Washington, D.C. After more than a year of interviews with key advisers to the previous president and state officials nationwide, a target letter delivered to Donald Trump implies that a broad Justice Department investigation into attempts to rig the 2020 election is focusing on him.
In recent months, federal prosecutors have questioned witnesses about a chaotic White House meeting where the topic of seizing voting equipment and the role of lawyers in plots to thwart the transfer of power were discussed, according to sources familiar with the investigation. In addition to interviewing state election officials who were subjected to pressure over the election results in the days leading up to the riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, they also discussed with witnesses plans by Trump associates to recruit slates of Republican fake electors in battleground states won by Democrats Joe Biden.
Although it is unknown how long the investigation by special counsel Jack Smith would endure, its gravity was made plain on Tuesday when Trump revealed that he had gotten a letter from the Justice Department informing him that he was a target of the inquiry. Such letters frequently come before formal criminal charges; in the case of Trump, one came before his indictment last month on suspicion of illegally hoarding sensitive information at his Florida estate Mar-a-Lago.
The investigation’s breadth contrasts sharply with Smith’s considerably more focused research into secret documents, even if it’s unclear when charges would be brought. The wide variety of witnesses serves as a reminder of the turbulent two months between Trump’s defeat in the election and the Capitol insurrection. During this time, some of his lawyers and advisers supported his vain attempts to retain the presidency. Many others pleaded with him to step down or were relentlessly badgered to help change the outcome.
Smith’s representative declined to comment on the target letter or the depositions.
Even before Smith took over the investigation into election interference last November, Justice Department investigators had already spoken with numerous members of the Trump administration, including the chief of staff to former Vice President Mike Pence and former top lawyers at the White House. They had also examined post-election fundraising and confiscated numerous lawyers’ and officials’ cell phones as potential evidence.
Since then, Smith’s team has questioned key administration officials, including Vice President Pence, before a grand jury in Washington. A wide range of witnesses from outside the federal government have also been interviewed by him, including Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani and election officials in places where Trump aides unsuccessfully attempted to have results overturned in favor of the incumbent Republican.
Smith’s team has reportedly spoken with the Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who was personally urged by Trump to “find 11,780 votes” to defeat Biden, as well as the Secretaries of State of Michigan Jocelyn Benson and New Mexico Maggie Toulouse Oliver.
Federal investigators have met with Wisconsin’s chief election administrator and election officials in Milwaukee and Madison. Smith’s team has also gotten in touch with former Republican governor of Arizona Doug Ducey, who reportedly ignored a call from the Trump White House as he was formally certifying Biden’s slim victory in the state.
According to someone familiar with Smith’s investigation, prosecutors recently showed interest in Ruby Freeman’s experience as a Georgia election worker. Ruby Freeman and her daughter described to a committee of the House of Representatives on January 6 how their lives were completely turned upside down after Trump and his allies used surveillance footage to make since-disproven claims of voter fraud.
A copy of the subpoena obtained by The Associated Press states that Smith’s team has asked Raffensperger’s office for any “security video or security footage, or any other video of any kind” from State Farm Arena in Atlanta on November 3, 2020. That is the clip that Giuliani and other Trump supporters believe shows Freeman and other Fulton County election workers taking “suitcases of ballots” from beneath a table. Georgian authorities have debunked these allegations.
According to persons familiar with the inquiry who, like other people contacted for the story, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing criminal investigation, investigators have consistently been interested in the role played by Trump-allied lawyers in aiding him in maintaining power.
A dubious legal theory put forth by Republican law professor John Eastman claimed that Pence might stop the certification of state electoral votes to prevent Biden’s victory. Another attorney, Sidney Powell, peddled unfounded allegations of voter fraud and advanced the notion that Trump could take state voting equipment under an earlier executive order vehemently resisted by Trump’s attorneys in the White House.
Eastman’s attorney, Charles Burnham, stated on Tuesday that his client had not received a target letter. He said we don’t anticipate one because voicing concerns about electoral irregularities is not currently and never has been sanctionable. Powell’s attorney declined to comment.
People familiar with the situation indicated that numerous witnesses had been questioned at a contentious meeting at the White House on December 18, 2020, during which outside advisers—including Powell—raised the idea of voting machines. The conference, which turned into a shouting fight, was a key topic of the House probe on January 6, with former White House official Cassidy Hutchinson remarking that it was “unhinged.”
According to a person familiar with his account, during a voluntary interview with Smith’s team, Giuliani, a Trump lawyer who attended the meeting and led legal challenges to the election results, was asked about that meeting and also provided details to prosecutors about Powell’s involvement in unsuccessful attempts to overturn the results. A target letter has not been sent to Giuliani.
According to the source, Giuliani’s interview was a component of a “proffer agreement,” in which a witness cooperates with investigators in exchange for prosecutors agreeing not to utilize their testimony in future criminal proceedings. Similar agreements have been negotiated by prosecutors with other witnesses.
Prosecutors have concentrated on manufacturing phony electors from important states taken by Biden, who Trump and his allies employed to sign bogus certificates claiming that Trump had truly won as they probe Trump associates’ attempts to undermine Biden’s triumph.