The hearing yesterday on the motion of former Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to remove his case to federal court from Georgia state court had a number of notable moments. The testimony of both Meadows and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger offered insights into the case brought by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis. While I have said that the sweeping indictment contains some serious allegations of criminal conduct against individual defendants, I have been critical of its broad scope and its implications for free speech in future challenges to elections. Unsupported legal claims may be sanctionable in court, but they have not been treated as crimes. What was most striking is that Raffensperger confirmed a key aspect of “the call” with Georgia officials that I previously raised about the purpose of that call. For his part, Meadows categorically denied key allegations made by Willis in the indictment.
The hearing confirmed, as I have noted, that there are good-faith arguments on both sides of the removal issue. In my view, Meadows and his counsel, George J. Terwilliger III, did well overall in showing that Chief of Staff has a broad portfolio of responsibilities and it is not possible to dismiss all of the cited actions in this indictment as purely political and not involving official conduct. Yet, as U.S. District Judge Steve Jones noted, there is little clarity on this issue in terms of precedent and we will have to await his decision. There will likely be an appeal of any order.
I thought both Meadows and Raffensperger did well on the stand. I was particularly interested in Raffensperger’s description of the call. I have always supported Raffensperger on his position in that call and the decisions of his staff. I have also rejected the claims of former President Donald Trump on the election allegations and his claims in the call.
Despite the recent attack in the Washington Post, it is not the merits of Trump’s claims but the use of the call as a criminal act that drew my criticism. The call was misrepresented by the Post and the transcript later showed that Trump was not simply demanding that votes be added to the count but rather asking for another recount or continued investigation. Again, I disagreed with that position but the words about the finding of 11,780 votes was in reference to what he was seeking in a continued investigation. Critics were enraged by the suggestion that Trump was making the case for a recount as opposed to just demanding the addition of votes to the tally or fraudulent findings.
Raffensperger described the call in the same terms. He correctly described the call as “extraordinary” in a president personally seeking such an investigation, particularly after the completion of the earlier recount. That is manifestly true. However, he also acknowledged that this was a “settlement negotiation.”
So what was the subject of the settlement talks? Another recount or further investigation. The very thing that critics this week were apoplectic about in the coverage. That does not mean that Trump had grounds for the demand. Trump’s participation in the call was extraordinary and his demands were equally so. However, the reference to the vote deficit in demanding continued investigation was a predictable argument in such a settlement negotiation. As I previously stated, I have covered such challenges for years as a legal analyst for CBS, NBC, BBC, and Fox. Unsupported legal claims may be sanctionable in court, but they have not been treated as crimes.
The question is whether engaging in such arguments in a settlement discussion is a criminal act. This was a settlement call with lawyers on why officials should reexamine the votes and allegations of wrongdoing. While pundits continue to bizarrely stress that that the word “recount” was not used, the transcript shows that Trump was still arguing for an additional recount or investigation as these officials explained that it would not help or produce any different outcome. They were right.
Meadows made news in his categorical denial of key allegations in the indictment. First, he denied that he ever asked White House personnel officer John McEntee to draft a memo to Vice President Mike Pence on how to delay certification of the election. He insisted under oath that it “just didn’t happen.”
He also said he did not text the Georgia Secretary of State’s office chief investigator, Frances Watson. He said that the text likely came from Jordan Fuchs, the deputy secretary of state.
The testimony highlighted the weakness, in my view, of the charges against Meadows but also the use of overarching racketeering charges to snare Trump and top associates.
The most interesting takeaway is that Willis may have overplayed her hand by including Meadows. In doing so, she may have created the strongest avenue for removal. I believe that she hoped that Meadows would “flip.” Instead, he is leading the charge to federal court. Even if Judge Jones denies the motion, it can now be appealed and there are solid arguments here in his favor. If Willis showed greater restraint, she could have omitted Meadows and the strongest claim for removal. If he succeeds, it strengthens the case for others to seek removal.
Moreover, the case against Meadows simply does not seem all that compelling from the indictment. While she may have additional evidence, he currently seems a relatively weak link in her chain of conspiracy.