If the ninety-eight-page indictment by Fani T. Willis, district attorney for Fulton County, Georgia, of Donald Trump, Rudolph Giuliani, and seventeen other people is ever made into a movie, it should be called The Framing of Ruby Freeman. Willis gives names to, and levels charges at, some of the people who appear anonymously in Jack Smith’s federal indictment of Trump. She brings more characters into her cast of racketeers. But her plot follows the same contours. The methods used to try to overturn the election of Joe Biden as president of the United States in November 2020 are by now familiar: making claims of electoral fraud that were themselves knowingly fraudulent, leaning on election officials to “find” votes for Trump, creating fake electors, pressuring the vice president Mike Pence not to certify the results. What makes the Willis indictment different is that its story is not only a grand narrative of what Smith characterizes as an attempt to defraud the United States. It is also the tale of a frame-up, a grotesque travesty of justice in which the power of government was used to traduce and attempt to destroy an innocent and defenseless citizen.
As such, it tells us not just what Trump did to try to hold onto power, but also what he will do if he ever gets hold of it again. There are big constitutional, political, and policy matters at stake in his campaign to return to the White House. But the kind of authoritarian rule he is trying to establish always comes down in the end to what happens to small, inconvenient people, those who become what Freeman was called in the Trump campaign against her: “a loose end.” They are lied about, criminalized, terrorized, threatened, and smeared—not by private gangs but by a gangsterized government. These are the things that happened to Ruby Freeman. What is at stake in the Georgia indictment is whether those who inflicted these intimate cruelties can get away with it and, therefore, be free to do it again.
Shortly after the presidential election of November 2020 Kay Kirkpatrick, a Republican state senator in Georgia, passed a complaint of electoral fraud to the office of the secretary of state, her fellow Republican Brad Raffensperger. It included photographic stills from social media posts purportedly showing Freeman, a sixty-two-year-old woman who was working for $16 an hour as a temporary election worker, fraudulently tampering with the counting of votes in the State Farm Arena in Atlanta. On December 10, 2020, Giuliani, as Willis puts it, “knowingly, willfully, and unlawfully” claimed that after counting had ended for the night surveillance video footage caught Freeman, her daughter Shaye Moss, and an unidentified man “quite obviously surreptitiously passing around USB ports as if they’re vials of heroin or cocaine” to be used to “infiltrate the crooked Dominion voting machines.” (Why the Dominion systems had to be infiltrated surreptitiously when they were already, as the Trump campaign insisted, rigged is a detail Giuliani never explained.)
Kirkpatrick also passed on to Raffensperger’s office Instagram posts in which Freeman appeared to boast that she and her daughter “did something to change history and we will not be silent and allow evil to control this country,” and “Thank God my baby had a plan and today we put that plan in action after those Trump supporting [sic] and Fox News thought they won and left the building.” These posts seemed to prove not just that Freeman and Moss had conspired to corrupt the election count but that they were brazenly proud of their handiwork.
In responding this week to Willis’s indictment, Giuliani tweeted that it is “the next chapter in a book of lies with the purpose of framing President Donald Trump.” That’s an interesting choice of words, consistent with the standard Trump tactic of naming one’s own crimes while projecting them onto others. For one of the most egregious aspects of the conspiracy to overturn the result of the election in Georgia is this attempt to stitch up Freeman and Moss for nonexistent crimes. Although Willis’s narrative of malfeasance ranges even more widely than Smith’s federal indictment, it also allows us to zoom in on the sheer cruelty of what Trump, Giuliani, and their gaggle of lawyers and operatives were willing to do to ordinary people who stood in their way. The damage to the American republic is the panoramic wide shot, but in this close-up, we can see a particular kind of ugliness with a specific American history: Black people being framed, and publicly punished, for other people’s crimes.
Following Kirkpatrick’s complaint, Raffensberger’s office opened a criminal investigation into Freeman and Moss. The potential charges they faced came under three headings: conspiracy to commit election fraud, fraud by poll officers, and the use of counterfeit ballots. Conviction on the second of these offenses alone could have resulted in Freeman and Moss going to prison for up to ten years. “Teams of investigators” from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and the secretary of state’s office were employed to look into these alleged crimes. Two law-abiding Black women were potentially facing the loss of their liberty, reputations, and livelihoods.
The “evidence” against Freeman and Moss was entirely bogus. Counting of votes had not, as the Trump campaign alleged, stopped when the video was shot. The county election director had instructed Freeman, Moss and other workers to retrieve ballots that had been packed away in anticipation of counting being suspended for the night and to take them to the scanners to be recorded. All of this was perfectly in order and a subsequent hand count of votes showed that there were no discrepancies and that no fake ballots were scanned.
As for Freeman’s supposed Instagram posts, the criminal investigation found that a man whose name is redacted from its findings had created a phony account called @rubyfreeman_georgia. On December 4, a month after the election, this man (as he told the FBI) came across another account (also not Freeman’s) that had posted her fake “confession.” The name of this second account was then changed to @rubyfreeman_georgia. Subsequently, the first man “described his account as being a fake or parody account.” This sequence of events still seems somewhat murky (and Willis does not deal with it in her indictment) but there is no doubt that more than one person was involved in inventing and disseminating the Instagram “confession” that Kirkpatrick used as part of her complaint against Freeman and Moss and that helped to bolster Trump’s wider claims of a rigged election.
The report into the criminal investigation that cleared Freeman and Moss of any wrongdoing whatever was not completed until March 7, 2023, and not published until June 20. This means that the threat of imprisonment continued to hang over the two women for more than two years. In December 2020 and January 2021, they were relentlessly targeted as the devious criminals who had stolen Trump’s victory in Georgia. As Willis records, on December 10 Giuliani showed the edited version of the video to members of the Georgia house of representatives and directly named Freeman and Moss as the alleged fraudsters. On January 2, in a now infamous call to Raffensperger and other Georgia officials, Trump claimed that Freeman was “a professional vote scammer and hustler,” that “she stuffed the ballot boxes,” and that, in Willis’s words, “Freeman, her daughter, and others were responsible for fraudulently awarding at least 18,000 ballots” to Joe Biden.
Between them, Trump and Giuliani thus had Freeman engaged in four different kinds of vote-tampering: stuffing ballot boxes with fake votes; taking fraudulent ballots from “suitcases” she had hidden under tables; scanning the same ballots multiple times; and using USB flash drives to access and interfere with the electronic voting machines. The combination of these techniques would make Freeman not a low-level scammer but a criminal mastermind, able to conceive and implement a multidimensional plan to generate false Biden ballots, transport them in suitcases into the State Farm Arena, tamper with the scanning machines so that they would record the same ballots more than once, and somehow interfere with the software codes of the Dominion counting machines—and to do all this under the gaze of cameras, election officials, party monitors, and the media. While themselves trying to steal the election, Trump and Giuliani were trying to create for the American public an action movie in which they were battling heroically to save democracy from a female version of Lex Luthor or Keyser Söze.
Was it accidental that this arch-villain happened to be African American? Hardly. If the Trump campaign genuinely believed that something dodgy was being done at the counting center, the obvious person to target was the man who gave the instructions to continue the count: the elections director, Rick Barron. But Barron, a suave-looking white man, did not fit the casting requirements. (This did not subsequently save Barron from relentless harassment by Trump supporters because he honorably defended Freeman and Moss. He resigned in despair last year.) On the other hand, Giuliani’s choice of a lurid simile, in which Freeman and Moss were allegedly passing USB devices “as if they’re vials of heroin or cocaine,” linked them to familiar tropes of Black drug dealers.
But the salience of race is even harder to miss in Willis’s explication of the alleged conspirators’ attempts to “turn” Freeman. The indictment sets out how the Trump team, having framed Freeman and her daughter, then offered to “help” her if she would do what they wanted. The plan was to “to harass Freeman, intimidate her, and solicit her to falsely confess to election crimes that she did not commit.” An explicit part of the plan involved using Black members of Trump’s racket to offer her this deal.
One of the alleged conspirators, Stephen Lee, a white pastor who got involved in the attempts to get Freeman to “confess,” told Harrison Floyd, a leader of Black Voices for Trump, “that Freeman was afraid to talk to [Lee] because he was a white man.” Floyd then recruited a Black woman, Trevian Kutti, a former publicist for Kanye West and R. Kelly and a self-identified member of “the Young Black Leadership Council under President Donald Trump,” to travel from Chicago to Freeman’s home in Georgia. Freeman, who had been understandably frightened by a barrage of online and personal threats, did not answer her door, but called a neighbor who spoke to Kutti. Kutti “falsely stated that she was a crisis manager attempting to ‘help’ Freeman before leaving Freeman’s home.” Later that day, Kutti called Freeman on the phone to tell her that she was “in danger.”
Before agreeing to meet Kutti, Freeman called the police and, according to a Reuters report by Jason Szep and Linda So, told the dispatcher, “They’re saying that I need help, that it’s just a matter of time that they are going to come out for me and my family.” Freeman then agreed to meet with Kutti in the safety of a police station. The beginning of the encounter was captured on a police body camera, which recorded Kutti telling Freeman that it may be necessary to move her and members of her family from her home, and that “You are a loose end for a party that needs to tidy up.” Kutti, before putting Freeman on the phone with Floyd, describes him to her as a “Black progressive crisis manager.” Another piece of theater was being staged, one in which Kutti and Floyd acted out for Freeman the roles of concerned Black brothers and sisters.
The quid pro quo for this show of solidarity was that Freeman would sign a fraudulent and self-incriminating statement vindicating the allegations made against her by Trump and Giuliani. “If you don’t tell everything,” Freeman remembered Kutti insisting, “you’re going to jail.” As so often in this whole story, there is a bizarre circularity to the conspiracy: what Willis alleges here is a crime committed by trying to force Freeman to herself commit the crime of making false claims about a crime of electoral fraud she did not commit. But in all of this dizzyingly convoluted plotting, it is abundantly clear that the desired outcome for the Trump team was a spectacle familiar from totalitarian states: a repentant traitor confessing to her crimes against the great leader. The special American twist would be that the self-confessed vile conniver would be a Black woman who tried to bring down a president who had long played with white supremacist tropes. It was no accident that many of the pro-Trump attacks on Freeman and Moss on social media not only used racist epithets but explicitly called for them to be lynched: “YOU SHOULD BE HUNG OR SHOT FOR YOUR CRIMES.”
If there are any conservatives left in the United States, they owe it to themselves to read at least these parts of the indictment and to think carefully about what happened to Freeman and her daughter. Conservatives are supposed to distrust above all the overweening power of the state and its capacity to crush individuals, strip them of their rights and reputations, threaten their families, and break their wills. The plot against Freeman has elements of the Mafia behavior that Giuliani, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, was so good at prosecuting. But this was much worse than a Mafia maneuver—it was a state operation. It was led by the sitting president. Of the nineteen people indicted by Willis, four were at the time holders of federal or state governmental offices: the president, his chief of staff (Mark Meadows), a senior official in the Justice Department (Jeffrey Clark), and the Coffee County elections supervisor (Misty Hampton). What is this if not Big Government at its most oppressive?
Had Freeman not found the inner resources of courage and dignity to resist the almost unbearable pressure heaped on her by the occupant of the White House, she would have signed a false confession to crimes against the integrity of US elections. Can anyone doubt that Trump and Giuliani, amplified by Fox News and the other right-wing propaganda channels, would have insisted that she and Moss should be given exemplary sentences of penal servitude and locked away for many years? The defense of democracy, they would have cried, demanded nothing less for those who dared to corrupt the electoral process. In that, if in nothing else, they would have spoken the truth.