Trump’s Next Foe May Be a Georgia District Attorney
(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump is on track for a likely acquittal in his impeachment trial, but he will still have to face a legal threat in Georgia from a prosecutor who’s only a month into her job.
Fani Willis built her career trying homicide cases in Atlanta. She now finds herself doing what most Republican Senators were trying to avoid: weighing whether to punish Trump for his attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
The irony is apparent to Kimberly Wehle, a law professor at the University of Baltimore. “There must be some mechanism for accountability for Trump’s role in attempting to subvert the election results, and we are probably about to witness ‘jury nullification’ of the facts and the law by Senate Republicans,” Wehle said in an email. “Georgia prosecutors might wind up doing the critical work that the framers gave to the U.S. Congress.”
Trump spokesman Jason Miller on Wednesday described the probe as a political stunt. “The timing here is not accidental given today’s impeachment trial. This is simply the Democrats’ latest attempt to score political points by continuing their witch hunt against President Trump, and everybody sees through it.”
Willis didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Willis is only a month into her job as district attorney in Fulton County after defeating Paul Howard -- a six-term incumbent and her former boss -- in the election for the top state prosecutor post in Atlanta. The 49-year-old mother of two, whose father was a Black Panther, trounced Howard in an August primary, winning more than 70% of the vote. She didn’t have a Republican challenger in the November election.
She was a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office for 16 years before going into private practice in 2018 and then serving as the chief municipal judge in South Fulton. When Willis worked for Howard, she rose from line prosecutor to deputy district attorney for the complex trial division.
Her most famous case involved a cheating scandal in the Atlanta public school system where teachers and officials schemed to inflate the standardized test scores of inner city kids, so they could boast of improved results at their schools.
Willis used the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law to secure convictions of 11 of the 12 defendants who went to trial. She expressed little sympathy for the teachers she convicted, arguing that by inflating the kids’ scores they blocked the students from access to tutoring funds that would have helped them actually learn.
Her record as a prosecutor won Willis respect in the Atlanta legal community. “Ms. Willis is exceedingly competent and has always been patient, conscientious and thoughtful in her prosecutorial decisions,” said Lawanda Hodges, who worked alongside Willis, and has faced off against her as a defense attorney.
Willis defeated Howard with a campaign focused on accountability and transparency. Hampered by allegations of corruption and sexual harassment in his office, Howard made an easy target for his former protege.
“You have my word, during my tenure as district attorney in Fulton County, we will be a beacon for justice and ethics in Georgia and across the nation,” she said in her acceptance speech on election night.
During the campaign, Willis criticized Howard for holding a press conference in June to announce charges against a police officer who shot Rayshard Brooks, a Black man who was questioned by officers after dozing off in his car at a Wendy’s drive-through. Brooks appeared to be inebriated, but was unarmed and cooperative during 40 minutes of questioning.
Howard announced the charges before the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had completed its work on the case, opening up the district attorney’s office to accusations of a rush to judgment. Willis has tried to get the case moved out of Fulton County.
Read more on Trump’s Georgia call
According to a letter sent on Wednesday to top Georgia state officials informing them of her campaign interference investigation, Willis is focused on the solicitation of election fraud, false statements, conspiracy and racketeering. She doesn’t specifically name Trump, but the subject of the investigation is clear.
”It has come to our attention via media reports that contacts were made by subjects of the investigation with other agencies that could be investigating this matter, including the Secretary of State, the Attorney General and the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Northern District of Georgia,” she wrote.
Trump called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Jan. 2, urging the election official to find 11,780 votes -- one more than he needed to beat Joe Biden. A recording of the hour-long call was made public. Raffensperger’s office declined to comment. Willis’ investigation comes days after Raffensperger announced his own probe of attempts to alter the result of the vote.
A spokesman for Willis told The Associated Press that Trump’s call to Raffensperger was “part of” the investigation but declined to say whether the former president was a subject of the probe.
Several of Georgia’s laws related to election fraud are misdemeanors, punishable by as long as a year in jail. A conspiracy charge is a felony, according to Kay Levine, a law professor at Emory University. She said Trump’s call to Raffensperger seems to be evidence of solicitation.
“What we can see from facts in the public domain is that we have a candidate who seems heavily motivated to get people on the ground to get a subset of votes to be not counted, or get new ballots to change who’s up and who’s down,” Levine said. “Because of that, conspiracy comes into play. Making the phone call is a predicate act.”
Levine said the conspiracy didn’t have to be successful in order to be charged. While the public is aware of the Raffensperger call, other evidence might also emerge, she said. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who is sitting in judgment of Trump’s conduct in the Senate impeachment trial, called Raffensperger in November, in what appeared to be a quest to find out if some Biden votes could be disqualified.
House impeachment managers concluded their case in the Senate on Thursday and while some Republicans said the Democrats’ presentation was very effective, there was little sign that enough of them would be moved to convict Trump. At least 17 GOP votes are needed to reach the two-thirds majority necessary for conviction.
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