ATLANTA (AP) — It was a bad place to keep a secret.
When Republicans gathered on Dec. 14, 2020, claiming to be legitimate electors casting the state’s 16 electoral votes for Donald Trump, they met at the Georgia Capitol in a room just upstairs from the building’s public entrance. A Trump campaign official asked for the electors’ “complete discretion,” telling them to say only that they were meeting with two state senators who were there.
“Your duties are imperative to ensure the end result — a win in Georgia for President Trump — but will be hampered unless we have complete secrecy and discretion,” Robert Sinners wrote in an email uncovered by investigators.
But reporters for The Associated Press and other news organizations noticed the Republicans entering the building and were eventually admitted into the room, where they photographed and recorded video of the proceeding. In the chaotic weeks after the 2020 election, the gathering’s significance wasn’t immediately clear. But it has emerged as a critical element to the prosecution of Trump and 18 others who were indicted by a Georgia grand jury in August for efforts to overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s narrow win in the state.
The meeting was cited as a central element in court proceedings Friday as part of a last-minute deal with attorney Kenneth Chesebro, who pleaded guilty to one felony charge of conspiracy to commit filing false documents.
Chesebro, who prosecutors have said helped originate the plan for Republican electors to meet in states where Biden was certified as the winner, is now one of three people who have pleaded guilty in the case. Attorney Sidney Powell pleaded guilty Thursday to six misdemeanors accusing her of intentionally interfering with the performance of election duties as part of a broader conspiracy prosecutors say violated Georgia’s anti-racketeering law.
While Democrats met in the ornate state Senate chamber to cast electoral votes for Biden, the Republicans sat around three worn and nicked wooden conference tables to consider options for keeping Trump in the White House. In the words of the case laid out by prosecutors, these were “fake” or “false” or “fraudulent” electors. At least eight Georgia Republican electors present that day have agreed to testify in exchange for immunity from state charges.
The meeting was led by David Shafer, then chairman of the Georgia Republican Party. Lending it the air of an official proceeding, a court reporter was present, something Shafer denied during questioning by Fulton County prosecutors in April 2022. That denial contributed to a charge of false statements and writings against Shafer.
More improvised elements of the meeting became clear as the group considered its officers. Shawn Still, who is now a state senator, wasn’t initially elected as secretary, for instance. But halfway through the meeting, Shafer noted that Still’s name was printed as the secretary on documents.
“I would like to avoid reprinting the documents,” Shafer said, asking the electors to replace another Republican with Still.
One of only three people the grand jury indicted for participating in the vote, Still may have been dragged into legal jeopardy when he was elected secretary. The third indicted elector, Cathy Latham, was also charged for helping outsiders access state voting equipment in south Georgia’s Coffee County.
As the meeting unfolded, the Republicans sought to replace four electors who were previously lined up to support Trump. One had registered to vote in Alabama and was no longer eligible. State Sen. Burt Jones, later elected lieutenant governor with Trump’s backing, took his spot.
Three other electors didn’t show up, including John Isakson Jr., son of late Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. Isakson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2022 that he stayed away because the meeting seemed like “political gamesmanship.”
Prosecutors allege Shafer and Still committed yet more felonies by creating a document claiming to fill those vacancies. State law says that action needed Gov. Brian Kemp’s consent. The Republican governor had days earlier certified Biden as Georgia’s winner for a second time after a recount.
Sinners, the Trump official, printed new elector certificates on a noisy portable printer. The racket of the machine gave the meeting a mundane, bureaucratic feel in an unadorned space usually set aside for state lawmakers to host constituents.
One by one, the 16 Republicans were called. Each rose and walked to the table, signing certificates pronouncing Trump and then-Vice President Mike Pence as the preferred choice of Georgia voters. That’s the moment, grand jurors allege, when they committed the felonies for which they’ve been charged: impersonating a public officer, first degree forgery and making false statements in writing.
“They were fake electors; they were impersonating electors. They were no electors,” Fulton County prosecutor Anna Cross told a federal judge in September, adding there was no evidence that Shafer, Still, Latham or other Republicans believed Trump had actually won.
Their defenders call them “alternate” or “contingent” electors, saying they were just trying to keep Trump’s legal options open as a lawsuit challenged Georgia’s election results. Some Republicans argue Trump never got a fair shake in Georgia because that lawsuit was never tried, despite a state law calling for election challenges to be heard within 20 days. A Georgia Republican Party website raising money to defend electors calls them “patriots who served.”
“If we did not hold this meeting, then our election contest would effectively be abandoned,” Shafer said during the December meeting, talking to attorney Ray Smith, who was there advising the electors and was also indicted. “And so the only way for us to have any judge consider the merits of our complaint, the thousands of people who we allege voted unlawfully, is for us to have this meeting.”
Shafer defended his actions then and now by citing an episode that played out in Hawaii in 1960. Democrats met that year after Republican Richard Nixon was certified as the state’s winner and sent three electoral votes to the U.S. Senate backing John F. Kennedy.
Todd Zywicki, a law professor at George Mason University in Virginia, signed a July 11 declaration concluding actions by Shafer and other Georgia Republican electors were “lawful, reasonable, proper and necessary” considering the election contest and the Hawaii precedent.
Lawyers for the indicted electors argue it was up to Congress to determine which slates should be counted.
But Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ office, in a court filing, disputed Shafer’s claim that the actions of Georgia Republicans in 2020 bore any similarity to those of Hawaii Democrats in 1960. Her staff cites a major distinction — Democrats eventually won a recount in Hawaii that a court affirmed and the governor certified, sending official documents to the Senate.
“The factual situations are so readily distinguishable as to make the comparison meaningless,” Willis’ team wrote, arguing against Shafer’s attempt to remove his case to federal court. Willis’ office wrote that the Republican meeting “was used to further a clumsy but relentless pressure campaign on the vice president and state legislatures, and as a means to publicly undermine the legitimate results of the presidential election.”
Sinners, the Trump campaign staffer who helped arrange the meeting, now rejects its purpose. He denies the notion that Trump won Georgia and now works for Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state who came to national attention for rebuffing pressure from the then-president to “find” enough votes to ensure his win. Sinners cooperated with the U.S. House committee that investigated the violent insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. He hasn’t said whether he’s cooperating with Willis.
In an interview, he made his regrets clear about what unfolded in the Georgia Capitol during one of the most turbulent periods in American politics.
“This was an ill-advised attempt by the former president’s campaign to create a false reality — a victory,” Sinners said.