Fulton Trump case will heat up at two downtown courthouses

Another eventful week expected after blockbuster jailhouse surrenders

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

What unfolded last week at the Fulton County jail was both ordinary and surreal.

One by one, the 19 defendants who had been recently charged with racketeering and election interference-related felonies surrendered to local authorities.

Like ordinary defendants, they paid their bail, were finger-printed and had their mug shots taken.

But the fact that there were dozens of members of the international media outside, jostling in the sweltering August heat for a glimpse of them, was by no means typical. Nor was the kind of feeding frenzy that took place when Rudy Giuliani, who once put criminals behind bars as U.S. attorney in New York City, stepped out of a black SUV to address journalists minutes after he surrendered at the jail.



And that was hours before former President Donald Trump was whisked into the Rice Street facility by Secret Service.

At the Republican’s urging, dozens of supporters, donning megaphones, signs and MAGA gear, gathered outside the jail on Thursday to protest what they saw as a blatantly political witch hunt from an overzealous prosecutor. They were greeted by counter-protesters, one in old-timey jailhouse stripes and others dressed as rats, to cheer on what they believed was long-awaited legal accountability for the boundary-busting former president.

Trump’s booking took only about 20 minutes. And his remarks to reporters on the tarmac at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport at times sounded like a rote recitation of his favorite social media talking points. But the scowling mug shot of the former president, a shadow cast across the left half of his face as he stared up, defiantly, at the camera, is something that will live in the history books.

For Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who has been building this case over the last 2 1/2 years, largely behind closed doors, her work is seeing the light of day. And it will soon be tested in the courts.

Credit: Fulton County Sheriff's Office

Credit: Fulton County Sheriff's Office

The next week is bound to be another hectic one. But instead of the jail, the action will move to a pair of courthouses in downtown Atlanta. How it all plays out over the coming months could have a profound impact on the 2024 presidential election and beyond. It could also set new precedents on how the courts handle past presidents and senior federal figures.

Here’s a look at what’s ahead:

Federal removal stampede

Five defendants so far have pushed to move their cases from Fulton to federal court.

All are citing a rarely-used law, enacted by Congress in 1789, aimed at protecting federal officials from being harassed and prosecuted by state officials. Current or former federal officials can “remove” proceedings to federal court if they can prove the alleged criminal behavior was carried out as part of their official duties, among other things.

The defendants are hoping that by moving to federal court they would get a more sympathetic judge and a broader, more conservative jury pool than if the case remained in Fulton, which overwhelmingly voted for Joe Biden for president in 2020.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows filed his removal motion hours after he was indicted, and his will be first up in court. U.S. District Court Judge Steve Jones scheduled a hearing on the matter for Monday morning.

At least four witnesses have been subpoenaed to testify at that hearing, including Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, former state elections investigator Frances Watson and two Trump-affiliated attorneys who listened in on the infamous hour-long call that Trump placed to Raffensperger on Jan. 2, 2021.

Meadows’ attorneys will argue that their client’s alleged criminal conduct fell under his role as the then-president’s top aide. They will also contend that it’s in the federal government’s best interest to ensure that elections are properly administered.

Willis’ office will argue that Meadows violated the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from engaging in political activity as part of their official roles.

Credit: NYT

Credit: NYT

Former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark has separately filed for federal removal, as have three Georgia Republicans who served as “alternate” GOP electors: David Shafer, Cathy Latham and state Sen. Shawn Still. Trump is expected to do so as well.

If Jones rules in favor of removal for even one defendant, it’s possible that the entire case for all 19 defendants would be moved to federal court. Any decision is expected to be appealed, potentially all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Jones scheduled hearings for Clark’s and Still’s motions for Sept. 18.

Arraignments and discovery

All but one of the defendants were released from jail after they were booked. Now, the next legal milestone will be arraignment.

That’s when defendants appear before a judge for the first time to formally hear the charges against them and enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. The process is designed, in part, to ensure the defendant knows his or her rights. Judges often set additional court dates at arraignments, such as deadlines for pretrial motions and a trial date.

In Georgia, defendants can waive arraignments.

Credit: AJC File

Credit: AJC File

Willis has requested that arraignments take place the week of Sept. 5, but Fulton Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, who is overseeing the case, has yet to finalize a timeline — except for one defendant. That person, attorney Kenneth Chesebro, will be arraigned on Sept. 6.

In the weeks ahead, the Fulton DA’s office will also be handing over its first batch of discovery documents to the 19 defendants.

In a Friday court filing, Willis’ office said it notified every defense attorney to provide a USB drive by Sept. 5 that is at least 2 terabytes — large enough to store hundreds of thousands of documents — for copying of the initial batch of discovery.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Speeding up — and slowing down

Former Trump campaign attorney Sidney Powell on Friday became the second defendant to demand a speedy trial.

Under Georgia law, a speedy trial demand means a case has to be tried by the end of two terms of court. In Fulton County that effectively means a trial must begin before early November.

Last week, Chesebro filed a similar request, and McAfee set an Oct. 23 trial date. Some other defendants may aim to join him. An attorney for defendant John Eastman told The New York Times that his client also intends to demand a speedy trial.

It’s likely that Powell’s motion will now add her to Chesebro’s court schedule, observers say, and others who demand speedy trials in the days ahead could also be added to that calendar.

Credit: File Photo

Credit: File Photo

There are many other defendants, however, who would like Willis’ case to move slower — not faster.

Steve Sadow, Trump’s new lead Atlanta attorney, filed a motion last week saying the former president will move to sever his case from Chesebro’s. Others are expected to make similar moves.

In the federal Jan. 6 case against Trump, the Republican’s team requested that a trial be delayed until at least April 2026. In the Fulton case, Trump is widely expected to suggest that any trial not start until well after the 2024 presidential election.

An unsettled matter in Georgia law is how a speedy trial demand would intersect with the federal removal push of several defendants, according to Andrew Fleischman, a defense attorney unaffiliated with the case.

Other developments to watch

— What Sadow does in the weeks ahead. A widely respected criminal defense attorney in Atlanta, his hire was announced the morning that Trump surrendered. Does Trump’s legal strategy shift substantially from the one used by Drew Findling, the Republican’s former lead attorney?

Credit: WSB-TV

Credit: WSB-TV

— What happens to Harrison Floyd. The only defendant still in jail, he was denied bond by a Fulton judge on Friday. The former Marine, Atlanta-area congressional candidate and head of Black Voices for Trump told Judge Emily Richardson that he had requested a public defender because he couldn’t afford an attorney, but that he was told he didn’t qualify to be represented by one. Floyd was arrested in Maryland earlier this year and is accused of assaulting an FBI agent.

— When will the public see the special grand jury’s final report? In January, Willis asked a Fulton judge to keep under wraps the final recommendations of the special grand jury until after she announced her charging decisions. The panel spent nearly eight months hearing testimony in the Trump case. Selected excerpts of their report were released in February, but not its central recommendations. Now that indictments have been handed up, will the report be released soon?