EXCLUSIVE: Willis hints at courtroom role during Trump trial

Fulton DA says she’s ‘a trial lawyer at my soul’
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks with AJC reporters in the District Attorney's office at the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta, Tuesday, December 12, 2023. (Tyson A. Horne/tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Tyson A. Horne/AJC

Credit: Tyson A. Horne/AJC

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks with AJC reporters in the District Attorney's office at the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta, Tuesday, December 12, 2023. (Tyson A. Horne/tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis indicated she could take an active role in the courtroom as her election interference case against former President Donald Trump and 14 others progresses.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday, the veteran prosecutor also suggested she was open to moving up her proposed trial date should Trump’s legal calendar in 2024 change.

“Oh, we would be ready and willing,” Willis said. “I always say, ‘Stay ready, you ain’t gotta get ready.’”

But she said it would depend on where the case is in relation to motions from defense teams, prosecutors and the deadlines for negotiated plea agreements.

Willis’ comments came a day after Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up an expedited review of a presidential immunity motion from Trump. Some legal pundits have suggested that without quick consideration from the high court, the timeline for Trump’s federal Jan. 6 case may slip beyond March 2024.

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Credit: NYT

That could open up some new time in Trump’s calendar next spring. Ditto for Trump’s other federal case involving classified documents; the Florida-based judge in that case has also suggested the May 2024 trial date could be delayed.

Willis said the Aug. 5, 2024, trial date that her team recently suggested for the Fulton case — which, if granted, would begin a few weeks after the Republican Party selects its nominee for president and just three months before the election — was chosen to be “respectful of our sister jurisdictions.”

One of Willis’ top deputies said earlier this month that it would take prosecutors roughly 30 days to be ready for a trial once Fulton Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee sets a court date.

Late last month, Willis took the rare step of personally arguing during a pretrial hearing in which she passionately called for McAfee to revoke the bond of defendant Harrison Floyd for allegedly intimidating witnesses. During Tuesday’s interview, the DA indicated that appearance wouldn’t be a one-off.

“I don’t think anyone should ever be surprised if DA Willis enters a courtroom,” said Willis, adding that she is “a trial lawyer at my soul.”

Asked if she might make an appearance during the Trump trial, she responded, “I think it’s very possible.”

Willis declined to comment on many specifics of her case, particularly about the plea deals that her office struck with four of the case’s defendants.

But she did say that she’s not surprised to have plea deals in place with only a fraction of the original 19 defendants.

“What I have seen in my practice for these 28 years that I’ve been practicing criminal law is that typically it is after (pretrial) motions when you’ll get the most amount of pleas,” she said.

She was vague when asked about whether she would seek to punish Trevian Kutti, a defendant whose recent social media comments about poll worker Ruby Freeman raised questions about witness intimidation.

“The DA is patient,” she said.

Willis also didn’t elaborate on how Trump’s presidential immunity argument could play out in Georgia, where the case’s indictment focuses heavily on many actions during Trump’s presidency.

Willis was more sharp-edged when asked about some of her loudest Republican critics.

She described the inquiry opened by the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, which has been probing Willis’s contact with Smith’s office and the congressional panel that investigated the Jan. 6 insurrection, as “foolish.” She indicated she would be open to testifying before the committee publicly, “before all of the American people and not (behind) some closed door that people can misinterpret and lie about what was said.”

Of state Republican senators who recently opened an inquiry into conditions at Fulton County’s notorious jail and criticized her role, Willis said “most don’t know what they’re talking about.”

“Those state senators should worry about the state prisons because the state prisons are out of control,” she said, adding that she’s “not responsible for the jail.”

“It’s an extremely weak attempt to add a slap at this office,” she said. “And, you know, it’s just politics. They worry the hero is treated the same as everybody else. And now they want to come up with foolishness.”

Willis, who is running for a second term next year, didn’t shut the door when asked about running for higher office. She said that when she became DA she wanted to serve for three terms, spending six years “to really turn the office around to exactly where it needed to be” and another six on “the dreams that I had for this county,” including opening a center for victims of domestic violence to access services and growing prison diversion programs.

Willis said she had not given the matter much thought. But she allowed that a different role might allow her to have a greater impact on issues that matter to her, such as children and the homeless.

“Sometimes I wish I had the power to make decisions in other areas. And if there was something that I could do that would impact my state in a great way, you know, maybe I would consider it,” she said “But I’m still doing my work here, and I’ve got work left to do here.”

“God always has a plan that’s bigger and greater than yours,” Willis said.