In public, Donald Trump says his conversation with the Georgia secretary of state asking to “find” votes for him was “a perfect call.” But in private, sources familiar with the matter tell Rolling Stone, the former president sounded a different tone about the conversation, asking his attorneys to draw up proposals for how to suppress its use in the criminal case against him.
Facing defeat in Georgia by nearly 12,000 votes, Trump called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in early January 2021 demanding that he “find 11,780 votes,” a number which Trump noted “is one more than we have because we won the state.” Raffensperger released a recording of the call shortly thereafter — triggering months’ worth of claims from Trump that he did nothing wrong.
As his criminal prosecution in Fulton County, Georgia, built momentum in recent months, that call only gained in importance. Since last year, Trump has been briefed multiple times by some of his legal advisers on specific strategies for attempting to get the tape tossed out in court, according to two sources familiar with the matter. At Trump’s urging, some of the former president’s legal advisers have prepared arguments to try and suppress the call, and discussed them at the upper ranks of Trumpland for months.
Those proposals have been criticized by some of Trump’s close advisers, who found the legal theories to be flawed and believed it was better to just argue in court that Trump did nothing wrong or illegal on the recording, rather than try to suppress it outright. “At the end of the day, that just wouldn’t work,” says one of Trump’s legal advisers. “You must confront what’s on there, not try to wish it away.” At the moment, it’s unlikely that the Trump legal team will try to suppress the tape in court.
In a statement, a Trump spokesperson disputed Rolling Stone’s reporting. “President Trump’s defense team in the Fulton County, Georgia, case intends to utilize appropriate legal procedural and substantive vehicles which ensure the president is afforded due process of law,” a Trump spokesperson said. “However, since this particular Rolling Stone article is obviously designed to sensationalize inaccurate and misleading information, it is fully and completely denied by the legal team.”
But the legal theorizing over it highlights the gap between Trump’s public rhetoric and his lawyers’ private analysis of his legal exposure in Fulton County. Trump may continue to characterize the call as “perfect”; some of his attorneys view it as a threat in the most serious criminal case facing the former Republican front-runner.
Trump has taken a keen interest in the development and evolution of these possible legal strategies, the sources add, requesting updates this year and asking follow-up questions to lawyers and other advisers about the plans. This is largely because when he talks privately about the Georgia recording, it is clear to those close to him that “he still feels very wronged by the way that was handled [by Raffensperger],” one person familiar with the matter says.
“He’s made comments about how a ‘sick’ guy [like Raffensperger] does something that sneaky,” this person continues. This source says the last time they recall Trump privately discussing that lawyers were looking into the legality of the infamous Georgia recording was “about two months ago.”
A Trump spokesman did not respond to a request for comment from Rolling Stone.
L. David Wolfe, an Atlanta criminal defense attorney who has represented a number of clients investigated by the Fulton County grand jury, including Trump-aligned lawyers Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman, argues that Trump’s attorneys could have raised a number of issues if they sought to suppress the recording.
Wolfe says his understanding is that an aide to Raffensperger who sat in on the Jan. 2 call recorded the conversation during a trip to Florida, which requires the consent of both parties in a call in order to record. “The research I have done suggests that [the call] may have been illegally recorded, but there wouldn’t be an exclusionary component to that infraction.”
Trump hinted at a similar allegation during a recent interview with Meet the Press. “You know, they illegally tape me, because they tape me in Florida. It’s a two-party state,” he said.
Raffensperger’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Wolfe also claims that other issues could, taken together, present “real questions as to [the recording’s] admissibility.”
“When you look at Georgia’s one-party rules, yes, you can record it, but you can’t disseminate it,” he says.
He also argues that Trump and his attorneys made the Jan 2. phone call in order to settle an outstanding lawsuit the Trump campaign had filed over the election. “When you hear the former president’s lawyers speaking to Brad Raffensperger and his lawyers, it is clearly a settlement conference just trying to get the official numbers to compare them to the numbers their expert had come up with based on prior elections.”
Georgia’s state GOP chair, David Shafer, echoed the claim that the call was actually an attempt to settle the campaign’s litigation shortly after The Washington Post published a transcript. Shafer tweeted that the Post’s transcript excluded a “stipulation that all discussions were for the purpose of settling litigation and confidential under federal and state law,” but evidence of that stipulation has yet to surface. (Shafer was indicted in August alongside Trump in Fulton County for his alleged role in Georgia’s fake elector scheme.)
Others aren’t so sure. The “claim that the Georgia rules of evidence preclude use of the Raffensperger tape because it was part of settlement negotiations seems likely to fail,” says former federal prosecutor Mitchell Epner. “The Georgia version of the rule is much narrower than the federal rule, and only covers explicit ‘offers to compromise’ not general settlement negotiations.”
Since leaving office, Trump has wanted to exact some sort of legal vengeance upon the Republican officials in Georgia who surreptitiously recorded his effort to steal the 2020 presidential election. In the past, Trump has tossed around ideas with sympathetic lawyers, including a desire to sue Raffensperger.
In fact, the Trump campaign did sue Raffensperger in the aftermath of the 2020 election, falsely alleging that election officials allowed thousands of illegal votes. But that was before Trump’s now-infamous phone call with the secretary of state. The former president never followed through on his private threats to sue Raffensperger over the recording.