For Lindsey Graham, a confrontation in Georgia

ATLANTA — Six days after major news outlets declared Donald J. Trump the loser of the 2020 presidential election, his allies were applying desperate court-wide press in an effort to overturn his defeat, particularly in Georgia.

Pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell went on TV claiming there was ample evidence of foreign election interference that ultimately never materialized. Another attorney, L. Lin Wood, filed a lawsuit seeking to block the certification of Georgia’s election results.

On the same day, November 13, 2020, Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and one of Mr. Trump’s staunchest supporters, made a phone call that immediately alarmed Brad Raffensperger, Republican Secretary of State for Georgia. Mr. Graham, he said, had asked if there was a legal way, using state courts, to throw out all mail-in ballots from counties with high rates of dodgy signatures.

The call would eventually spark an ethics complaint, demands for Mr Graham to resign from the left and a legal drama that only culminates now, nearly two years later, as the veteran lawmaker fights to avoid giving evidence before a special Atlanta grand jury investigating. election interference by Mr. Trump and his supporters.

Mr. Graham has assembled a high-level legal team, which includes Don F. McGah II, a White House attorney under Mr. Trump. While Mr Graham’s lawyers say they were told he was just a witness – not a target of the investigation – that could change as new evidence emerges in the case, which is headed by Fani T. Willis, the Fulton County, Ga. district attorney. William F. Weld, a Trump critic and former Republican governor of Massachusetts.

Underlining the risks to Mr Graham, lawyers for 11 people who have been named as potential targets of charges in the case said they had previously been told their clients were ‘only witnesses, not subjects or targets,” according to court documents. .

On Sunday, the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit temporarily barred Mr. Graham from testifying and ordered a lower court to determine whether he was entitled to a subpoena amendment based on constitutional protections. given to members of Congress. After that, the appeals court said it would take the matter back “for further consideration.” The case is now back before Leigh Martin May, a Federal District Court judge who has already dismissed Mr Graham’s attempt to avoid testifying altogether; she asked the parties to complete their final set of legal documents by next Wednesday. It seems increasingly likely that Mr Graham will testify next month.

Ms Willis said she was weighing a wide range of criminal charges in her investigation, including racketeering and conspiracy. She has already informed at least 18 people that they are targets, including Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s former personal attorney. Mr Giuliani fought to avoid testifying in person but was forced to appear before the grand jury last week.

As for Mr. Graham, Ms. Willis’ office is seeking to learn more about his role in Mr. Trump’s post-election strategy and who he spoke to on the Trump campaign team before or after he called Mr. Raffensperger. While Mr. Trump attacked Mr. Raffensperger on Twitter as a “so-called Republican” on the same day as that call, Mr. Graham told CNN that the former president did not encourage him to make the call.

Mr Graham insisted he had done nothing improper and his lawyers argued that a sitting senator should not have to answer questions about his conduct in state court.

“We will go as far as necessary and do whatever needs to be done to make sure people like me can do their jobs without fear of a county attorney coming after you,” Mr Graham said recently.

That Mr. Graham would find himself clashing with the district attorney over his involvement with Mr. Trump might have seemed unlikely before the 2016 election, when he called Mr. Trump “unfit for office. and “xenophobic and racist religious fanatic. But he quickly became a key ally of Mr. Trump and spent the days following the 2020 election denouncing his legitimacy. “If Republicans don’t challenge and change America’s electoral system, there will never be another Republican president elected again,” he told Fox News on Nov. 9, 2020. Democrats win, a he said, “because they cheat”.

At the time he telephoned Mr. Raffensperger, Mr. Graham was Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and he stated that he was acting in an official capacity. His legal team did not respond to requests from The New York Times to provide evidence suggesting the committee was conducting a formal investigation.

Judge May dismissed arguments that he was acting solely in his capacity as a senator and said that according to Mr Graham’s own account of Raffensperger’s appeal, he was trying to influence state election rules rather than only explore federal remedies. Indeed, in a television interview a few days after the appeal, Mr. Graham said he suggested to Mr. Raffensperger new state procedures for verifying signatures on mail-in ballots and creating an appeals process. (He also said at the time that he had done similar calls to Doug Ducey, the Republican governor of Arizona, another state Mr. Trump narrowly lost.)

Mr. Raffensperger’s account of his conversation with Mr. Graham – and his inference that Mr. Graham wanted to explore launching postal votes from counties with high rates of dodgy signatures – was supported by one of the assistants to the Secretary of State who was also on roll call. Even so, Mr Graham made no overt request to reject the ballots, according to another assistant to Raffensperger, Gabriel Sterling. Mr Graham said it is “ridiculous” to suggest he was asking for votes to be thrown out.

In a hearing in federal court this month, Brian C. Lea, one of Mr. Graham’s lawyers, said: ‘We have a phone call, and that phone call has been described by everyone . Everyone recognizes that it’s about the electoral process and the verification of mail-in ballots, how you provide security.

He said the ‘only dispute’ was caused by Mr Raffensperger’s account that it was implied that legal ballots should be discarded. “Take away the implication that Secretary of State Raffensperger claims to have captured, all you have is a conversation about the electoral process.” The legal precedent, he argued, meant that “the motive is irrelevant”.

But Judge May told lawyers for Mr Graham that it was essential to understand why the call had been made.

“You keep saying it’s inappropriate for the court to look at the motive, but how can I classify an act as political or legislative without knowing why the act was committed?”

Knowing what happened around the call could prove key for Ms. Willis, the Fulton County prosecutor.

“The judge in his decision and the prosecutor in his case outlined several different topics beyond the content of the appeal that could influence the prosecutor’s charging decision,” said Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming, a former prosecutor from the neighboring county. by DeKalb. “That includes whether there is enough evidence of a connection between anything Senator Graham has done or said and the former president’s allies – or even the former president himself – to establish some of the elements of a possible conspiracy or RICO charge.”

Ms Fleming is co-author of a 114-page book Brookings Institution Report on the case which revealed that Mr. Trump himself was “at substantial risk of possible state charges based on multiple crimes”. The report called the suggestion to disqualify all absentee ballots from certain counties “extreme and bizarre.”

Shortly after the call, three legal experts, including Walter M. Shaub Jr., former director of the US Bureau of Government Ethicswrote to the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, decrying Mr. Graham’s contact with Mr. Raffensperger, which took place while Georgia election officials were conducting a manual recount.

“Any appeal by a sitting Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman to a state election official during an ongoing vote count is inherently coercive and indicates an attempt to influence the outcome,” they wrote. “The allegation that Senator Graham made a backstage call to a member of his own political party, without launching a formal investigation, suggests that he was hoping to act out of public view.”

The other two signatories to the complaint, law professors Claire O. Finkelstein of the University of Pennsylvania and Richard W. Painter of the University of Minnesota said Wednesday that the ethics committee had not been in contact with them or Mr. Shaub about the complaint, except to acknowledge that they received it. Ethics committee staff did not return calls for comment.

Michael J. Moore, a former US state attorney, said Mr Graham “should be afraid of being involved in a conspiracy indictment”.

‘I wouldn’t even want to come forward as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case she’s trying to build,’ he added, referring to Ms Willis. ‘I don’t know if his RICO efforts will survive the calls,’ he said, but Mr Graham ‘still wouldn’t want to be in on it’.

For Mr. Graham, the case represents the final chapter in his breathtaking relationship with Mr. Trump. He was first a critic, then a fierce defender, especially after the elections. But on Jan. 6, 2021, as blood and broken glass were still being cleaned from the U.S. Capitol after the riot by a pro-Trump mob, he told the Senate, “Count me out” and “Enough is enough”. Two days later, he was branded a traitor by Trump supporters at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington. Within weeks he was back on Mr. Trump’s golf course in Mar-a-Lago.

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