election coup

Trump’s Biggest Legal Danger Comes From Georgia

Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis could prove to be Donald Trump’s worst nightmare. Photo: Ben Gray/AP

The House select committee investigating the events of January 6 nears its final hearings, having made a pretty good case that Donald Trump and a number of his cronies committed some crimes as they sought to overturn the 2020 election. But there is increasing anxiety across the political spectrum about potential consequences for the wrongdoers.

Any federal charges flowing out of the January 6 committee proceedings will have to be presented to a federal grand jury by Merrick Garland’s U.S. Department of Justice. As New York’s Ankush Khardori recently explained, DOJ’s tardiness in conducting its own investigation into Trump’s misconduct makes any future federal prosecutorial aggressiveness less likely than it should be.

But even if the feds let Trump evade the alligator arm of justice with respect to his attempted election coup, that’s not his only prosecutorial peril. It’s increasingly likely that the first and perhaps only grand jury that will hand down an indictment for Team Trump is the one that was convened in Georgia on May 3, 2022, by Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis.

Willis began her investigation of Trump’s egregious interference with Georgia’s 2020 election process on February 10, 2021. The most notorious Trump stunt, his January 2 phone call to Georgia’s Republican secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, unsuccessfully petitioning him to “find” enough voters to overturn Biden’s win in the state, took place just a day after Willis, who upset six-term incumbent Paul Howard to become DA, took office. So it was fresh in the news — and in her mind. But until the grand jury was established with subpoena power, much of what Willis was focused on was obscure.

The subpoenas have shown Willis, unsurprisingly, digging deep into what Trump and others on the call with Raffensperger were specifically asking the election chief to do. She has also spent time and energy investigating the Trump fake-elector scheme in Georgia, which preceded the election-tampering efforts aimed at Raffensperger. Both strands of the investigation have led to subpoenas of famous figures in Trumpworld, as the New York Times recently noted:

[Trump’s] personal lawyer, the former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, has been ordered by a judge to testify on Aug. 9. Lawyers for Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are fighting his subpoena to testify, as are lawyers for Representative Jody Hice, a stalwart Trump ally who led efforts in the House in January 2021 to stop the certification of votes. Ms. Willis is also seeking to compel testimony from John Eastman, an architect of the legal strategy to keep Mr. Trump in power, as well as other lawyers — Kenneth Chesebro, Jacki Pick Deason, Jenna Ellis and Cleta Mitchell — who played critical roles in the effort.

Graham allegedly spoke to Raffensperger before Trump did. Giuliani, Eastman, Mark Meadows, and others were on the infamous call itself. Other members of Team Trump participated in smearing Georgia election officials as part of the effort to discredit the official count. Most recently, Willis has let Trump’s fake electors from Georgia know that they are targets of her investigation. This step led, however, to her one major setback, as CNN reported:

A Georgia judge on Monday blocked Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis from investigating Burt Jones, a Republican state senator, as part of the investigation into efforts by former President Donald Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 presidential election in that state.

Jones is one of 16 fake Trump electors who signed on to the “unofficial electorate certificate” in a plan to subvert the Electoral College in the 2020 election.

Jones is currently running for lieutenant governor in Georgia against Democrat Charlie Bailey. Willis hosted a campaign fundraiser for Bailey last month and donated to his primary campaign earlier this year.

Jones was one of the few hard-core Trump supporters who survived the former president’s failed effort to purge Raffensperger and Georgia governor Brian Kemp in the state’s May 24 primaries. The judge’s action helps Republicans taint Willis’s entire proceedings as partisan while insulating a Trump ally from responsibility for the attempted coup.

Still, Fani Willis has a lot of momentum and is getting significant cooperation from other Republicans who have no love lost for the 45th president. Raffensperger testified before the Fulton County grand jury on June 2. Kemp testified on July 25.

As two legal experts explained in a New York Times column, Willis has a lot of latitude to pursue criminal charges under state laws that aren’t available to Merrick Garland:

Ms. Willis is in a very favorable jurisdiction to prosecute charges. Arguably more so than comparable federal statutes, the state’s laws for crimes like solicitation to commit election fraud appear to offer a close fit with the accusations against Mr. Trump and his allies, which include asking for those fraudulent votes or electors. Georgia law also allows Ms. Willis to include under the state racketeering statute a broader array of wrongful acts that Mr. Trump is accused of committing than the more narrowly defined federal one would.

It’s worth noting that, as an assistant district attorney, Willis aggressively used state racketeering statutes to charge and convict Atlanta public-school teachers with rigging standardized-test scores in a politically fraught and high-profile case. She doesn’t seem like the kind of prosecutor who is going to flinch from an opportunity to take down a former president. Beyond that, her actions could divide Georgia Republicans, even those like Raffensperger and Kemp who have battled Trump, in the middle of an intense and very partisan 2022 election cycle. It could be a wild late summer and fall in the Fulton County courts.

Trump’s Biggest Legal Danger Comes From Georgia