The Jolt: Trump indictment in Fulton County is multistate criminal sweep

News and analysis from the politics team at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks at a news conference at Fulton County Government Center in Atlanta on Monday, August 14, 2023, following the indictment of Former President Donald Trump and others. (Arvin Temkar/arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks at a news conference at Fulton County Government Center in Atlanta on Monday, August 14, 2023, following the indictment of Former President Donald Trump and others. (Arvin Temkar/arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Nineteen defendants. Thirty unindicted co-conspirators. Forty-one charges. Ninety-eight pages. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ yearslong probe into 2020 election interference in Georgia yielded the most sweeping charges yet against Donald Trump.

But the indictments released late Monday also alleged a vast criminal enterprise that stretched far beyond the former president to all facets of his effort to reverse his election defeat.

The case spells out dozens of separate acts that prosecutors depict as a criminal conspiracy, ranging from Trump’s infamous demand that Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger “find” enough votes to overturn his loss to efforts by Trump allies to intimidate poll workers and persuade state GOP leaders to take illegal steps.

Credit: AJC file photos

Credit: AJC file photos

High-profile members of Trump’s inner circle were indicted, including Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, top aide Mark Meadows and several lawyers accused of building the legal framework for his push to undermine Joe Biden’s victory.

Former state GOP chair David Shafer was charged with orchestrating the Georgia fake elector plot. Shafer convened a group of 16 Republican electors at the Georgia Capitol on Dec. 14, 2020, the same day Georgia’s 16 Democratic electors met to officially cast the state’s electoral votes for Biden. According to the indictments, Shafer’s misdeeds included sending text messages urging other Republicans to keep the meeting under wraps.

Several lesser-known figures face charges as well, including state Sen. Shawn Still, a suburban Atlanta Republican, and former Coffee County GOP chair Cathy Latham. Both served as Trump electors. Other names are connected to the intimidation of Ruby Freeman, a Fulton County elections staffer.

The indictments claim the criminal enterprise also operated in other battleground states such as Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Here’s what else you should know:

  • Willis will seek a trial date within the next six months and said she intends to try all 19 defendants together. If the case moves forward along that timeline, Trump will face four trials next year amid a presidential comeback bid.
  • The district attorney said Trump and his co-defendants have until Aug. 25 to surrender, setting up a massive blitz at the Fulton County Courthouse.
  • Willis didn’t comment on the mysterious charging document that briefly appeared on the Fulton County docket earlier Monday.
  • Willis dismissed Trump’s attacks labeling her a vindictive partisan prosecutor, saying “I make decisions in this office based on the facts and the law. The law is completely nonpartisan.”

***

LISTEN UP: We have a special episode of the Politically Georgia podcast breaking down the top lines of last night’s Fulton County indictments. The AJC’s Bill Rankin and Tamar Hallerman, who have been leading our Donald Trump probe coverage since the beginning and host the AJC’s Breakdown podcast about the investigation, give us their first impressions.

Listen at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts.

***

TUMULTUOUS DAY. When Fulton County grand jurors gathered early Monday to hear evidence in the 2020 election interference case, all signs pointed to a Tuesday announcement by District Attorney Fani Willis. That’s because over the weekend, two key witnesses let it be known they were asked to testify on Tuesday.

The closed-door proceedings apparently went quicker than anticipated, as former state Rep. Bee Nguyen, former state Sen. Jen Jordan and elections official Gabriel Sterling all delivered testimony.

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

When former Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and journalist George Chidi each confirmed they were asked to reschedule their testimony to Monday, it became clear the indictments could be returned earlier than expected.

As evening neared and no decision was announced, Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney advised reporters to grab dinner — a sure sign that jurors would work through the night.

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Just before 9 p.m., the indictments were delivered to McBurney as a breathless group of reporters looked on. Across the country, others watched via the courtroom livestream. But the findings remained sealed for hours, as Fulton County staffers worked to process it.

The charges were finally unveiled around 11 p.m., shortly before a Willis news conference, where she addressed dozens of reporters still poring through the details of the 98-page document.

***

Credit: T.J. Kirkpatrick/The New York Times

Credit: T.J. Kirkpatrick/The New York Times

PARTISAN LINES. Most members of Georgia’s congressional delegation chose to remain silent as news of the indictments broke, but those who spoke out divided mostly along familiar partisan lines.

Democrats applauded the news and said the charges were another sign that former President Donald Trump will be held accountable for his actions. Republicans were critical of the indictments and accused Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis of carrying out a political vendetta.

U.S. Rep. Rich McCormick was the outlier, using the news as an opportunity to criticize Trump and boost his preferred presidential candidate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The Suwanee Republican said the indictments were “distractions” that have “eroded confidence in the judicial system while threatening our Party’s opportunity to win back the White House in 2024.”

Added McCormick: “That’s why we must focus on the issues that matter most to American families — border security, law and order, economic opportunity — not on the past. To do that, we must unite around proven leaders with a bold vision for America.”

***

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

WARNOCK ON THE VINEYARD. U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., was a long way from home over the weekend, delivering a sermon at the Tabernacle on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the Massachusetts coast.

The Martha’s Vineyard Times reported that Warnock spoke about the rise of hate groups and the country’s transition into a new era.

“While I am concerned, I don’t allow myself to get too shaken by those who traffic hate,” Warnock said.

The senator also criticized book bans and attacks on affirmative action. “They’re trying to erase Black people, erase Black history,” Warnock said.

The senator has been a frequent visitor to the island. He was a part of the Martha’s Vineyard Author’s Series last summer and spoke at Union Chapel in 2021.

***

Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC

Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC

RURAL VOTE. Contest Every Race, a national rural organizing and Democratic candidate recruitment program, wants to chip away at GOP strongholds in rural areas in Georgia and the rest of the nation.

The group said it will spend $10 million this cycle to recruit Democrats in more than 300 rural counties ahead of the 2024 election. Among the Georgia counties targeted are Baldwin, Bartow, Greene, Newton, Washington and Wilkinson counties, where CER says it will recruit candidates for posts ranging from school board to county commissions to state legislatures.

In the 2022 cycle, the group said it reached out to 4,020 people in Georgia counties to encourage them to compete. About 390 of them ran — and 79 won.

Among the group’s advisory board of political heavyweights is U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, who is also the chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia.

***

Credit: Kenny Holston/The New York Times

Credit: Kenny Holston/The New York Times

TODAY IN WASHINGTON:

  • President Joe Biden will mark one year since the signing of the Inflation Reduction Act by traveling to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he will tour a clean energy manufacturing company and deliver remarks on his economic agenda.
  • The House and Senate recess continues through Labor Day.

***

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

AGE HAPPENS. Democrats in 2020 named Georgia Congressman David Scott the first Black person in history to lead the powerful Agriculture Committee.

Almost immediately, some members of the Atlanta resident’s party complained privately of Scott’s appointment — and leaked to the media their belief that the panel needed a younger and more agile chairman. Scott is 78 years old.

That criticism has popped up here and there since then, most recently as part of a wider conversation about aging lawmakers given health scares involving Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. Feinstein, 90, took an extended absence from her legislative duties earlier this year due to shingles while McConnell, 81, momentarily froze mid-sentence while giving remarks in July.

Scott hosted a public event last week at a senior care facility in Union City that seemed crafted to counter his critics. He sent the message that he is not only up for the job but flourishing at it.

“Age happens. As long as I’m doing the job, I’m going to do it,” he said, insisting he plans to run for a 12th term in 2024.

Our profile on Scott has more on why he remains popular among his constituents and fellow members in Georgia’s delegation.

***

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for the AJC

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for the AJC

BARKING ABOUT BALLOTS. The last time the paper ballot brigade marched on the Chatham County Board of Elections, one of their ranks was physically removed by police officers.

The August meeting featured no such tussles Monday, although approximately 60 voting system skeptics attended and a number of them voiced their doubts about Georgia’s Dominion Voting machines. One used his allotted two minutes of public comment time to repeatedly call Elections Board Chairman Tom Mahoney a “fascist” over his ordering the ejection of local conservative activist Beth Majeroni last month.

Majeroni was carried hand and foot from the July meeting by police after refusing to yield the floor.

The Savannah push for paper ballots mirrors efforts elsewhere around the state by those who express distrust in Georgia’s voting system over Joe Biden’s defeat of then-President Donald Trump in the 2020 general election. Trump claimed a “rigged” vote cost him victory in Georgia and blamed the voting machines as well as absentee ballots.

Local election boards like Chatham’s have no power to alter the way residents in their counties vote. The Georgia General Assembly sets the voting laws and the Georgia Secretary of State’s office administers elections with assistance from county officials.

As one elections board emailed after the meeting, “We cannot do anything but we have offered them a platform to vent.”

***

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

DOG OF THE DAY. It’s been quite a 24 hours of breaking news in Georgia. So what better antidote to crimes and misdemeanors than Jody Sloop, the little Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who calls new AJC subscriber Mary Sloop her person?

A reliable source tells us the only thing the 11-year-old Jody barks at are other dogs on TV. More importantly, she’s one cute pup. So take a deep breath, look at that face, and enjoy our stress-reducing, make-you-smile AJC Dog of the Day.

***

AS ALWAYS, Jolt readers are some of our favorite tipsters. Send your best scoop, gossip and insider info to adam.vanbrimmer@ajc.com, patricia.murphy@ajc.com, tia.mitchell@ajc.com and greg.bluestein@ajc.com