Saturday, August 19, 2023

A very imperfect phone call

What you can learn about communication from listening to Trump’s 2001 call with Georgia election officials

I just listened again to Trump’s Jan. 3, 2001 phone call with the Georgia Secretary of State to discuss voting irregularities in November 2000’s presidential election – won by Joe Biden.

This hour-long call, recorded by the Georgia side, preserves live evidence of Trump’s lies about the election, his disregard for protocol, his arrogance, and his willingness to bully and threaten any honest administrators who stand in his way.

And now we know the call will likely end up being key evidence in Trump’s upcoming criminal trial in Georgia for his efforts to overturn the election results.

But the call is also a faithful record of a neurotic fraudster hard at work, used to getting his own way.

As a professional communicator, here are my observations about Trump’s historic call. 

·       When trying to influence other people’s behaviour, you should listen hard to what they say, and work diligently to earn their trust. Trump, by contrast, probably spoke for 50 minutes of the 60-minute call, offering examples after examples (all unproven and unsupported by any evidence) of Democratic cheating and ballot-box stuffing. His Big Lie: “Everyone knows I won the state by hundreds of thousands of votes.”

When Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger tried to get a word in edgewise, Trump would simply interrupt, pointing (without details) to all the official sources and YouTube videos that supposedly prove his charges. He never bothered to listen. He never asked Raffensperger to explain what steps Georgia had taken to assure the legality of the election. He had become too used to dictating outcomes.

·       A phone call with Trump can be very intimidating. With his booming voice and confident air, he’s a hard man to argue with. He runs roughshod over your assertions the same way he owns the media, by ignoring your arguments and pressing his own talking points again and again. His sources are always “Everybody says,” “very smart people say,” “everybody knows this,” and “you know this is true.”

“It’s very simple,” Trump kept repeating. “We won the election.”

·       “Now you know it.” To support his case. Trump told a number of horror stories, about cheating by Dominion voting machines, Democratic vote dumps, ballot-fixing by one election worker, and even a dump of military and overseas votes that Trump argued should have all gone to him. “Maybe you didn’t know that,” he said, “but now you know it.” This suggests that Trump still believes, despite his reputation as a serial liar, that when he states something, that’s equivalent to it being an unqualified fact – or at least should be perceived that way. His self-confidence is admirable, but his ability to delude himself is somewhat less so.

·       Of course, what works in a press scrum or at a Trump rally isn't as effective when dealing with sophisticated, articulate professionals. Trump kept punching, but he wasn’t smart enough to land a single blow. Georgia election officials had already re-counted the ballots and reviewed supposed irregularities, and they stood by their statement that Biden won the state fairly. Finding himself facing ethical people who knew their stuff, Trump had no idea what to do except… up the ante.

·      Trump aimed threat after threat at the Georgia officials. “You're approving an illegal election… Georgians know it … the people of Georgia are so angry…. They will hate you.” He also suggested that they should change the result soon, to avoid angering state Republicans who would be voting in two senate runoff votes a few days later. (Both seats were won narrowly by Democratic candidates, crucially shifting the balance of power to the Dems).” The final threat: that both Raffensperger and his lawyer, who was also on the call as a voice of reason, could face legal jeopardy for supporting an illegitimate election outcome. Defending Biden’s victory, he warned darkly, “could be very costly in many ways.”

 Had Trump tried to reason with the Georgia team rather than threaten them, how might history have changed? The Senate elections a few days later might have gone different ways: the Democrats won one election by just 1% of the vote and the other election by just 2%.

        ·      The Georgia team remained calm and steadfast. “Mr. President, you have people that submit information, and we have our people that submit information, and then it comes before a court. And the court then has to make a determination. We have to stand by our numbers, we believe our numbers are right.”

Trump’s rebuttal: “Your numbers aren’t right, they’re really wrong. And they’re really wrong, Brad… Ultimately, I win, because you guys are so wrong, and you have treated the population of Georgia so badly.” Then he went on to complain about what a mistake it had been to endorse Georgia’s governor in the last election… proof that if you let a blowhard talk long enough, he will usually just lose his focus and his way.

 ·        Of course, Trump also played the party card. Knowing he was dealing with Republicans, he added, “Why don't you want to find this? What’s wrong with you?” It’s a clear insight into Trump’s belief that loyalty to party should rank above one’s obligation to the public or democracy. (Unless, of course, he’s the one being disloyal to the party.)

·       When Trump saw his bullying wasn’t working, he resorted to bargaining. “Brad, what are we going to do? We won the election, and it’s not fair to take it away from us like this.”

How his lawyers must have squirmed when Trump pleaded, “I just want to find 11,780 votes” (the difference between his vote count and Biden’s).

 ·       At the end, the lawyers on the call agreed to meet again the next day to review the evidence on both sides. But it was clear Georgia’s officials weren't going to budge. Trump tried to play the statesman by saying, “Brad, we just want the truth. It’s simple.” But then Trump revealed that only he gets to define what is the truth. “The truth is that I won by 400,000 votes.”


I’ve always maintained that Trump’s narcissism, ego and lack of self-awareness make him the opposite of a successful entrepreneur. Great leaders tell the truth, listen to others, prize reputation over ambition, and guard their integrity. With none of those virtues, Trump will go down in history as a historic loser.

PS: Kudos to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who defied Trump, party interests and the MAGA mob to defend the truth. Just the other day he tweeted: "The most basic principles of a strong democracy are accountability and respect for the Constitution and rule of law. You either have it, or you don’t.”

(I just learned that Raffensperger graduated from engineering at the University of Western Ontario. Go Mustangs!)

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