ANALYSIS: What we learned in Fulton’s Trump 19 case in 2023

                        FILE — Former President Donald Trump appears during a campaign rally in Durham, N.H. on Dec. 16, 2023. Trump has claimed that the indictment accusing him of plotting to overturn the 2020 election has been a retaliatory strike. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

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FILE — Former President Donald Trump appears during a campaign rally in Durham, N.H. on Dec. 16, 2023. Trump has claimed that the indictment accusing him of plotting to overturn the 2020 election has been a retaliatory strike. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

This year, the country trained its attention on Fulton County, where District Attorney Fani Willis in August announced a bombshell indictment that ensnared former President Donald Trump, his chief of staff and 17 others.

In a multi-year investigation full of twists and turns, 2023 stood out:

Case likely to remain in Fulton County

It surprised few legal observers when, the day after the indictment, former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows sought to remove his case to federal court.

Under a roughly 200-year-old law, federal officials are allowed to move legal proceedings against them from state to federal court if their actions in question were carried out as part of their official duties. Four other defendants, including former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark, followed Meadows’ lead.

The biggest surprise came later: Trump declined to seek removal. Then, two sets of federal judges swiftly repudiated Meadows, whom legal analysts believed had the best case for removal. The U.S. Supreme Court will likely have the last word, but at least for now it’s looking like the case will stay in Fulton Superior Court.

After hours of testimony, Mark Meadows, middle, the former White House chief of staff, is seen leaving the federal court in Atlanta on Aug. 28, 2023. He appeared in an Atlanta courtroom to attempt the transfer of his Fulton County racketeering case to federal court. (Miguel Martinez/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

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Willis went big in the indictment — but jurors wanted to go bigger

Willis solidified her spot in the national conversation when she made one of the boldest decisions of her career: to accuse the leading GOP candidate for president, his inner circle and acolytes in Georgia of engaging in a racketeering conspiracy to overturn the results of Georgia’s 2020 election.

But it turns out Willis didn’t go nearly as large as what one group of advisers had recommended. The special purpose grand jury, a panel of 26 Fulton County residents who spent nearly eight months hearing witness testimony and gathering evidence in the case, had recommended that Willis indict 39 people, twice as many as were ultimately charged.

Among the marquee names Willis declined to seek charges against: U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham; ex-Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn; and former Georgia U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.

A young, in control judge

Eyebrows were raised when news first broke that a 34-year-old judge with less than a year of experience on the bench was selected to oversee the Trump case. But Fulton Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee has quickly won kudos for his organized, methodical approach to a chaotic case with what are now 15 defendants.

McAfee has patiently trudged through countless pretrial motions and diffused several thorny issues that could have knocked others off their game, from the DA’s push to jail defendant Harrison Floyd to attempts to sanction Nathan Wade, one of the case’s top prosecutors.

“The idea with my job, in general, is to keep your head down. Stay even-keeled and manage expectations,” McAfee told The New Yorker in September. “…It’ll be mission accomplished if I personally bore everyone to death during my trials.”

Generous plea deals and risk-taking defendants

In less than four weeks this fall, Willis secured plea deals from four case defendants: Scott Hall, Sidney Powell, Kenneth Chesebro and Jenna Ellis. That in and of itself wasn’t particularly shocking — it follows a pattern typical of major racketeering cases in which prosecutors charge broadly and use plea agreements to work their way up the alleged criminal hierarchy.

What was noteworthy was that Powell, Chesebro and Ellis in particular weren’t exactly little fish. Powell and Ellis had each spent time with Trump in the weeks following the 2020 election. Still, some criticized the DA for offering them relatively lenient terms, including no jail time and first-offender protections that allowed them to clear their criminal records after a probationary period.

Just as notable is the number of defendants who have turned down similar, relatively lenient plea deals floated by Willis’ team, taking the bet, at least for now, that they can prove their clients’ innocence. That could change after McAfee rules on a number of pre-trial motions early next year.

A notable leak

In a case with minimal leaks so far, one instance truly stood out. That’s when ABC News, and later The Washington Post and the AJC, published video clips from the recorded testimony Hall, Powell, Chesebro and Ellis gave prosecutors in the case. The so-called proffers offered candid previews of what they might testify at trial — and the kind of dirt they gave prosecutors about other defendants.

Willis swiftly sought emergency safeguards for future proffers and other sensitive evidence obtained during the discovery process. After a drama-filled hearing in which one defense attorney admitted to sharing the interviews with a reporter, McAfee drafted an order protecting some evidence from pre-trial disclosure.

Special counsel Jack Smith and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP; Michael Blackshire/

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Overlap with federal case

It had long been clear that there was some level of overlap between the Fulton case and the Justice Department investigation of Trump’s attempts to cling to power following the 2020 election. But the extent of their shared interests came into view in early August, when special counsel Jack Smith unveiled a 45-page federal indictment against Trump that mentioned Georgia 48 times.

Among the Georgia events that feature in both the Fulton and federal indictments: the infamous Jan. 2, 2021, phone call Trump placed to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger; the visit Meadows made to a Cobb County absentee ballot audit and Rudy Giuliani’s falsehood-filled claims regarding vote counting at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena. Five of the six unnamed co-conspirators in the federal case — John Eastman, Giuliani, Clark, Powell and Chesebro — were charged in Fulton two weeks later.

The overlap has drawn the interest of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who has engaged in a snarky correspondence with Willis as he tries to ferret out more information from the DA.

An uncertain timeline

Even more significant is how legal fights playing out in the federal case will impact the Fulton one. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request from Smith to step in and weigh Trump’s claims of presidential immunity before they had played out in the lower courts. The court’s decisions could now be more drawn out and delay Smith’s federal trial which could, in turn, push the Fulton case back.

Another complicating factor is the November 2024 election. Willis has asked for an August trial date and estimated proceedings could stretch into the new year. But what if Trump wins back the White House that fall? Can a Fulton trial continue once he is inaugurated? It’s a question of separation of powers that will almost certainly end up at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Defendant Harrison Floyd Appears at Bond Revocation Hearing.  Pool Photo via AP

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An unlikely star

Trump’s mugshot from the Fulton County jail became instantly infamous as it ricochetted across the internet in August. But another little known defendant saw his star skyrocket after he surrendered. Harrison Floyd previously led Black Voices for Trump and was indicted for his alleged role in the harassment of Fulton poll worker Ruby Freeman. But he became a cause célèbre in some far-right circles after spending five days in jail.

The saga attracted extensive attention from conservative media, including from former Trump strategist Steve Bannon. That helped him raise more than $345,000 for his legal defense on the Christian fundraising platform GiveSendGo. Floyd has since generated headlines for his unique legal strategy and comments about witnesses on social media, which prompted Willis to seek the revocation of his bond. McAfee stopped short of ordering Floyd back to jail but tightened the terms of his bond agreement.