Back in January 2021, as then-President Donald Trump was calling on Georgia election officials to “find 11,780 votes,” new documents show that the secretary of state’s office in Georgia was in full crisis mode.
There were death threats promising to “make the Boston bombings look like child’s play.” Impassioned pleas for Georgia’s top elections official to stand firm in the face of pressure from Trump to break the law. And an alarmed state official demanding an immediate investigation into Donald Trump’s “solicitation to commit election fraud.”
In the chaotic weeks following the 2020 election, Trump was in the midst of a full-scale effort to delegitimize Georgia ballot totals, calling Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger “an enemy of the people” and sending a team of advisers to convince state legislators to decertify the results of a recount that just barely put Joe Biden ahead.
Emails between state elections officials show the tense moments on the first weekend of January 2021, when Trump called Raffensperger and squeezed him to “find” enough votes to tip the state in his favor—a call that was recorded and almost immediately leaked to The Washington Post.
The Daily Beast received nearly 700 pages of internal communications from the Georgia secretary of state’s office through a public records request. In those emails between officials and incoming messages from the public, the records show how David J. Worley—the only Democrat on the state’s election board—reached out to Raffensperger and the agency’s top lawyer, Ryan Germany, on the evening of Sunday, Jan. 3, after he had listened to the leaked audio.
“I commend you and Ryan Germany for sticking to the state’s position and the plain facts despite the President’s repeated attempts to pressure you into somehow changing the certified votes,” Worley wrote in an email, asking that the secretary of state “open an investigation… to determine whether violations of the provisions… which prohibit solicitation to commit election fraud have occurred.
Worley’s email was immediately forwarded from Raffensperger’s email account to the Washington Post reporter who broke that story, Amy Gardner, leading to a quick follow-up article.
Reached on Wednesday, Raffensperger told The Daily Beast it mattered to him that people were “aware” action was being taken on the phone call. He also said he found it “best” that the Fulton County district attorney has taken up the investigation, as that office will bring “an independent set of eyes” to the incident.
After all, Raffensperger’s entire office was on the receiving end of Trump’s wrath for nearly two months after the November election. And the fact that the state official is a Republican somehow made it even worse, with the president making constant insinuations of betrayal. Trump lied that Georgia was allowing “fraudulent” ballots to be counted, claimed Raffensperger himself was behind a “scam,” and attacked him and the governor for not allowing his team to review voter signatures that “would expose hundreds of thousands of illegal ballots.”
The caustic cacophony reached its highest pitch in December when Raffensperger’s chief operating officer, Gabriel Sterling, who is also a Republican, appeared before TV cameras at the state Capitol to make an emotional plea for the disinformation—and threats of violence it was perpetuating—to stop.
“It has to stop. Mr. President, you have not condemned these actions or this language,” Sterling said then. “Death threats. Physical threats. Intimidation. It’s too much. It’s not right. They’ve lost the moral high ground to claim that it is.”
Those death threats would continue for weeks, unsurprisingly citing Trump’s rhetoric. On the same January weekend that Raffensperger got the call from Trump, local election officials—who were preparing for runoff elections that would eventually determine the future of the U.S. Senate—were reeling from a string of identical emails threatening to bomb polling places.
“This election is f-cking rigged… We are past playing nice,” said the rambling email, which included a threatening reference to TATP, the popular homemade explosive made of triacetone triperoxide.
That email was sent from similarly named accounts to election officials at Bulloch, Cherokee, Paulding, Spalding, Walker, and other counties throughout the state. The threats were shared with the secretary of state’s office and local officials quickly moved to heighten security at polling places, records show.
“We need to find these people. I will not stand by and see our staff and voters threatened or hurt. Please find them!" wrote Deidre Holden, the elections supervisor at Paulding County.
"This is clearly a terroristic threat," remarked Jeff Akins, the top county attorney in Bulloch. That county’s elections chief at the time, Pat Lanier Jones, said she found the email alarming, particularly given that a caller had recently raised her suspicions by asking how exactly her county was transporting ballots.
The matter was referred to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, but emails show that criminal intelligence analysts there ran into a wall within the first few hours.
“Analysts attempted to identify the individual associated with the email address used to send the threats, but all resources to identify the subject were exhausted, and he/she could not be identified,” reads one internal email between law enforcement teams.
This week, the Georgia Bureau of Investigations told The Daily Beast that it referred the case to the FBI, and one email from an elections investigator shows that the FBI was “actively working on this.” (The FBI field office in Atlanta refused to say whether any arrests were ever made.)
Tricia Raffensperger, the secretary of state’s wife, would later reveal to Reuters that she too received death threats, and that members of the right-wing Oath Keepers militia snuck into the home of their daughter-in-law.
“The death threats come with the territory of being an elected official. I got death threats when I was in Congress constantly,” said Jack Kingston, a former U.S. congressman from Georgia who served as an official Trump surrogate during the last presidency.
Kingston, who said he personally knows several of the aforementioned Georgia GOP officials, said it wasn’t like these Republican officials were “at the tarmac in Kabul a week ago.”
“Fortunately the vast majority of these death threats don’t result in anything,” Kingston said. “Most people don’t give a flip about elected officials whining about death threats.”
“But,” the Trump-aligned former congressman added, “when somebody goes to somebody’s house to threaten them, they need to be arrested.”
“It would be very helpful if [Donald Trump] forgave Brian Kemp, and the other Republicans in Georgia who disappointed him,” Kingston said.
Emails show that even mid-level employees were targeted. When a man who declared he had an “act of treason lawsuit” requested copies of public records—and didn’t receive them yet—he called an attorney at the secretary of state’s office and warned her that he knew where she lived. The attorney asked colleagues for help and described the man as “somewhat unstable.” But agency staff concluded that it couldn’t pursue criminal charges against the man, because “it doesn’t appear to be a direct threat.”
The blitz of intimidation and death threats was a development that then-President Trump appeared, at the time, to find either overblown or amusing.
According to a former senior administration official and another source close to the former president, Trump was repeatedly briefed in the White House on the deluge of death threats directed at Georgia’s Republican officials. The 45th U.S. president’s reactions were—predictably—lacking in empathy.
“There was this one time I heard [Trump] suggest they might be exaggerating the kind of threats they were getting. But more often, he’d make fun of them and say they were bad people who were getting what they deserved,” the ex-official recalled.
The person close to Trump said that when the then-president was told about the flood of vulgar or violent threats against officials not cooperating with his anti-democratic efforts, Trump would sometimes remark that if they wanted the threats to stop, all they had to do was what Trump kept demanding of them. The then-president would also praise those issuing threats—“my people”—for harassing and pushing Georgia GOP officials to overturn the state’s legitimate election results in Trump’s favor, this source said, citing firsthand experience.
Due to Trump’s continued popularity among GOP voters, many prominent conservatives who privately blame Trump for the loss of the crucial Senate runoffs in Georgia are publicly keeping their mouths shut about the former president’s ongoing crusade against Kemp, Raffensperger, and others. And others are openly supporting Trump’s charge to purge the GOP of the supposed backstabbers and squishes.
“One of the lessons of Jan. 5 is that a divided party loses,” Kingston said, referring to the Georgia Senate run-off election. “We do not need to go into the gubernatorial or a Senate race with a divided party.”
Although Raffensperger’s top lieutenants have tried to put the Trump fiasco behind them, several of them are still careful to avoid speaking publicly about the ordeal, citing a fear that it will once again incite violent Trump loyalists.
One source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the FBI waited until August to follow up on the death threats and recently asked staff there to resend copies of threatening emails.
In the midst of all the havoc in the closing days of 2020 and start of 2021, agency investigators were also addressing a flurry of real complaints. A Republican supporter said she received a flier from the “Center for Voter Information” that she claimed “was designed unethically to look like an official government supplied document” but actually supported senate candidates Ralph Warnock and Jon Ossoff. That complaint was passed along to the FBI, emails show.
Meanwhile, a Methodist Christian pastor actively involved in local Republican politics submitted a complaint that a group called “Georgia Citizens for Trump” was engaging in voter suppression, emailing people to boycott the upcoming “rigged” election because “President Trump just declared the Georgia Jan. 5 runoff as illegal and invalid.”
A few Georgians also complained that they couldn’t verify their choices were recorded accurately because printed ballots—which are supposed to show a QR code and selected candidates—instead only showed the machine-readable digital code. (The agency on Wednesday told The Daily Beast that in those instances, poll workers should have discarded the uncounted ballots and reprinted them before having them scanned.)
The secretary of state was fielding a ton of feedback—some of it supportive, some of it filled with vitriol—because the state had just concluded its recount showing that Biden was indeed the winner with a 12,284-vote lead. And Trump had refused to accept it, sending a team of conspiracy theorists led by Rudy Giuliani to cast doubt on election results and try to convince the state legislature it should reject them. The same Fulton County DA team investigating Trump is also looking into whether Giuliani broke the law by making false statements to state legislators.
Emails we obtained also show that Georgia’s top elections investigator, Frances Watson, was leading a herculean effort to address the public’s concerns about voter fraud, erroneous ballots and the recount—even as she fielded a phone call from President Trump similar to his later advances on Raffensperger to push his false narrative of victory.
She was working late on Wednesday, Dec. 23, sending an encouraging holiday email to her team before the long weekend. Watson thanked them for “working to accomplish impossible assignments with short deadlines.” “I wish you all a peaceful and happy holidays with your family!” she wrote, sending the note at 8:47pm.
According to an official at the agency, it was just an hour later that she received a phone call from the president in which he asked for an assessment of their effort.
“Do you think they’ll be working after Christmas to keep it going fast? Cause you know, we have that date of the sixth, which is a very important date,” Trump said, referring to the upcoming congressional certification of election results—which was interrupted by violent insurrectionists attacking the nation’s Capitol.
On the call, which Watson recorded, she assured that “I’m going to be working and we’re going to be working.”
“When the right answer comes out, you’ll be praised,” Trump told her, later adding: “Whatever you can do Frances, it would be, uh, it’s a great thing. It’s an important thing for the country.”