Trump’s legal drama could soon continue in Georgia
Donald Trump’s appearance in a Manhattan courtroom Tuesday marked a singular moment in American history — the first time a former or sitting U.S. president has been indicted on criminal charges.
But Trump’s legal peril is far from over. Among those closely watching the proceedings were state and local officials in Georgia, where Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis (D) is expected to announce in coming weeks whether she will file charges in connection to efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn the state’s 2020 presidential election results.
Willis has not spoken publicly about Trump’s criminal indictment in New York, and a spokesman declined to comment. But close observers of Willis believe the New York case is unlikely to change the legal trajectory of her more than two-year investigation into alleged election interference in Georgia, a case that has already drawn intense public scrutiny and political attacks from Trump even before any potential charges have been filed.
The case in New York is likely to add to that scrutiny — even as many legal experts believe the case in Georgia is more perilous to Trump. However she decides to proceed, Willis will have to sell her case not only to Atlanta-area voters but to the broader American public at a volatile moment when public sentiment about a potential Trump prosecution could be shaped by the Manhattan legal proceedings.
“Certainly, she will have political considerations to make. All prosecutors do,” said Anthony Michael Kreis, a Georgia State University law professor who has closely monitored the Fulton County investigation. “But I think [Willis] probably sees it the way that I think many other people do, which is her case is more important than New York. It has more social meaning and is important for the preservation of democracy in a way that the New York case does not have that same kind of underlying theme.”
In New York, Trump is facing criminal charges stemming from an investigation into a hush money payment he made through an intermediary to an adult-film actress who threatened to go public about an alleged affair ahead of the 2016 election.
In Georgia, the investigation is far more sprawling, involving a cast of characters that includes not only Trump and some of his closest advisers but a litany of prominent Republicans including former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and several top Georgia officials, including Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who were the targets of Trump’s lobbying to overturn Joe Biden’s narrow victory in the state.
Trump, who continues to maintain the 2020 election in Georgia was “stolen,” has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. He has attacked Willis, who is Black, as the “racist D.A. from Atlanta” and repeatedly described her investigation as a “political witch hunt.”
“In the wings, they’ve got a local racist Democrat district attorney from Atlanta who is doing everything in her power to indict me over an absolutely perfect phone call,” Trump told supporters gathered at Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday night in his first public remarks since his New York arraignment.
Echoing a legal argument his lawyers made recently in the Fulton County case, Trump added, “This fake case was brought only to interfere with the upcoming 2024 election, and it should be dropped immediately.”
Mindful of the legal stakes of a case involving a former president, prosecutors have been meticulously reviewing a large volume of evidence, including the audio of at least three phone calls Trump made to Georgia officials, as well as emails, text messages and other documents obtained by a special-purpose grand jury that was seated last year to investigate the matter.
Seventy-five witnesses appeared before the special grand jury over roughly eight months, including Giuliani, Graham, former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and other top Trump allies. Transcripts of that testimony could be made public as part of any potential charging decision.
The special grand jury was dissolved in January after issuing a final report on its findings. That report remains mostly sealed to protect the rights of “potential future defendants,” according to Fulton County District Judge Robert McBurney, who oversaw the panel.
But Emily Kohrs, the panel’s forewoman, has said the grand jury recommended the indictment of several people. She has declined to say whether Trump was among them — citing McBurney’s instruction to keep jury deliberations private until prosecutors decide whether to file charges — but also told reporters the public would not be “shocked” at the panel’s recommendations given news about the case.
Last month, Trump’s Georgia-based legal team — Drew Findling, Jennifer Little and Marissa Goldberg — seized on Kohrs’s public comments about the grand jury proceedings as they filed a motion to quash the panel’s report and block prosecutors from using any evidence gathered during the investigation. They argued the panel was “unconstitutional” and had violated Trump’s due process rights.
Trump’s lawyers also sought to remove Willis and her office from the case along with McBurney — suggesting he had given poor advice to the grand jury. Last week, McBurney, who continues to oversee the case, ordered prosecutors to file a response to Trump’s legal team by May 1.
Willis, a longtime Fulton County prosecutor who was elected district attorney in 2020, launched her investigation into alleged election interference just days after a recording was made public of a January 2021 phone call that Trump made to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger urging him to “find” enough votes to overturn Trump’s defeat in Georgia.
It was one of several calls Trump and his associates made to Georgia officials prodding them to undertake efforts to change the results of the state’s presidential election, which Trump lost by fewer than 12,000 votes.
Georgia election officials have repeatedly affirmed Biden’s victory in the state as legitimate. In an excerpt of the special grand jury report made public in February, the panel said after its investigation that it unanimously agreed the state’s presidential vote had not been marred by “widespread fraud,” contrary to what Trump and many of his allies have claimed.
It is not known how many recordings of those Trump calls Willis and her team have gathered.
Audio from at least two was played for the grand jury — including calls Trump made to Raffensperger and David Ralston (R), Georgia’s House speaker at the time, in which Ralston resisted Trump’s requests to convene a special session of the legislature to overturn Biden’s narrow election win.
While Ralston had spoken about the phone call to the media, it was not known until last month that the call had been recorded. Ralston, who died in November, testified before the special grand jury last summer.
Audio also exists of a phone call Trump made to Frances Watson, a top investigator in Raffensperger’s office, urging her to scrutinize votes in Fulton County, where he said she would find “dishonesty.” It is not clear whether that recording was presented to the grand jury.
Kohrs told reporters that the panel “heard a lot of recordings of President Trump on the phone” that had been “privately recorded by people or recorded by a staffer.”
Willis has indicated publicly and in court filings that her office’s investigation has expanded to include several other lines of inquiry, including false claims of election fraud that Giuliani and other Trump associates made to Georgia state lawmakers; threats and harassment targeting Georgia election workers; and the creation of an alternative slate of Republican electoral college electors who met at the Georgia Capitol in December 2020 and signed certificates falsely asserting that Trump had won the state race.
Willis and her team are said to be closely examining not only Trump’s phone calls but what knowledge he had and role he played in efforts including those false electors. Willis has indicated she is eyeing Georgia’s expansive anti-racketeering law as she considers whether Trump and his allies conspired to break the law in seeking to overturn the state’s election results.
Willis told The Washington Post last year that she and other prosecutors had heard credible allegations that serious crimes had been committed and that she believed some people could be facing prison sentences.
At least 18 people have been notified they are targets of the election interference investigation, according to court documents and statements from their attorneys. That list includes Giuliani and all the alternative Republican electors — a group that includes David Shafer, the chairman of the Georgia Republican Party.
Willis’s office has not said whether Trump is a target, and Trump’s Georgia-based legal team has said it has had no contact with the district attorney’s office.
While New York’s proceedings may have little in the way of legal implications for the Fulton County investigation, officials in Atlanta are closely monitoring developments in Manhattan for security reasons. That includes potential protests but also logistical planning ahead of Willis’s looming decision on charges.
A source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about security measures, said state and local law enforcement officials have already been planning security protocols around the courthouse — in part because of ongoing threats against Willis and her office but also the building’s proximity to the Georgia Capitol, which is across the street from the Fulton County Courthouse.
Spokespeople for the Atlanta Police Department and the Georgia State Patrol, which oversees security around the Capitol complex, declined to comment on security plans.
Willis has said little publicly about her timeline for potentially bringing a case. In January, Willis told McBurney during a court hearing that charging decisions were “imminent,” but she later clarified to a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she did not necessarily mean she would announce those decisions anytime soon.
To bring charges, Willis would have to present her case to a regular grand jury that, unlike the special-purpose grand jury, has the power to bring criminal indictments.
In Fulton County, grand jury terms begin every two months. Some observers believe Willis has been waiting to present her case to a fresh panel because of legal rules that allow defendants to request speedy trials within two months of the end of the grand jury terms in which they are indicted.
The latest grand jury panels were sworn in during the first week of March. The next panels will begin the first week of May.