Potential Fulton charges put Trump in tough political spot

Former President Donald Trump throws hats as he enters the stage during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates at the Banks County Dragway in Commerce, Ga., on Saturday, March 26, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



Former President Donald Trump throws hats as he enters the stage during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates at the Banks County Dragway in Commerce, Ga., on Saturday, March 26, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Georgia is used to outsized political attention, but the possibility of criminal charges against Donald Trump would put the state at the center of something unprecedented in American history: a former president making a comeback bid while under indictment.

If Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis decides to seek charges against Trump or his allies — she recently said decisions are “imminent” — it would be the first bona fide prosecution involving the Republican’s effort to overturn the 2020 election.

It would put the Trump-driven lies and conspiracy theories surrounding his defeat to Joe Biden front-and-center at a time when many in the GOP are advocating that the party put the former president’s obsession with the 2020 vote in the rearview mirror.

It would also force other Republican presidential contenders to navigate a tricky balancing act as Trump tries to build sympathy from party loyalists over what he has long described as a “witch hunt.” Will they seize on the probe as a vulnerability, or sidestep the issue altogether?

“That’s the challenge for any of the 2024 candidates: how do you thread the needle of keeping Trump’s base on board and not alienating them while broadening the electorate?” said Alice Stewart, a Republican strategist and Tucker native who worked for several presidential campaigns, including for Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee. “Most Republicans want to turn the page.”

Willis has her own political calculations to consider. The Democrat is up for reelection in 2024 and her nearly two-year-old investigation of Trump will also effectively be subject to a vote of confidence.

Fulton County voters aren’t the only ones watching closely. State legislators will soon debate a Republican measure that could make it easier for voters to recall prosecutors.

Aides to Willis and Trump did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Off the rails’

There’s no blueprint for what could soon unfold in the Fulton County courthouse. No former president has ever been charged with a crime.

But legal experts don’t expect any quick action. The legal maneuvering could stretch far past the upcoming election.

“There are so many opportunities here where this can just go off the rails in a way that takes two years,” said Atlanta attorney Andrew Fleischman.

One such example: If Trump or his aides are indicted in Fulton County, their attorneys would likely seek to remove the case from state to federal court, which the DA’s office would presumably fight.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, center, confers with colleagues Nathan Wade, left, and Donald Wakeford, right, during a Jan. 24, 2023, hearing before Fulton Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney. (Miguel Martinez/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

icon to expand image

Credit: TNS

Any decision is sure to be appealed and could eventually land in the U.S. Supreme Court, according to legal observers. That’s before any criminal charges are actually debated in a courtroom.

“There’s all kinds of stuff that’s gonna make this slow and cumbersome,” Fleischman said. “This has got every kind of novelty baked into it.”

Willis isn’t the only prosecutor examining Trump. The Justice Department and the Manhattan DA’s office have opened inquiries into the former president’s handling of classified government documents, his conduct leading up to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and role in paying hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels. And New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a civil fraud case last fall against Trump, three of his adult children and their family business that accused them of overvaluing their assets.

Former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a Trump surrogate in 2016 and 2020, said any potential criminal indictment would most likely hurt the former president’s campaign.

“It kind of dries up your money because the money crowd is a little jittery with things like that,” said Kingston, who represented a Savannah-area House district until 2015. And “it pushes the voter to look at the other candidates a little more willingly than he or she would without this.”

But even some Republicans who say Trump has worn out his welcome predict that criminal charges could backfire by unifying his loyalists — and deprive his GOP opponents of attention.

Jason Shepherd, a former Cobb GOP chair, fears that a criminal case against Trump would unify Republican voters around the former president — but ultimately ensure that he will be “easily defeated” in 2024.

“It’s hard to forget that candidate Trump once quipped during his 2016 run that he could shoot someone in the street and his supporters would still be with him,” said Shepherd.

Willis’ fights

Trump isn’t the only figure who could face political backlash. Willis is facing a complicated set of crosscurrents.

There’s already considerable tension between her and the Republican-controlled Legislature after the special grand jury Willis advised issued subpoenas for the testimony of several members last summer.

Lawmakers have introduced rules this session that would make it harder for them to be subpoenaed. And they could debate a proposal that would give the state power to sanction prosecutors for shirking their duties and significantly lower the threshold for recall votes.

While state Rep. Houston Gaines and other sponsors say it has nothing to do with Willis’ probe — indeed, a version of the legislation was introduced before she gathered the special grand jury — critics worry it could be weaponized against her.

Georgia State Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, is seen in the House of Representatives in Atlanta on Thursday, February 2, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Indeed, some Republicans whispered about launching a recall effort against Willis last summer, even approaching an operative who led similar campaigns in California, before the initiative appeared to fizzle out.

Marci McCarthy, the chair of the DeKalb GOP, said many Republicans see the Fulton investigation as a “nothing burger” that drains tax dollars and distracts prosecutors from other pressing matters.

“She should focus her efforts on bringing justice to the victims who are directly impacted by a crime wave that includes murders, shootings, robberies, rapes and street racing,” McCarthy said of Willis.