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Trump creates a sequel to 'I would like you to do us a favor, though'

Richard Nixon's Watergate tapes were obviously a turning point in history. By most measures, Trump's new tape is worse.
Image: Donald Trump in Oval Office
President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office on Aug. 27, 2018.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images file

Early yesterday morning, Donald Trump published a tweet acknowledging a conversation he had with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) a day earlier. According to the president's version of events, Raffensperger "was unwilling, or unable, to answer questions" about assorted conspiracy theories because the Georgia Republican "has no clue."

We now know for certain that's not what happened during the phone meeting.

President Donald Trump begged Georgia's secretary of state to overturn the election results in an astounding hourlong phone call obtained Sunday by NBC News in which the president offered a smorgasbord of false claims about voter fraud and repeatedly berated state officials.... Trump even suggested that Raffensperger, who is a Republican, may face criminal consequences should he refuse to intervene in accordance with Trump's wishes.

The Washington Post, which first broke the story yesterday, posted the full recording and transcript of the 62-minute phone meeting, and it's worth reviewing in full to appreciate just how scandalous Trump's misconduct was during Saturday's call.

At one point, the president is heard suggesting to GOP officials in Georgia he wants someone to "find" votes that would flip the state Trump lost in November. He added to Raffensperger, "[T]here's nothing wrong with saying, you know, um, that you've recalculated."

In the same call, the recording features the president threatening Raffensperger if he refused to help rig the results in Trump's favor. Specifically, the president pointed to a baseless conspiracy theory -- the destruction of ballots in Fulton County -- and urged Raffensperger and Ryan Germany, the secretary of state's general counsel, to endorse the made-up claim.

"That's a criminal offense," Trump said. "And you can't let that happen. That's a big risk to you and to Ryan, your lawyer."

Raffensperger, a conservative Republican, did his best to reason with the president, and explain that his conspiracy theories were baseless. Trump -- who made ridiculous comments about, among other things, parts of Dominion voting machines -- didn't care, insisting he believes what he's learned by way of "Trump media."

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say this is among the most scandalous recordings ever made of an American president. The public has now heard the outgoing president, desperate to claim power he didn't earn, exploring ways to cheat, and begging others to participate in his anti-democracy scheme.

Richard Nixon's Watergate tapes were obviously a turning point in history. By most measures, these new revelations are considerably worse. The abuse is direct and unambiguous. The corruption is overt and deliberate. The recording is a bit like a glorified confession. We've known for weeks that Trump has been engaged in a lobbying effort, targeting state officials in the hopes that they'll overturn election results he doesn't like, but it wasn't until yesterday that we heard the precise nature of his perverse pitch -- which includes elements of madness, extortion, and fraud.

It's the kind of scandal that touches several bases at once:

* Trump's doing what he's accusing his opponents of doing: The irony of the circumstances should be lost on no one. After two months of accusing others of engaging in election fraud, and trying to "steal" the election from the rightful victors by way of "found" votes, Trump has been caught on tape trying to engage in election fraud, with the intention of stealing the election from the rightful victors after urging allies to "find" votes.

* The president's conduct may very well be illegal: Legal experts can speak to this with more authority than I can, but soliciting election fraud is a crime. The Washington Post report noted, "Trump's conversation with Raffensperger put him in legally questionable territory, legal experts said. By exhorting the secretary of state to 'find' votes and to deploy investigators who 'want to find answers,' Trump appears to be encouraging him to doctor the election outcome in Georgia."

Politico had a related report, adding, "President Donald Trump's effort ... could run afoul of federal and state criminal statutes, according to legal experts and lawmakers, who expressed alarm at Trump's effort to subvert democracy with less than three weeks left in his term."

* This appears to be the sequel to "I would like you to do us a favor, though": The parallels between Trump's phone meeting with Raffensperger over the weekend and his 2019 phone meeting with Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelensky -- which led to the Republican's impeachment -- are striking. With the Ukrainian president, Trump made vague threats to an ally in the hopes he'd help Trump cheat. With the Georgia secretary of state, the American president did the exact same thing.

* He's still ignoring his actual job: Keep in mind that this phone meeting occurred just two days ago. In other words, on Jan. 2, 2021, Trump continued to ignore his day job -- overseeing the executive branch of a global superpower during multiple crises, including a deadly pandemic -- in order to extend a legally dubious lobbying campaign to give him illegitimate power.

* Trump clearly isn't preparing for a peaceful transition of power: Joe Biden's Inauguration Day is in two weeks, and instead of preparing for a peaceful transition of power, the outgoing president is peddling corrupt schemes to election officials -- suggesting he still believes there's a chance he'll hold power after his failed term is up. Indeed, on the recording, Trump sounds absolutely desperate, peddling bonkers ideas and making subtle threats, as if he perceives the near future is still up for grabs. He literally told Raffensperger at one point during Saturday's call, "We have other states that I believe will be flipping to us very shortly."

There's no reason to see this as a one-day story. On the contrary, there are plenty of questions that will deserve scrutiny as the process moves forward: What, if anything, will Congress do in response to these revelations? What might federal prosecutors do in response? How much related corruption has Trump engaged in, which we don't yet know about because there's no tape?

Will there be any kind of accountability for misconduct this brazen? Is there a point to a presidential impeachment process for an incumbent who'll be out of office in 16 days?

Finally, there are congressional Republicans to consider. The last time Americans heard a presidential recording like this, it was 1974, and Nixon was forced by a unanimous Supreme Court ruling to give up his Watergate tapes. Soon after, GOP leaders were at his doorstep, telling him his presidency was over.

Nearly a half-century later, it's likely contemporary Republicans will prefer to echo Trump's manic nonsense and pretend that the new recording is benign.