Fani Willis was hours into her new job as Fulton County district attorney when she was first confronted with the issue that almost certainly will define her tenure.
It was Jan. 4, 2021, and every cable news channel was blaring snippets of President Donald Trump’s recorded phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. In the hour-long conversation, which had occurred two days earlier and was leaked to the media, Trump prodded Raffensperger to find enough votes to overturn Joe Biden’s narrow victory in Georgia.
The discussion stopped Willis in her tracks.
“There was probably a moment where I prayed, well, maybe he lives in Macon,” Willis said of Raffensperger. “And then, I won’t have jurisdiction over it.”
That, of course, was wishful thinking.
The veteran prosecutor would soon reach the conclusion that, if the president and his allies had crossed a line while pushing for the state’s 16 Electoral College votes, she was the only one who could hold them accountable. Multiple other Georgia agencies with investigative power had conflicts of interest because Trump also had reached out to their leadership, Willis said.
“I don’t want you to think I’m naïve or I don’t get the gravity of the situation,” Willis told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a recent interview. “I get the gravity of it. … But it’s just like every other case. You just have to do your due diligence.”
Fifteen months after launching a criminal investigation, Willis is now at an inflection point. Prosecutors on Monday will gain some much-needed investigative firepower when a rare special purpose grand jury is seated. The group can meet for up to a year and issue subpoenas, compelling reticent witnesses to testify and produce evidence.
When the special grand jury finishes its investigation, it will recommend whether Willis should proceed to the next step. That will set the stage for perhaps the most consequential decision of her career: whether to pursue criminal charges against Trump. In the two and a half centuries since the United States was founded, no sitting or ex-president has ever been charged with a crime.
‘Heavy is the head’
Some of Trump’s critics see the Fulton County probe as the best chance to hold the Republican accountable for what they believe were organized actions to undermine democracy and the peaceful transfer of power.
“This is a real instance where everybody knows what went on. It’s not a secret,” Donald B. Ayer, a former deputy attorney general during the George H.W. Bush administration. “The system is being tested.”
Ayer was one of several lawyers who analyzed Trump’s post-election actions in Georgia for the Brookings Institution and concluded that the ex-president faces “substantial risk of possible state charges predicated on multiple crimes.”
But many Republicans view the investigation as cynical power play by Willis, a Democrat. They see it as a political hand grenade being timed for maximum effectiveness before the midterm or 2024 elections.
“The Democratic Party in Georgia knows that they are running behind right now,” said Cade Parian, the Carrollton-based chairman of the Republican Trial Lawyers Caucus. “Why not talk more about Donald Trump?”
And there are those who view the investigation as a waste of Fulton County resources, especially considering the substantial judicial backlog caused by COVID-19.
Trump, meanwhile, is expected to use every legal lever at his disposal to delay or stonewall proceedings, and rile up his supporters. He recently called for mass protests should “radical,” “vicious” and “racist” prosecutors do something that he views as unfair.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Willis says she has yet to make up her mind about whether the former president or his advocates broke the law and is letting her prosecutors follow the evidence where it takes them.
But no matter what Willis decides, she risks alienating a sizable chunk of her constituents. It will be almost impossible to avoid being painted as a partisan, especially when investigating a figure as polarizing as Trump.
“Heavy is the head that wears the crown. And, in a situation like this, the head is very heavy,” said former DeKalb District Attorney Robert James. “You’re darned if you do and darned if you don’t.”
Potentially angering voters comes with the job, said former Gwinnett DA Danny Porter, a Republican. Still, he said, Willis has a responsibility to investigate and put the facts in front of the special grand jury.
“If she brings that grand jury every piece of information regarding that allegation then no matter what they decide she’s done her job,” Porter said.
No ‘skinny’ cases
Willis was no stranger to the DA’s office when she was elected in November 2020.
She had previously spent 17 years there as an assistant district attorney, prosecuting homicide and sexual assault cases and, most famously, working as the lead prosecutor on the Atlanta Public Schools cheating case.
Among her colleagues, Willis earned a reputation for her no-nonsense personality and tireless work ethic.
Balanced, accurate, fact-based reporting is an ethical obligation of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. We are committed to comprehensively covering the Fulton County District Attorney’s investigation of former President Donald Trump, from the latest developments to its political and historical implications. This story focuses on the high-stakes decision before DA Fani Willis. We’ve covered other angles like Trump’s potential legal defenses, Willis’ experience with racketeering laws and how legal experts disagree whether prosecutors have enough evidence of criminal intent to move forward with a case. Read those stories and more on AJC.com.
“She’s the type that is going to come straight at you, look you in the eye, tell you she’s going to beat you and then work relentlessly to do that,” said Tanya Miller, a defense attorney who worked with Willis in the Fulton DA’s office for seven years.
In Atlanta’s legal community, Willis is perhaps best known for her skills as a trial attorney, able to deftly break down even the most complicated legal issues for jurors — and more junior colleagues.
Charlie Bailey, a former Fulton prosecutor who’s now running for lieutenant governor, recounts working with Willis when cases had piled up. Willis, who was then leading the complex trial division, asked prosecutors to come in on either weekend day to help catch up. He said she would often sit in the office for the entire weekend, her door open for attorneys who had questions.
“She was there more than any of us,” he said. “She could never mail it in. It’s just not in her DNA.”
Willis, a 50-year-old mother of two adult daughters, describes herself as a preparer who doesn’t like to try cases “skinny.”
She said she wants to be able to look at a crime victim’s family and say she did everything she could to bring justice to them. “I developed a philosophy very early on,” she said.
Toward that end, she’s methodical.
Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC
Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC
It’s a characteristic that’s left her open to criticism from Trump’s increasingly impatient detractors, some of whom have questioned why it’s taken her so long to move forward. Willis said she’s spent the last 15 months interviewing voluntary witnesses, collecting and studying evidence, in addition to rebuilding morale in an office that was often described as dysfunctional. She added she’s also worked to get on top of the COVID-19 case backlog and improve relationships with other law enforcement agencies.
Others say it makes sense for Willis to take her time assembling evidence, so any possible criminal charges stick.
“If you come for the king, you can’t miss,” said Miller.
Willis has said she won’t call in witnesses to testify until after the May 24 primaries, acknowledging the fact that Secretary of State Raffensperger and others are facing bruising intraparty challenges that could impact how they answer prosecutors’ questions.
Willis admits that the pressure has been significant.
She’s received a litany of threats and heard racist comments from people angry about the Trump investigation and some of her office’s other cases. Willis has ramped up security at home and at work, and she now has a team that combs the dark web for threats.
Credit: Miguel Martinez
Credit: Miguel Martinez
Despite that, Willis has appeared to embrace her job as Fulton’s first female DA.
She co-hosted a glitzy awards gala with Atlanta super-producer Tyler Perry and has been the subject of glowing profiles by national and local news outlets. One that ran in South Atlanta Magazine was entitled, “You Can Call Her Madam DA,” a title Willis has adopted — it’s often used as her screen name on Zoom and social media and even written in cursive on the face of a ceramic tray on her desk.
She’s in the public eye so much that a deputy executive assistant keeps close tabs on Willis, stepping in to touch up her hair and makeup, or wiping errant rice from lunch off the desk. “That’s the one person in the universe I’m afraid of,” Willis said with a laugh.
‘Riots in the streets’
Some question if the Trump case is worth all this trouble.
Veteran defense attorney Don Samuel, who labels himself a liberal, said prosecuting the ex-president would be a waste of Willis’ time and resources, no matter what the grand jury recommends. A judge would never send Trump to prison and bringing charges against him would give him more of a platform, Samuel said.
“It’s just not gonna serve any useful function. We’ll have riots in the streets, on Forsyth Street and Pryor Street. We’re gonna have just a circus atmosphere here,” said Samuel.
Willis disagrees. If the facts warrant it, she said, she’s going to act. She said she won’t treat Trump any differently than she would anyone else who comes across her desk.
“I’m going to write the elements to this crime are A, B and C. Do we have those elements? If so, what witness gives me Fact A, Fact B and Fact C? What document proves Fact A, Fact B and Fact C? If we can do that, I’m going to bring an indictment — I don’t care who it is,” she said.
Willis plans to run for reelection in 2024, which she says won’t change how she approaches this case.
“If one term is what I get, people are upset that we tried to make ethical choices and responsibilities, well then I’ll take this honor and go do something else with my career,” she said. “If not, then I will sit here as long as they allow me to sit here, and we’ll do what’s right.”
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