President Donald Trump pressured Georgia’s top election official, a fellow Republican, in an extraordinary phone conversation to “find” enough votes to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the Southern state, US media reported Sunday.
In the conversation with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Saturday, a recording of which was first obtained by The Washington Post, Trump warns Raffensperger that he and his general counsel could face “a big risk” if they failed to pursue his request.
“The people of Georgia are angry, the people in the country are angry,” Trump is heard saying on the tape, which was also aired by other media.
“And there’s nothing wrong with saying, you know, um, that you’ve recalculated,” the president says. “You’re off by hundreds of thousands of votes.”
Raffensperger is heard responding: “Well, Mr. President, the challenge that you have is, the data you have is wrong.”
Biden won the traditionally conservative state by fewer than 12,000 votes – a margin unchanged after recounts and audits.
Even a hypothetical reversal there would not be enough to deprive Biden of victory.
Word of the recording came at an extraordinary juncture, two days before special runoff elections in Georgia that will decide control of the US Senate, and three days before Congress is to certify the results of the November 3 election.
That certification, normally routine, is now being challenged by scores of lawmakers at Trump’s behest – although Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger urged them to reconsider in light of the tape.
“This is absolutely appalling. To every member of Congress considering objecting to the election results, you cannot – in light of this – do so with a clean conscience,” he tweeted.
‘Contempt for democracy’
Ahead of the release of the audio, Trump tweeted about the call, saying that Raffensperger “was unwilling, or unable, to answer questions such as the ‘ballots under table’ scam, ballot destruction, out of state ‘voters,’ dead voters and more.”
Raffensperger tweeted back, also ahead of the release of the audio, saying: “Respectfully, President Trump: What you’re saying is not true. The truth will come out.”
After the release, the White House declined to comment.
Democrats were quick to condemn the call.
“Trump’s contempt for democracy is laid bare. Once again. On tape,” Representative Adam Schiff said on Twitter.
“Pressuring an election official to ‘find’ the votes so he can win is potentially criminal, and another flagrant abuse of power by a corrupt man who would be a despot, if we allowed him. We will not.”
Some political commentators compared the call to the Watergate tapes that led to the fall of past US president Richard Nixon.
Carl Bernstein, one of the reporters who helped bring down Nixon’s presidency, called it “the ultimate smoking gun tape.”
Trump has waged an all-out fight against the election results. But scores of recounts and lawsuits, as well as a review by his own Justice Department, have failed to substantiate the claims.
At one point, he invited Republican election officials from Michigan to the White House in an apparent effort to pressure them over their vote certification.
He also pressed Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, in a separate phone call.
Raffensperger and other election officials who have rejected Trump’s entreaties, in Georgia and other states, have received death threats from his supporters.
It was not clear who released the tape, but under Georgia law, Raffensperger could legally have taped it without Trump’s consent.
Key elections in Georgia
It was unclear what impact the tape’s release might have on the twin runoff elections in Georgia on Tuesday, which will decide who controls the US Senate.
Both Trump and Biden are due to appear at rallies in the southern state on Monday.
Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are facing off against Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, respectively.
Victory by Ossoff and Warnock would give Democrats, and Biden, a major boost – Senate seats would be evenly divided between the parties at 50 each, but incoming Vice President Kamala Harris would wield a tie-breaking vote. Democrats already control the House.
“This is going to be a very tough battle but it is absolutely within the realm of possibility – in fact, the realm of likelihood – the Democrats can win,” Stacey Abrams, the charismatic former Georgia lawmaker who has emerged as a party leader, told CNN on Sunday.
‘Time to move forward’
News of the Trump tape came hours after the US Congress opened its new session Sunday.
Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking woman in the history of US politics, will serve another term as speaker of the House after her reelection.
Congress will convene in a rare joint session on Wednesday to certify Biden’s election result – but it will not be the usual dry pro forma affair.
So far, 12 Republican senators loyal to Trump have announced plans to block certification, instead demanding the formation of a special commission to do an “emergency” election audit.
With Democrats controlling the House and many Senate Republicans expected to confirm Biden’s victory, the rebel effort is all but certain to fail, but it has raised tensions on Capitol Hill.
It has also underscored a sharp divide within the president’s party , as Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has asked his caucus to respect the Electoral College result.
Senator Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential candidate, called the campaign an “egregious ploy” that served only to “enhance the political ambition of some.”
He and a bipartisan coalition of senators on Sunday called on Congress to certify the result, saying. “The 2020 election is over,” they said. “It is time to move forward.”
Pro-Trump protesters not quite willing to concede are expected to rally in Washington on Wednesday.
Trump, who has urged thousands to support his cause, tweeted Sunday: “I will be there. Historic day!”