On May 8 2023, a Reddit account shared a post to r/politics claiming that a Georgia GOP chair said he was “just following orders” in the aftermath of the 2020 general election:
The post referenced a few specific and separate matters.
Georgia’s Outsized Role in the United States’ 2020 General Election
Many following American political newsfeeds were likely aware that the southern state of Georgia was long considered a Republican stronghold before it became generally regarded as a swing state in 2016, and that Georgia was a large player in the eventual story of the 2020 general election in the United States.
News about Georgia in relation to that election appeared consistently from late 2020 onward, as evidenced by the popular Reddit post embedded above. Thanks to an early Republican lead and close numbers overall, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced a statewide audit of the election on November 11 2020, which was completed a week later, upholding Joe Biden’s win:
Due to the tight margin of the race and the principles of risk-limiting audits, this audit was a full manual tally of all votes cast. The audit confirmed that the original machine count accurately portrayed the winner of the election. The results of the audit can be viewed HERE, HERE, and HERE.
“Georgia’s historic first statewide audit reaffirmed that the state’s new secure paper ballot voting system accurately counted and reported results,” said Secretary Raffensperger. “This is a credit to the hard work of our county and local elections officials who moved quickly to undertake and complete such a momentous task in a short period of time.”
“Georgia’s first statewide audit successfully confirmed the winner of the chosen contest and should give voters increased confidence in the results,” said Ben Adida, Executive Director of VotingWorks. “We were proud to work with Georgia on this historic audit. The difference between the reported results and the full manual tally is well within the expected error rate of hand-counting ballots, and the audit was a success.”
Trump would go on to publicly dispute the results and privately attempted to heavily pressure Raffensperger during an hourlong phone call on January 2 2021 — four days before the January 6 2023 Capitol insurrection:
Trump: Okay, whatever, it’s a disaster. It’s a disaster. Look. Here’s the problem. We can go through signature verification, and we’ll find hundreds of thousands of signatures, if you let us do it. And the only way you can do it, as you know, is to go to the past. But you didn’t do that in Cobb County. You just looked at one page compared to another. The only way you can do a signature verification is go from the one that signed it on November whatever. Recently. And compare it to two years ago, four years ago, six years ago, you know, or even one. And you’ll find that you have many different signatures. But in Fulton, where they dumped ballots, you will find that you have many that aren’t even signed and you have many that are forgeries.
Okay, you know that. You know that. You have no doubt about that. And you will find you will be at 11,779 within minutes because Fulton County is totally corrupt, and so is she totally corrupt.
And they’re going around playing you and laughing at you behind your back, Brad, whether you know it or not, they’re laughing at you. And you’ve taken a state that’s a Republican state, and you’ve made it almost impossible for a Republican to win because of cheating, because they cheated like nobody’s ever cheated before. And I don’t care how long it takes me, you know, we’re going to have other states coming forward — pretty good.
Trump also pressured officials in Michigan and Pennsylvania:
President Donald Trump‘s legal team has filed lawsuits in Pennsylvania and Michigan aimed at halting vote counting until courts can enforce rules that permit campaign observers to watch the ballots being opened and counted.
“They’re not letting our poll watchers watch the polls, not letting them inside,” said Eric Trump, one of the president’s sons, at a press conference Wednesday afternoon referring to the Pennsylvania case. “They’re trying to cheat.”
The Trump campaign has not produced any evidence of cheating, but has alleged that poll watchers were being denied close-up access to observe vote counting at locations in Philadelphia and Detroit.
‘Just Following Orders’
Reddit comments at the top of the thread largely referenced the deliberate wording of the post and linked article — in particular, “just following orders.”
“Just following orders” is a well-known three-word phrase primarily associated with the post-war Nuremberg trials:
Otto Ohlendorf, the former commandant of Einsatzgruppe D, was sentenced to death for the murder of about 90,000 Jews, Roma, and Sinti after admitting that he had ordered his men to kill children as well as adults. His defense was simple: he was just following orders. Another defendant, Rudolf Höss, the commandant at Auschwitz, used the same defense. He explained:
Don’t you see, we SS men were not supposed to think about these things; it never even occurred to us. . . . We were all so trained to obey orders without even thinking that the thought of disobeying an order would simply never have occurred to anybody, and somebody else would have done just as well if I hadn’t. . . . I really never gave much thought to whether it was wrong. It just seemed a necessity.
The judges at Nuremberg rejected the “following orders” defense. They said that when an individual follows an order that is illegal under international law, he is responsible for that choice, except under certain circumstances.
It made its way into pop culture as a shorthand reference for excusing monstrous acts, as TV Tropes’ “Just Following Orders” page explained:
Just Following Orders is a justification for morally questionable actions that a character may invoke when questioned about the rightness or necessity of such actions. This justification holds that the (bulk of the) responsibility for such actions falls upon those who make such decisions and give such orders within a (military) hierarchy; by extension, those who obey and act upon such orders cannot be held (entirely) accountable for their actions. Often invoked with the exact phrase “I was Just Following Orders.” Also known as the “Nuremberg Defense” because a notable flaw of the immediate post-war German penal code was that the worst category of murder and its attendant sentences (“first-degree murder”) could only be “for base motives” (hatred, bloodlust, greed, etc.), which did not include “dispassionate” participation in mass murder. Perpetrator testimony and the Milgram Experiment indicate that even when the desire to conform with the group is a major or primary reason for someone carrying out an immoral group action, they almost always frame their compliance in terms of obedience to authority. They believed that obedience to authority at least partly justified or excused immoral behavior, and that desire to conform did not.
Accordingly, Just Following Orders is the Stock Phrase motto/mantra/defense of the Punch-Clock Villain, as well as most bureaucrats (obstructive or otherwise) … It seems justifiable if you put yourself in their shoes. One is legally trapped between the prospect of immediate punishment from national law or possibly delayed punishment from an international court attempting to judge from a higher moral law. If your life and/or your family’s life was threatened if you disobeyed orders you knew to be morally reprehensible, what would you do?
This trope is by now usually not played straight but instead cowardly, ironically, sarcastically, or self-hatingly. Still, it’s one of the tropes that cycles between Dead Horse Trope and Undead Horse Trope, because the dilemma it rests on is close to unresolvable. Quoting the trope by name, though, is likely to be met with skepticism and ridicule. If the “crime” being excused is a relatively minor one, though, then an accuser invoking a parallel with Nuremberg may be seen as invoking Godwin’s Law.
As the term was instantly recognizable and heavily associated with Nazi Germany, its appearance popularized the Reddit post and linked article.
Georgia GOP Chair ‘Just Following Orders’
The Reddit post embedded above linked to a May 8 2023 CNN.com article (“Georgia GOP chairman says he was just following orders from Trump lawyers”) matching the submission.
It covered Georgia Republican David Shafer, and statements made by Shafer’s attorneys. Shafer prominently featured in a November 8 2020 TruthOrFiction.com fact check, “Did Monitors Discover a 9,626 Vote Error in the DeKalb County, Georgia Recount?” It began:
On November 18 2020, Georgia Republican Party Chair David Shafer tweeted that a “9,626 vote error” had been unearthed in DeKalb County, Georgia — a claim which, naturally, spread rapidly to other platforms:
One of our monitors discovered a 9,626 vote error in the DeKalb County hand count. One batch was labeled 10,707 for Biden and 13 for Trump – an improbable margin even by DeKalb standards. The actual count for the batch was 1,081 for Biden and 13 for Trump.
— David Shafer (@DavidShafer) November 18, 2020
The CNN article began:
Lawyers representing David Shafer, the embattled chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, are arguing their client should not be charged with any crimes for his actions following the 2020 election because he was following advice provided by attorneys working for former President Donald Trump, according to a letter sent to Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis [on May 5 2023].
Specifically, Shafer’s attorneys say their client was relying on “repeated and detailed advice of legal counsel” when he organized a group of “contingent” electors from Georgia and served as one himself, thus “eliminating any possibility of criminal intent or liability,” according to a copy of the May 5  letter.
According to CNN, the claim that Shafer was “just following orders” in Georgia originated with a May 5 2023 letter from Shafer’s legal representatives to a Georgia district attorney, Fani Willis. CNN reported that Shafer’s counsel said Shafer acted on “repeated and detailed advice of legal counsel,” paraphrased by CNN as “just following orders.”
On May 8 2023, Atlanta, Georgia’s WSB-TV reported on the letter, adding that the controversy revolved around “the so-called false electors and the 2020 election”:
Channel 2 Action News obtained a letter Saturday [May 6 2023] sent by Georgia GOP Chair David Shafer’s attorneys to Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis requesting a face-to-face meeting and laying out why they believe their client broke no laws when he convened the so-called false electors meeting in December 2020.
The letter came just a day after new court filings showed Willis granted immunity deals to eight of those false electors in return for testimony, though it was unclear which of the false electors accepted the deal.
In that letter, Shafer’s attorney lay out in detail why they believe Shafer was only following legal advice when planning and conducting that false electors meeting and had no knowledge of a larger plan to overturn the 2020 election.
They insist the ballots they cast for Donald Trump were only “contingent” ballots needed to keep an elections lawsuit alive.
On May 8 2023, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an article about the letter, “Lawyers: Georgia GOP chair broke no laws as alternate Trump elector in 2020,” paraphrasing some additional details in the letter:
In a letter to Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, attorneys Holly Pierson and Craig Gillen also said Shafer was relying on an almost identical scenario which played out in Hawaii more than six decades ago and was led by Democrats.
The lawyers made the claims in a March 26  letter to Willis seeking to ward off an indictment against Shafer, who will leave the post as GOP party chair in June . Last summer [in 2022], Willis labeled Shafer and the other 15 GOP electors as targets of her ongoing investigation into possible criminal meddling in Georgia’s 2020 election.
“(E)very action by Mr. Shafer as a presidential elector nominee or contingent elector in 2020 was specifically undertaken in conformity with and reliance upon the repeated and detailed advice of legal counsel, eliminating any possibility of criminal intent or liability,” Pierson and Gillen stated in the 11-page letter.
In a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gillen said he was sharing a copy of the letter now because he and Pierson were concerned that the public was unaware of the reasons why the GOP electors took the actions they did, which he said were “based on strong legal precedent and legal advice.”
On May 8 2023, a post to r/politics — “Georgia GOP chairman says he was just following orders from Trump lawyers” — pulled its title from and linked to a CNN.com article published the same day. CNN paraphrased David Shafer’s lawyers as saying Shafer was “just following orders” issued by the Trump administration, as they argued his actions were justified. The phrase “just following orders” did not appear to have been used by Shafer’s attorney’s, but it appeared Shafer’s counsel broadly asserted their client acted on “the repeated and detailed advice of legal counsel, eliminating any possibility of criminal intent or liability,” making it an accurate paraphrase, but a paraphrase nonetheless.