ATLANTA – Former President Donald Trump and his allies have been put on notice by a prosecutor, but the warning didn’t come from anyone at the Justice Department.
It was from a Georgia prosecutor who indicated she was likely to seek criminal charges soon in a two-year election subversion probe. In trying to block the release of a special grand jury’s report, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis argued in court last week that decisions in the case were “imminent” and that the report’s publication could jeopardize the rights of “future defendants.”
Though Willis, a Democrat, didn't mention Trump by name, her comments marked the first time a prosecutor in any of several current investigations tied to the Republican former president has hinted that charges could be forthcoming. The remarks ratcheted anticipation that an investigation focused, in part, on Trump's call with Georgia's secretary of state could conclude before ongoing federal probes.
“I expect to see indictments in Fulton County before I see any federal indictments,” said Clark Cunningham, a Georgia State University law professor.
Besides the Georgia inquiry, a Justice Department special counsel is investigating Trump over his role in working with allies to overturn his loss in the 2020 presidential election and his alleged mishandling of classified documents.
Trump had appeared to face the most pressing legal jeopardy from the probe into a cache of classified materials at his Florida resort, and that threat remains. But that case seems complicated, at least politically, by the recent discovery of classified records at President Joe Biden’s Delaware home and at a Washington office. The Justice Department tapped a separate special counsel to investigate that matter.
Willis opened her office’s investigation shortly after the release of a recording of a Jan. 2, 2021, phone call between Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. In that conversation, the then-president suggested that Raffensperger, a fellow Republican, could “find” the votes needed to overturn Trump’s narrow election loss in the state to Biden, a Democrat.
“All I want to do is this: I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have,” Trump said on the call.
Since then, the investigation’s scope has broadened considerably, encompassing among other things: a slate of Republican fake electors, phone calls by Trump and others to Georgia officials in the weeks after the 2020 election, and unfounded allegations of widespread election fraud made to state lawmakers.
In an interview, Trump insisted he did “absolutely nothing wrong” and that his phone call with Raffensperger was “perfect.” He said he felt “very confident” that he would not be indicted.
“She’s supposed to be stopping violent crime, and that’s her job,” Trump said of Willis. “Not to go after people for political reasons, that did things absolutely perfectly.”
It is unclear how Willis' case will impact the Justice Department's probes or what contact her team has had with federal investigators. Justice Department prosecutors have been circumspect in discussing their investigations, offering little insight into how or when they might end.
But Willis' comments indicate that the Georgia investigation is on a path toward resolution — with charges or not — on a timetable independent of what the Justice Department is planning to do, legal experts said.
Cunningham, the Georgia State professor, said that Willis’ comments implied that the special grand jury’s report contained detail about people who the panel and Willis believe should, at minimum, be further investigated.
“She wouldn’t be talking about the release of the report creating prejudice to potential future defendants unless she saw in the report peoples’ names who she saw as potential future defendants,” he added.
Attorney General Merrick Garland in November tapped Jack Smith, a former public corruption prosecutor, to act as special counsel overseeing investigations into Trump’s actions leading up to the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot and into his possession of hundreds of classified documents at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida.
Though Smith and his team of prosecutors have issued grand jury subpoenas, he has not revealed when his investigation might conclude or who might be a target.
Garland has declined to discuss the probes, saying only that “no person is above the law” and that there aren’t separate rules for Democrats and Republicans.
FBI agents recently searched Biden's Wilmington, Delaware, home, finding six items containing classified documents, the White House said. Further muddling the Justice Department’s calculus: Classified records were found this month at the Indiana home of Trump's vice president, Mike Pence.
Public disclosures about Willis’ case are the result, to some degree, of the unusual nature of the Georgia proceedings.
Willis in January of last year sought to convene a special grand jury to help her investigation, citing the need for its subpoena power to compel the testimony of witnesses who otherwise wouldn’t talk to her. She said in a letter to Fulton County’s chief judge that her office had received information indicating a “reasonable probability” that the 2020 election in Georgia “was subject to possible criminal disruptions.”
The county’s superior court judges voted to grant the request, and the panel was seated in May. The grand jurors heard from 75 witnesses and reviewed evidence collected by prosecutors and investigators. Among the witnesses who testified were former New York mayor and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and such Georgia state officials as Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp.
The panel lacked the authority to issue an indictment, but its report is presumed to include recommendations for further action, possibly including potential criminal charges.
The special grand jury was dissolved earlier this month after wrapping up its work and finalizing a report on its investigation. The grand jurors recommended the report be made public.
News organizations, including The Associated Press, argued for the report to be released. At a hearing last week, Willis said that a decision was looming on whether to seek an indictment and that she opposed releasing the report because she wanted to ensure “that everyone is treated fairly and we think for future defendants to be treated fairly, it is not appropriate at this time to have this report released."
Attorneys for witnesses and others identified as targets have insisted that Willis is driven by politics rather than by legitimate concerns that crimes were committed. Among other things, they pointed to her public statements and initial willingness to speak to print and television news outlets.
Danny Porter, a Republican who served as district attorney in neighboring Gwinnett County for nearly three decades, said Willis has been navigating unfamiliar territory. Special grand juries are relatively rare in Georgia, and the law doesn’t provide much guidance for prosecutors, he said.
Even so, Porter said, it appeared Willis had not crossed any ethical or legal red lines that would call into question the integrity of the investigation.
“Procedurally,” he said, “I haven’t seen anything that made me go, ‘Oh, jeez, I wouldn’t have done that.’”
Tucker reported from Washington. AP writer Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.