ATLANTA (AP) — Former President Donald Trump and his allies were briefed by prosecutors, but the warning did not come from anyone at the Justice Department.
It was from a Georgia prosecutor who had indicated he would soon seek criminal charges in the two-year election-rigging probe. Attempting to block the release of the special grand jury report, Fulton County District Attorney Fanny Willis argued in court last week that decisions in the case are “imminent” and that release of the report could jeopardize the rights of “future defendants.”
Although Willis, a Democrat, did not mention Trump by name, her comments were the first time a prosecutor in any of several current investigations into the former Republican president has hinted that indictments could be filed. The remarks raised expectations that the investigation, focused in part on Trump’s call with Georgia’s secretary of state, could end before federal probes are launched.
“I expect to see indictments in Fulton County before I see any federal indictments,” said Clark Cunningham, a law professor at Georgia State University.
In addition to the Georgia probe, the Justice Department’s special counsel is investigating Trump for his role in working with allies to reverse his 2020 presidential election loss and his alleged mishandling of classified documents.
Trump appeared to face the most immediate legal threat since the investigation into a cache of classified materials at his Florida resort, and that threat remains. But that case appears complicated, at least politically, by the recent discovery of classified documents at President Joe Biden’s Delaware home and Washington office. The Department of Justice has hired a special special prosecutor to investigate the matter.
Willis opened her office’s investigation shortly after the release of a tape 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 during the call.
Since then, the scope of the investigation has expanded significantly, including among other things: a list of Republican fraudulent voters, phone calls from Trump and others to Georgia officials in the weeks after the 2020 election, and unsubstantiated allegations of widespread voter fraud directed at state lawmakers.
In the interview, Trump insisted he did “absolutely nothing wrong” and that his phone conversation with Raffensperger was “perfect.” He said he felt “very confident” he would not be charged.
“She’s supposed to stop violent crime, and that’s her job,” Trump said of Willis. “Not to chase people for political reasons, it did things perfectly perfectly.”
It’s unclear how Willis’ case will affect the Justice Department’s investigations or what contact her team has had with federal investigators. Justice Department prosecutors have been cautious in discussing their investigations, offering little insight into how and when they might end.
But Willis’ comments indicate that the Georgia investigation is on track to be resolved — with or without charges — on schedule regardless of what the Justice Department plans to do, legal experts said.
Cunningham, the Georgia State professor, said Willis’ comments imply that the special grand jury report contains details about people the panel and Wills believe should, at the very least, be investigated further.
“She would not talk about releasing a report that prejudices potential future defendants unless she sees the names of people in the report that she sees as potential future defendants,” he added.
Attorney General Merrick Garland in November called Jack Smith, a former public prosecutor on corruption charges, to act as special counsel overseeing investigations into Trump’s actions that led to the deadly riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and his possession of hundreds of classified documents in Mar- a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida.
Although Smith and his team of prosecutors have issued grand jury subpoenas, he has not revealed when his investigation might end or who might be targeted.
Garland declined to discuss the investigations, saying only that “no person is above the law” and that there are no separate rules for Democrats and Republicans.
FBI agents recently searched Biden’s home in Wilmington, Delaware and found six items containing classified documents, the White House said. More Justice Department budget chatter: Classified records were found this month at Trump Vice President Mike Pence’s Indiana home.
The publicity surrounding Willis’ case resulted, in part, from the unusual nature of the proceedings in Georgia.
In January of last year, Willis sought to convene a special grand jury to assist her in the investigation, citing the need to have subpoena power to compel testimony from witnesses who would not otherwise speak to her. She said in a letter to the Fulton County Chief Judge that her office had received information indicating a “reasonable probability” that the 2020 election in Georgia “was susceptible to possible criminal disruption.”
Superior Court judges voted to approve the request, and the panel convened in May. Grand jurors heard from 75 witnesses and reviewed evidence gathered by prosecutors and investigators. Among the witnesses who testified were former New York mayor and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, US Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Georgia state officials such as Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp.
The panel had no indictment authority, but its report is understood to contain recommendations for further action, possibly including potential criminal charges.
A special grand jury was dissolved earlier this month after it completed its work and finalized its report on its investigation. Grand jurors recommended that the report be released.
News organizations, including The Associated Press, pushed for the release of the report. At a hearing last week, Willis said a decision on whether to seek indictments was looming and that she opposed releasing the report because she wanted to make sure “everyone is treated fairly and we think future defendants will be treated fairly, that’s in this it is not appropriate for this report to be published at this time.”
Attorneys for witnesses and others identified as targets insisted that Willis was driven by politics, not a legitimate concern that crimes had been committed. Among other things, they pointed to her public statements and initial willingness to talk to print and television news.
Danny Porter, a Republican who served as district attorney in neighboring Gwinnett County for nearly three decades, said Willis was navigating uncharted 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, Willis did not appear to have crossed any ethical or legal red lines that would have called into question the integrity of the investigation.
“Procedurally,” he said, “I didn’t see anything that would make me say, ‘Oh my God, I wouldn’t do that.’
Tucker reported from Washington. AP writer Meg Kinard in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.