal indictment of former President Donald Trump, pundits have said something to the effect of ‘this is the worst indictment yet.’ However, Trump’s fourth indictment may, in fact, pose the greatest legal risk to him — both in terms of the nature of the charges and the jurisdiction in which those charges have been brought,” Rodgers said. "In the distant past, RICO was used primarily in mafia cases or against drug organizations, but more recently, prosecutors have used it to charge street gangs, political organizations and even more loosely aligned groups of people who organize themselves for the purpose of committing crimes."

"The indictment describes eight ways in which the enterprise intended to achieve its criminal goals, including: making false statements to state legislators; making false statements to state officials; the fake electors scheme; the harassment and intimidation of election workers like Ruby Freeman and her daughter, Shaye Moss; soliciting the Justice Department to make false statements; soliciting the vice president to unlawfully reject Electoral College votes; the unlawful breach of election equipment in Coffee County; and obstruction of justice to cover up the conspiracy," Rodgers said. "None of the other charged cases include a mandatory minimum, upping the stakes for a Georgia conviction not only for Trump, but his co-conspirators."


What the right is saying.

  • The right mostly criticizes the indictment and the use of the RICO statute, though many concede Trump's actions were wrong.
  • Some argue that parts of the indictment criminalize benign acts of free speech and that Willis has overreached.
  • Others suggest Trump will be in grave legal trouble if he tries to defend his lies in court.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board condemned Trump's actions but criticized the use of a RICO statute.

"The big news is the DA’s use of the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. It treats Mr. Trump’s attempt to reverse the 2020 election as if it were a mafia operation rather than bumblers who controlled no election machinery in Georgia or anywhere else. The alleged behavior was rotten, but inflating it into a RICO conspiracy makes the case less credible, not more," the board said. "Unlike the federal indictment from special counsel Jack Smith, the Georgia filing doesn’t address Mr. Trump’s free speech under the First Amendment. Every half-baked tweet from Mr. Trump is presented as another RICO act."

Meanwhile, Trump "is also charged with soliciting a public officer to violate his oath, based on his infamous call urging Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to find enough votes to overturn the Georgia result. The worst part of the call was Mr. Trump’s warning that Mr. Raffensperger was taking 'a big risk,' because failing to report fraud, 'that’s a criminal offense.' But can Ms. Willis prove that Mr. Trump’s conduct was criminal, not delusional?" the board asked. "As with the Smith indictment, Mr. Trump also has a reasonable claim of 'absolute immunity' for actions taken related to his duties as President, including trying to uncover voter fraud."

The Washington Examiner editorial board called the indictment a grave threat to democracy.

Take the indictment of David Shafer, who "at the time of the alleged crime, was head of the Georgia Republican Party. Trump contested the results of the 2020 Georgia presidential election in court, and by the day the Electoral College was due to meet to approve slates of electors, litigation was ongoing," the board said. "Not wanting his party’s candidate to be without electors in the event Trump won his lawsuits, Shafer did what the Democratic Party of Hawaii did in 1960 when its presidential results were being litigated: He held a meeting of Trump supporters at the state Capitol and elected an alternative slate of electors.

"Shafer told the press, 'Had we not met today to cast our votes, the president’s pending election contest would have been effectively mooted. Our action today preserves his rights under Georgia law.' Shafer did nothing but openly exercise his First Amendment rights, and for that, he is being prosecuted as a member of a 'criminal organization,'" they wrote. "The same is true of Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, whose crimes include texting one politician for the phone number of another and attending various meetings with Trump supporters in the White House... Real crimes may have been committed and are in the indictment, but they are surely not those cited above. "

In The New York Times, David French said this indictment is one fundamentally about lies.

Trump's claims aren’t just false, "they’re transparently, incandescently stupid," French said. "This was not a sophisticated effort to overturn the election. It was a shotgun blast of obvious falsehoods.” While Willis “still has to prove intent… the evidentiary challenge is simpler than in Smith’s federal case against Trump. To meet the requirements of federal law, Smith’s charges must connect any given Trump lie to a larger criminal scheme. Willis, by contrast, merely has to prove that Trump willfully lied about important facts to a government official about a matter in that official’s jurisdiction.

"That’s a vastly simpler case to make," French added. "If Trump’s comments on Truth Social are any indication, he may well defend the case by arguing that the Georgia election was in fact stolen... That’s a dangerous game. The claims are so easily, provably false that the better course would probably be to argue that Trump was simply asking Raffensperger about the allegations, not asserting them as fact. But if Trump continues to assert his false claims as fact, Willis will have an ideal opportunity to argue that Trump lied then and is lying now, that he’s insulting the jury’s intelligence just as he insulted the nation’s intelligence when he made his claims in the first place."


My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • There is still no evidence the election was stolen, and this is Trump's last chance to prove otherwise.
  • This case seems like it will be incredibly complicated, and I'm unsure of what the outcome might be.
  • Whether criminal or not, I do think the indictment lays out the most abhorrent actions of Trump's entire presidency.

First, let me start by knocking away some arguments in defense of Trump I find very obviously silly.

The idea that Trump is allowed to do something illegal if he believes it is legal is entirely nonsensical, just as the idea that he can say whatever he wants "because free speech" only makes sense if you barely think about it. Equally silly is any defense of Sidney Powell and the alleged theft of voting data from Coffee County, which appears to be on tape. Ravi Gupta, the host of the Lost Debate podcast, made this simple analogy in a recent episode where we discussed some of Trump's legal troubles: If you think someone stole your computer, it isn't legal to then break into their apartment to try to steal it back. It's especially bad if you end up being wrong about the person stealing your computer in the first place.

More reasonably, Trump is probably allowed to tell his followers he believes the election was stolen. But that wouldn’t excuse using his speech to instruct election officials to find a way to get the outcome he wants — one that is different from the certified outcome reached by counting the actual ballots cast. At that point, his speech veers into criminality. This is true in the same way you can probably confide with a friend that you are hoping a personal enemy of yours will disappear, but you veer into criminality when you call a hitman and vaguely imply that you wish that person would disappear. Speech can be criminal.

Which brings us to Trump's claims the election was stolen, the fundamental element of this case. Many Tangle readers know of my work and discovered this newsletter because I was tracking and investigating election fraud claims in real-time after the 2020 race. I have covered everything from the initial conspiracies about Dominion Voting Systems to some of the claims Democrats were making (before the election was decided) to more recent allegations like the 2,000 Mules documentary, which I broke down in an edition of Tangle. I even tried to round up my coverage of every major "election was stolen" allegation out there in a piece for Skeptic Magazine.

My position on election fraud allegations is always one of open-mindedness: If you are making a legitimate claim, I'll look into it, as long as there is evidence to be examined. If there is widespread election fraud, I want to know, as I firmly believe there are still ways to improve the security of our elections.

Here is the upshot from nearly three years of work on that topic: Like nearly every major election, there were individual and disconnected acts of voter fraud in the 2020 election (by both Democrats and Republicans). But so far, no evidence has been presented in any battleground state of election fraud that was anywhere close to being enough to change any outcomes.

At the same time, several major theories have been totally disproven: Dominion machines did not “flip votes,” "thousands of dead people" did not cast ballots in any race, a network of illegal ballot harvesting operatives did not win “swing states for Joe Biden,” and there was not “a wave of illegal voters” casting ballots. And when all their claims were taken to court, Trump allies like Jenna Ellis, Sidney Powell, and Rudy Giuliani have been forced to admit that they lied about the election being stolen. Yes, some actions by powerful people may have influenced the election, but nearly three years later, the core claims made by Trump and his team in the months after the election have yet to be proven.

And, given all that, it’s all but impossible to believe any of Trump’s claims — and even harder to believe that Trump believes them himself.

Last week, Trump was once again promising that he was going to present a detailed report that will exonerate him with “irrefutable” evidence of election fraud in Georgia. He then canceled the press conference where he was planning to present that report and said he was going to file his defense in court instead. Promises of irrefutable evidence have been made for years (I've lost count now), often accompanied by a fundraising request, and have never actually come, so I sincerely doubt we'll get it here. Remember: Trump even went so far as to pay a secret firm to find fraud and then didn't release the firm's report, for reasons that should be obvious.

Still, if Trump's team does file that "irrefutable" evidence in court, I'll eagerly investigate it. After all, through one lens, this is the day in court his team has long claimed they wanted: If they can prove the election in Georgia was actually stolen, this is their last chance to do it. Doing so wouldn't just exonerate him, but would motivate his base heading into 2024.

This case, as many legal experts have said, is the most dangerous for Trump. Not because it is the most air-tight (the classified documents case appears to be the strongest), but because it's the most serious charge and because Trump can't theoretically pardon himself out of it.

Making the definitive case that the election was not stolen and that Trump and his associates named in the indictment acted criminally to change the outcome will be extremely difficult for Willis. Logistically, I have no idea how she plans to just get all these people in a courtroom before the 2024 election. Additionally, RICO cases are notoriously complicated, and I'm not entirely sure how the RICO statutes will hold up in this novel application.

Nobody seems to know what is going to come next, and I certainly won't pretend to. Some elements of the indictment, like specific tweets cited, do not seem criminal to me. Other elements, like the accessing of voting machines or the pressure and harassment of election officials, do seem criminal. We’ll have to see how Willis executes her prosecution and Trump and his team make their defense. Trump may very well beat this case in court, or he could plead out before trial, or something else. 

This I do know, though: Trump's presidency had a lot of good and bad. He kept promises and broke them, he improved the country and hurt it, and he surprised me both at how divisive and how bipartisan he could be, depending on the issue and day of the week. However, nothing to me is as big a blemish on his record as his actions after losing the 2020 election. In a sea of great, good, mediocre, and bad from his time in office, this was very bad — the absolute worst of what he did. And in that regard, he has only himself to blame for this predicament, and for the bind he's now put Republican voters in heading into the 2024 election.


Your questions, answered.

We're skipping the reader question today to give our main story some extra space. 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.

Homelessness is increasing at a record pace, according to a new report from The Wall Street Journal. Over 577,000 Americans are homeless today, an 11% increase from last year. This is the largest increase in homelessness year-over-year since the government began tracking it in 2007. The next highest increase was just 2.7% in 2019. The Wall Street Journal pointed to rising housing costs, unaffordable rental units, and the opioid crisis as the driving factors behind the increase. The count was compiled by contacting more than 300 entities that count homeless people in cities and states across the country, and a final estimate is expected later this year from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. You can read the story here (paywall)


Numbers.

  • 30. The number of unnamed co-conspirators in the Georgia indictment.
  • 63%. The percentage of Republicans who do not believe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election, according to a March 2023 CNN poll.
  • 52%. Of that 63%, the percentage who believe there is solid evidence the election was stolen.
  • 48%. Of that 63%, the percentage who say they are going on "suspicion only."
  • 71%. In January of 2021, the percentage of Republicans who did not believe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election.
  • 75%. Of that 71%, the percentage who believed there was solid evidence of voter fraud.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we didn't have a newsletter, but I'd just written a Friday edition about why the media isn't biased towards liberals
  • The most clicked link in our newsletter from August 10 was what happens if you don't put your phone in airplane mode.
  • Poll results: 654 Tangle readers answered our poll asking about Biden's decision to create a new national monument in Arizona. 60% supported the decision, 25% opposed it, and 15% were unsure or had no opinion. Of those in favor, 92% said they generally support conservationism, the most popular reason given. Of those against, 64% said they oppose restricting uranium mining, the most popular reason given.
  • Nothing to do with politics: The newest accent — Antarctican.
  • Take the poll. What do you think is the most likely result of this latest indictment against Donald Trump? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

Nat Read boarded the Amtrak 681 Downeaster train in Boston, a small suitcase in tow. This wasn’t just any trip for the 84-year-old Read; it marked the completion of the train enthusiast’s decades-long quest to travel all 21,400 miles of the entire Amtrak railroad. Once Read arrived in Brunswick, Maine, the train staff made an announcement over the speaker to let all the passengers know that Read’s trip completed his journey of traveling across the entirety of Amtrak’s railroad. “I feel fulfilled, this has been over 80 years it’s taken me, and to be in Brunswick after all of this, it’s an elated feeling,” Read said after finishing the trip. “It was a day I will remember forever.” The Boston Globe has the story.


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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.