May 28, 2024
The law declares that presidents cannot lie to Georgia public officials within the scope of their official duties.

The best way to think about Georgia’s sprawling indictment against Donald Trump and his allies is that it is a case about lies. It’s about lying, conspiring to lie and attempting to coax, coerce and cajole others into lying. Whereas the attorney general of Michigan just brought a case narrowly focused on the alleged fake electors in her state (Trump is not a defendant in that one), and special counsel Jack Smith brought an indictment narrowly focused on Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has brought a case about the entire conspiracy, from start to finish, and targeted each person subject to her jurisdiction for each crime committed in her jurisdiction.

In other words, this indictment is ambitious. But it also answers two related questions: Why bring yet another case against Trump in yet another jurisdiction? Isn’t he going to face a federal trial in Washington, D.C., for the same acts outlined in the Georgia indictment?

The answers lie in the distinctions between state and federal law. Georgia law is in many ways both broader and more focused than the federal statutes at issue in Smith’s case against Trump.

It’s the focus of Georgia law that’s truly dangerous to Trump. The beating heart of the case is the 22 counts focused on false statements, false documents and forgery, with a particular emphasis on a key statute: Georgia Code Section 16-10-20, which prohibits false statements and writings on matters “within jurisdiction of state or political subdivisions.”

Simply put, while you might be able to lie to the public in Georgia — or even lie to public officials on matters outside the scope of their duties — when you lie to state officials about important or meaningful facts in matters they directly oversee, you’re going to risk prosecution. That’s exactly what the indictment claims Trump and his confederates did, time and time again, throughout the election challenge.

The most striking example is detailed in Act 113 of the indictment, which charges Trump with making a series of false statements to Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, and his deputies in Trump’s notorious Jan. 2, 2021, telephone call. Most legal commentators, myself included, focused on that call because it contained a not-so-veiled threat against Raffensperger and his counsel. In recorded comments, Trump told them they faced a “big risk” of criminal prosecution because he claimed they knew about election fraud and were taking no action to stop it.

Willis’ focus, by contrast, is not on the threats, but rather on the lies. And when you read the list of Trump’s purported lies, they are absolutely incredible. His claims aren’t just false; they’re transparently, incandescently stupid. This was not a sophisticated effort to overturn the election. It was a shotgun blast of obvious falsehoods.

Here’s where the legal nuances get rather interesting. While Willis still has to prove intent — the statute prohibits “knowingly and willfully” falsifying material facts — the evidentiary challenge is simpler than in Smith’s federal case against Trump. To meet the requirements of federal law, Smith’s charges must connect any given Trump lie to a larger criminal scheme. Willis, by contrast, merely has to prove that Trump willfully lied about important facts to a government official about a matter in that official’s jurisdiction. That’s a vastly simpler case to make.

If Trump’s comments on Truth Social are any indication, he may well defend the case by arguing that the Georgia election was in fact stolen. He may again claim that the wild allegations he made to Raffensperger were true. That’s a dangerous game. The claims are so easily, provably false that the better course would probably be to argue that Trump was simply asking Raffensperger about the allegations, not asserting them as fact.

But if Trump continues to assert his false claims as fact, then Willis has an ideal opportunity to argue that Trump lied then and is lying now, that he’s insulting the jury’s intelligence just as he insulted the nation’s intelligence when he made his claims in the first place.

For eight long years, Americans have watched Donald Trump lie. Those lies have been morally indefensible, but some may also be legally actionable. Trump’s campaigns and presidency may have been where the truth went to die. But the law lives, and the law declares that Trump cannot lie to Georgia public officials within the scope of their official duties. If Willis can prove that he and his confederates did exactly that, then she will prevail in the broadest, most consequential prosecution in modern American political history.

David French is a New York Times columnist.

Related Articles

Opinion |


Opinion: It’s time to rethink the value of presidential primary debates

Opinion |


Walters: Legislature is avoiding key issues, including fire insurance crisis

Opinion |


Opinion: Sprawling, complex Georgia indictment poses legal challenges

Opinion |


Barabak: Another day, another Trump indictment isn’t some ho-hum event

Opinion |


Opinion: Strikes show need to break up Netflix and other streamers

>