Shrug or fret? Georgia Republicans wrestle with looming Trump indictment

While some Trump allies try to shrug off his legal peril, they can’t be so easily dismissed in Georgia
A Fulton County grand jury could decide as early as next week whether to indict former President Donald Trump on charges involving attempts to subvert the 2020 election in Georgia. Trump is already facing indictments in Miami, New York and Washington, and Georgia Republican leaders have wrestled with how to treat the situation. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: NATRICE MILLER

Credit: NATRICE MILLER

A Fulton County grand jury could decide as early as next week whether to indict former President Donald Trump on charges involving attempts to subvert the 2020 election in Georgia. Trump is already facing indictments in Miami, New York and Washington, and Georgia Republican leaders have wrestled with how to treat the situation. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

BRUNSWICK — John Wood has been knee-deep in Republican politics for decades as an activist, a GOP official and keen political observer. But he’s never seen his party struggle quite like it has with Donald Trump’s mountain of legal problems.

Wood has heard local Republicans echo Trump’s confidence that the criminal charges only bolster his 2024 election chances. But he’s also witnessed the defection of a wave of moderate and independent voters since Trump’s 2016 bid.

“With a lot of people there is a blind loyalty to Trump,” said Wood, a former chair of the GOP’s coastal Georgia chapter. “But as these charges continue to stack up and get more serious, you have to hope that the GOP has a contingency plan in case things don’t go Trump’s way.”

As Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis prepares to announce next week what could be a fourth criminal indictment against Trump, Georgia Republican leaders and activists are on edge.

Some are eagerly repeating Trump’s mantra that the indictments in Miami, New York and Washington are a politically motivated witch hunt to protect President Joe Biden. But others worry that the charges could further weaken Trump and alienate swing voters crucial to flipping Georgia to the GOP column.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis could announce next week what would be a fourth criminal indictment against former President Donald Trump. (Katelyn Myrick/katelyn.myrick@ajc.com)

Credit: Katelyn Myrick

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Credit: Katelyn Myrick

“This is something I have pondered the answer to for some time now. I know it will definitely unite his base even further and energize them to turn out in the primary,” said James Cooper, chair of Georgia’s 10th District GOP.

“The question is how will it affect the average Republican presidential primary voter,” Cooper said. “That I truly don’t know the answer to.”

‘Get Trump?’

While Trump allies elsewhere attempt to shrug off the former president’s legal perils, in Georgia the criminal indictments aren’t so easily tuned out.

That’s because Georgia served as the backdrop for Trump’s blizzard of election fraud conspiracies, and the state’s top elected Republican officials became direct targets of his attempts to overturn his narrow defeat to Biden in 2020.

With Willis’ yearslong investigation nearing a conclusion, some Trump-aligned Republicans are eager to present an air of bravado — and use the potential indictment as a new call to action.

Cobb County GOP chair Salleigh Grubbs, part of a wave of pro-Trump conservatives who won control of local party machinery, summed up the sentiment.

“Most Republicans I speak with feel that it’s just another attempt to ‘get Trump,’ ” she said. “I think it absolutely matters to voters — and should to every citizen. Whether it unites Republicans or not remains to be seen. But it should.”

Democrats have their own quandary, with many choosing to steer clear of the drumbeat of courthouse developments and instead focus on the party’s priorities.

At a rally last weekend in Blue Ridge where Democrats tried to forge new inroads in deeply conservative rural territory, Trump wasn’t mentioned once. Instead, party leaders said they wanted to highlight their plans to expand Medicaid and preserve abortion rights.

At a rally in Blue Ridge, Democrats didn't mention former Republican President Donald Trump's numerous indictments. Instead, they focused on highlighting their plans to expand Medicaid and preserve abortion rights.

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U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff took a similar approach this week when he became the first statewide Democrat in decades to address the Georgia Chamber’s annual congressional luncheon, using his time on the podium to stress bipartisanship to a crowd dotted with influential conservatives.

Still, he said in an interview before his speech that he isn’t downplaying the gravity of the indictments, including the federal charges that Trump stoked the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, to overturn the 2020 election.

“What happened on that day is the most extreme and egregious example of power politics, and partisan politics, for its own sake,” Ossoff said.

‘Even if he’s in jail’

At a weekend barbecue fundraiser in Monroe that drew hundreds of conservatives, the drip, drip, drip of courtroom developments continually bubbled up in conversation as die-hard Republicans wrestled over the of the criminal charges.

Speaking from the stage was Gov. Brian Kemp, whose tumultuous relationship with Trump could make him a star witness in a potential Fulton County trial. Without invoking Trump’s name, he pleaded with supporters to stay engaged in a must-win state for Republicans in next year’s White House race.

“The road to the White House is coming through Georgia,” said Kemp, who has pledged to back the party’s nominee, even if it’s Trump. “There’s no way that we’re going to have a Republican president if we do not win in November 2024 in the great state of Georgia.”

Even so, Kemp cautioned the crowd that Georgia politics have fundamentally changed since the heady days of runaway GOP victories. Regardless of whether next year’s election brings a GOP tide, he expects future election battles will be closer than those his predecessors faced.

Gov. Brian Kemp, flanked by former Govs. Sonny Perdue, left, and Nathan Deal, right, says Georgia has changed since the days when his two Republican predecessors won the Governor's Mansion. Races against Democrats will tighten in the future, he said, "but we are a red state that has conservative values, with people who will stand up to fight for what we believe in.” Photo and capsule: georgia.gov.

Credit: Jennifer Brett

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Credit: Jennifer Brett

“We are also not the red state we were when Sonny Perdue got elected. We are not the red state we were when Nathan Deal got elected,” Kemp said. “But we are a red state that has conservative values, with people who will stand up to fight for what we believe in.”

Other Republicans, of course, aren’t so tortured about Trump’s comeback. Many exude optimism that the unprecedented criminal charges against Trump will rally more conservatives to the GOP standard even if they risk driving some middle-of-the-road voters into the embrace of Democrats.

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene is one of a small group of Trump allies in Georgia who have already endorsed the former president’s comeback attempt, even as many other elected Republican officials remain on the sidelines.

At a town hall in Rome this week, Greene was peppered with questions about the probes into Trump’s handling of classified documents and his attempt to undermine Biden’s victory. She called the Willis investigation a “circus” and predicted the charges will only solidify Trump’s support in 2024.

Then Greene took her loyalty to the former president a step further.

“I will vote for President Trump, even if he is in jail,” she said, “because that’s the one man I want in the White House.”

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