Big decisions loom for Fulton County investigation of Trump

DA Fani Willis’ office indicates special grand jury drawing to a close

Fulton County prosecutors have suggested the special grand jury probing whether former President Donald Trump or his allies unlawfully meddled in Georgia’s 2020 elections is coming to a close.

That, however, may only mark the end of the beginning of Fulton’s turn in the national spotlight.

Should District Attorney Fani Willis subsequently decide to press charges against the former commander in chief or anyone in his orbit, the metro Atlanta county would be at the center of a media circus in 2023 and beyond.

No former president has ever been charged with a crime.

Here’s what’s happened so far and what could be coming in the weeks and months ahead:

What’s the investigation about?

Willis launched her probe in February 2021, weeks after audio leaked from a phone call between Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. During that infamous Jan. 2, 2021, conversation, Trump pressed the fellow Republican to “find” exactly enough votes to overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s win in Georgia.

The investigation quickly expanded to include at least six events:

  • Calls Trump and his allies placed to Georgia officials after the election, including Raffensperger, Gov. Brian Kemp, Attorney General Chris Carr and the late House Speaker David Ralston
  • The abrupt resignation of Atlanta-based U.S. Attorney Byung “BJay” Pak in January 2021
  • Testimony Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and others affiliated with the Trump campaign gave to Georgia legislators in December 2020
  • The appointment of “alternate” Republican electors in December 2020
  • The breach of elections data in Coffee County in January 2021
  • Efforts to pressure Fulton County poll worker Ruby Freeman to admit to election fraud

Which state laws might have been broken?

Willis has listed a half-dozen Georgia statutes, including criminal solicitation to commit election fraud, the making of false statements to state and local governmental bodies, conspiracy, racketeering, violation of oath of office and involvement in violence or threats related to the election’s administration.

Legal experts with the think tank the Brookings Institution said other crimes that might have been committed include false certification, influencing witnesses and computer trespass, among others.

What is a special grand jury and what kind of work has it been doing?

Twenty-three Fulton residents, along with three alternates, were selected in May to help the DA’s office with its investigation. Jurors began hearing from witnesses in early June.

Over the last six months, the special grand jury has heard from dozens of witnesses, from high-level state officials (Kemp, Raffensperger, Carr) to Trump’s closest confidantes (U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, Giuliani, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn). All of their appearances occurred behind closed doors since grand juries work in secret.

At least 18 people (Giuliani, the 16 GOP electors and Dallas-based lawyer and podcaster Jacki Pick) have been informed they are targets of the probe and could see criminal charges. The DA’s office was subsequently disqualified from investigating one of those electors, Lt. Gov.-elect Burt Jones, because Willis had hosted a fundraiser for his Democratic opponent.

The special grand jury, however, cannot take one very important step: issue criminal indictments. Only regularly empaneled grand juries can do that under Georgia law.

What’s next?

Still unclear, as the grand jury hears from its final few witnesses, is whether Willis and her team have decided to summon Trump to testify. Formally petitioning him for his appearance could trigger a lengthy court fight — and he would likely plead the Fifth Amendment.

Special grand jury members could vote within weeks on recommendations, including whether Willis should press any charges. If a majority of jurors can agree on a course of action, it will be included in a final report, known as a special presentment.

The report will then be reviewed by Fulton Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney, who’s been overseeing the grand jury, and his colleagues, who will determine whether the grand jury has satisfied its original objectives. The presentment is then turned over to the DA’s office for potential criminal prosecution.

It’s unclear whether the grand jury’s findings will be published shortly after it’s approved by the court, though it’s expected to become public at some point.

The final decision of whether to press charges ultimately rests with Willis. Should she opt to do so, she would need to re-present the case in front of a separate, regular grand jury that has the power to issue indictments.