Lawyers for Fake Trump Electors Hint at Defense Strategy in Georgia Case

Lawyers for three Georgia Republicans charged in a racketeering indictment for casting false Electoral College votes for former President Donald J. Trump offered a glimpse of their defense strategy on Wednesday, telling a federal judge that they submitted the votes as part of their “duty” under federal law.

The three defendants — David Shafer, the former chairman of the Georgia Republican Party; Cathy Latham, a party activist from a rural part of the state; and State Senator Shawn Still — were among 16 Republicans recruited to cast electoral votes for Mr. Trump at the Georgia State Capitol on Dec. 14, 2020, the same day that the legitimate electors for President Biden met to cast their votes for him.

The three are among 19 people, including Mr. Trump, who were charged last month in an indictment that sketches out a multifaceted scheme to illegally overturn the former president’s 2020 election loss in Georgia. Crucial to the plan, the indictment says, was an effort to recruit Trump loyalists to “convene and cast false Electoral College votes” in Georgia.

On Wednesday morning, lawyers for the three fake electors squared off against prosecutors from the Fulton County district attorney’s office in a hearing over whether the three were serving as “federal officers.” Such a designation could allow them to move their cases from state court to the federal system, where the jury pool would be somewhat more supportive of Mr. Trump.

The defense lawyers are hoping that Judge Steve C. Jones of U.S. District Court will move the case to federal court — or throw out their clients’ cases completely.

At the hearing, the lawyers for the would-be electors said that their clients had believed they were legally preserving Mr. Trump’s rights in case a lawsuit challenging the election at the time ended up in his favor.

That lawsuit was filed by Mr. Trump and Mr. Shafer four days before the so-called safe harbor deadline of Dec. 8, 2020, when state-level election challenges were supposed to be wrapped up. Craig Gillen, a lawyer for Mr. Shafer, noted that a judge had not ruled on the lawsuit by the deadline. Therefore, he argued, Georgia, under federal law, lost its authority to decide who the legitimate electors were.

That made it incumbent upon the Republican electors to cast votes for Mr. Trump, he said, so that Congress could decide which electoral votes from Georgia to ultimately count.

“They did their duty,” Mr. Gillen said, arguing that they should be considered “contingent electors,” and not “fake electors,” as described by prosecutors and reporters.

“It’s just too easy to say ‘fake’ without digging into what the law says,” he said.

Anna Cross, a special prosecutor, countered that the electors had acted not out of duty, but in their own self-interest, and in the interest of their preferred candidate. She called the lawsuit filed by Mr. Shafer and Mr. Trump “meritless,” and said that the filing of such a suit just before the deadline should not be allowed to cause electoral “chaos.” (The lawsuit was voluntarily withdrawn by the plaintiffs on Jan. 7, 2021.)

Not only were the electors not federal officials, Ms. Cross said, but they “were no electors at all.”

While the hearing played out in federal court, pretrial jockeying continued in state court, where defense lawyers are seeking other ways to strengthen their hand as an Oct. 23 trial date for two of the 19 defendants, the lawyers Sidney Powell and Kenneth Chesebro, approaches. On Tuesday, Judge Scott McAfee of Fulton County Superior Court ruled that defense lawyers could interview members of the grand jury that returned the indictment against Mr. Trump and his co-defendants — but only those who were willing to be questioned.

On Wednesday, the office of Fani T. Willis, the Fulton County district attorney, filed a notice pointing to potential conflicts of interest for several of the defense lawyers, though it was unclear if any were serious enough to merit action from Judge McAfee. Many of the suggested conflicts related to having prior connections to witnesses who might be called to testify during a trial.

One of the state’s witnesses mentioned in the filing was L. Lin Wood, one of the lawyers who sought to overturn Mr. Trump’s 2020 election loss. After the election, Mr. Wood, who was not charged in the case, embraced conspiracy theories and extreme rhetoric, at one point calling for putting former Vice President Mike Pence before a firing squad.

In an interview, Mr. Wood said that he had been subpoenaed to testify but that he has nothing worthwhile to say.

“A lot of people are putting out stories that I’m a government snitch or I flipped on President Trump,” he said. “That’s just errant nonsense.”

Last year, Mr. Wood testified before a special grand jury that heard from 75 witnesses as part of the investigation into election interference in Georgia.

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