Fulton County charges are a new test of Trump’s limits in Georgia

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Four grand juries in four jurisdictions have now charged Donald Trump with 91 felonies that carry significant prison sentences. But it’s the sprawling criminal complaint in Fulton County that could prove to be the former president’s most arduous test.

The indictment unveiled late Monday by Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis went beyond the previous charges in Miami, New York and Washington by accusing 18 co-defendants of forging a criminal enterprise with Trump to overthrow the election.

The 98-page filing is loaded with some of his most prominent allies, trusted legal advisers and lesser-known figures charged with aiding his efforts to undermine Joe Biden’s narrow Georgia victory.

The former president has shrugged off other indictments accusing him of mishandling sensitive documents, subverting the will of the voters and covering up hush money paid to a porn star. But Georgia presents a different challenge for Trump and his allies.

Trump can’t halt Willis’ prosecution if he wins next year’s election, and he can’t rely on a pardon from Gov. Brian Kemp if he’s convicted. That power rests in Georgia’s pardons board, whose secretive process spans years.

Nor can Trump count on Georgia as a bastion of reliable support. Though he leads in recent polls, the state’s Republican voters in 2022 rejected Trump’s picks for many of Georgia’s top offices, and in 2020 he was the first GOP presidential nominee to lose the state in nearly three decades.

Now Republicans consider Georgia a must-win to capture the White House in 2024, and some are raising alarms that Trump’s legal peril will doom his chances in a state where he’s risks further alienating a key bloc of middle-of-the-road voters.

“This is a pivot point in our country to do something more than just stew on the 2020 election cycle,” said former Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Republican who called Trump “the worst candidate ever, in the history of the party.”

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

“Now we’re going to have to pivot from there,” Duncan said. “If we want to win an election in 2024, it’s going to have to be someone else other than Donald Trump to do it.”

Duncan is one of a few high-ranking Republicans who have aggressively condemned Trump. Most of his rivals in the race for the GOP presidential nomination have echoed Trump’s line that he’s a victim of politicized prosecution — not a perpetrator of an unprecedented crime spree.

Trump himself boasted earlier this month that he needs “one more indictment to close out this election,” and many of his stalwart backers predict the criminal charges will only meld his coalition into a more durable political force.

And he scheduled a “major” news conference next week at his golf course in New Jersey to push back on the charges, claiming to supporters in a social media post that there will be a “complete exoneration.”

Kemp and other Republicans who were targets of Trump’s wrath have been guarded in their criticism; the governor recently reaffirmed his commitment to back Trump if he’s the GOP nominee even as he assailed the former president’s decision not to sign a “loyalty pledge.”

Still, there are signs of a shift. State GOP leaders are openly wrestling with the lasting impact of the former president’s comeback bid, and Kemp is among the sponsors of a GOP conference this week that will draw a half-dozen Trump rivals.

Among them is former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who presented the runup to the Fulton indictment as a wake-up call for fellow Republicans. He challenged GOP voters to consider two vexing questions about Trump in a recent ABC News interview.

“Is he really the guy, under indictment in four different cases, given the conduct that he committed, someone who can beat Joe Biden or any other Democrat in November 2024?” Christie asked. “And when are we going to stop pretending that this is normal?”

Once somewhat reluctant to bash Trump over his legal problems, state Democrats unleashed a wave of attacks after the Fulton indictments were released, mindful that swing voters who tilted the 2020 ledger to Biden could also decide the 2024 vote.

“In 2020, Georgians watched Trump try to overturn a free and fair election just because he didn’t like the results,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia. “And starting today, Georgians will watch him face accountability.”

Trump’s Georgia allies predict he’ll only come out of the indictments a stronger force. Debbie Dooley is among the Trump die-hards planning to protest this month at the Fulton County Courthouse against Willis’ “politically motivated witch hunt.”

And analysts marvel at Trump’s staying power even as they wonder whether the charges in Georgia could stick. Rick Dent, a Democratic strategist, compared Trump to the Michael Myers character in the “Halloween” movie franchise who is impossible to kill.

“The rules simply don’t apply to him like other political figures. Will it stop him from winning the nomination? Not in the least,” Dent said. “Can he win the presidency? If anyone can with this many indictments, Donald Trump can.”