Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Thursday testified before a Fulton County special grand jury charged with investigating whether former President Donald Trump and his allies attempted to illegally coerce officials to declare him the winner of the 2020 election.
Raffensperger entered the Lewis R. Slaton Courthouse Thursday morning as the first prominent witness to testify in what legal experts call a watershed investigation for politics, with a former president and his supporters targeted for potential criminal violations ranging from solicitation of election fraud, conspiracy, racketeering, and violating oath of office.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis initiated the investigation following the public release of a recorded January 2021 phone call between Raffensperger and state election officials in which Trump urged the state elections chief to find enough votes to overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s 2020 election in Georgia.
Raffensperger’s testimony began in the morning and wrapped up after 2 p.m. But while he briefly spoke to the media at the start of the day, he avoided the large media contingent waiting outside when he left the courthouse.
Raffensperger, a Republican, declined the outgoing president’s requests and repeatedly rebutted claims casting doubt on the election outcome. In the wake of the election, Raffensperger, his family, and members of his staff all received death threats.
Among those set to take the stand next week are Raffensperger’s administration’s chief operating officer Gabriel Sterling, general counsel Ryan Germany and chief elections investigator Frances Watson. Other witnesses subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury include GOP Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, scheduled to appear June 21.
Biden’s upset win by fewer than 12,000 votes turned Georgia into one of the battleground states that became the focal point of right-wing conspiracies that illegal ballot harvesting, corrupted voting equipment, fraudulent absentee ballots and unscrupulous election workers led to Trump’s embarrassing defeat.
The special grand jury rules prohibit prosecutors and jurors from publicly discussing the proceedings, although witnesses can choose to speak if they want, said former longtime Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter.
Porter said it appears that the secretary of state doesn’t want to come across as a witness who is just willingly volunteering to appear in court, even behind closed doors. The day prior to the testimony, Raffensperger spoke to media outlets about how he continued to follow the law despite the overtures from Trump and others.
“I don’t get the sense that Raffensperger is reluctant except for saying that he’ll cooperate and come if he’s subpoenaed,” Porter said.
The special grand jury is expected to meet intermittently over the course of 12 months and although it cannot indict people like a regular grand jury, it can recommend whether Willis should proceed with the case.
Trump has defended his conservation with Raffensperger, referring to it as a “perfect call,” as the former president maneuvered to try to keep his job.
Among the other potential targets of the grand jury investigation is Trump’s former personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s closest confidants who fervently spread the accusations widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
In the aftermath of the 2020 election, the former New York City mayor appeared at a Georgia Senate committee hearing where he advocated for state lawmakers to appoint illegitimate electors to cast votes for Trump.
Porter said that as Willis continues to call witnesses to try to establish their case, one of the benefits to a prosecutor calling a special grand jury is that the panelists can request future witnesses.
The intermittent scheduling of a special grand jury prevents its members from getting burned out and also allows the district attorney to work around the schedule of witnesses.
“As it goes on the jurors will get more information and ask more questions and have the right to say, ‘This guy was mentioned in the testimony of the secretary of state and we want to talk to them,’” Porter said.
Raffensperger narrowly avoided a runoff against Trump-endorsed Congressman Jody Hice in the May 24 GOP primary.
Trump continues to make unsubstantiated claims of massive voter fraud in Georgia elections. Trump says misconduct factored into this year’s May 24 GOP primary results, which included Gov. Brian Kemp’s sound defeat of former U.S. Senator David Perdue. Kemp refused to violate the state constitution when Trump asked him to disqualify the results of the 2020 election by calling a special legislative session.
Biden’s close win in Georgia was confirmed with a machine and hand recount of 5 million ballots. And a Georgia Bureau of Investigation-led audit of thousands of absentee ballot signatures in Cobb County did not uncover fraudulent votes. Still, top Georgia Republicans continued to peddle election fraud conspiracies months after the Nov. 3, 2020 vote, egged on by Trump’s claim the vote was rigged against him.
The investigation also puts pressure on Willis, the Democratic elected district attorney in the state’s most populated county.
Porter once convened a special grand jury that investigated questionable land deals by Gwinnett County commissioners over a ten-month period and said it can be challenging to coordinate that process while overseeing the operations of regular court proceedings.
“I had an office of 127 people and trying to manage that and manage the grand jury, the amount of time it takes consumes you,” Porter said. “Once we got into the rhythm. and knew the pattern, it eventually got easier. But those first few weeks and months were pretty difficult.”
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