Trump indictments roil Republicans in Georgia’s Senate

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

The criminal case against Donald Trump and 18 of his allies in Fulton County has rocked the Georgia Senate, where new battle lines are being drawn over the far-ranging indictment.

A freshman GOP member of the chamber faces charges in the former president’s attempt to overturn the election, and Lt. Gov. Burt Jones could soon be under investigation in connection with the alleged fake elector scheme.

Meanwhile, Republicans are sparring over far-right efforts to oust Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis from office after she brought charges against Trump, with normally congenial colleagues openly chastising each other as “buzzard cowards” or shameless gluttons for attention.

At the center of the clash is state Sen. Colton Moore, a backbench lawmaker who has become a darling of Trump hard-liners for using increasingly hostile language to pummel fellow Republicans who don’t back his pie-in-the-sky push to impeach Willis.

Credit: Michael Blackshire/AJC

Credit: Michael Blackshire/AJC

And Trump has tried to fan the flames, posting a video this week that praised Moore’s “courage and conviction” as he called on other Republicans to rally behind the “highly respected” lawmaker.

That brought an extraordinary rebuke from Gov. Brian Kemp, who devoted most of a press conference Thursday to harangue Moore and other Trump loyalists to focus on the economy, public safety and other forward-looking issues.

“That’s what helps people fight through Joe Biden’s 40-year high inflation,” Kemp said. “Not focused on the past or some grifter scam that somebody’s doing to help them raise a few dollars into their campaign account. That is what we’re going to stay focused on.”

The strife isn’t all one-sided. Democrats, too, are divided over how to approach a probe that could eventually yield charges against the chamber’s president — while also acknowledging they still need GOP support to adopt even the most incremental piece of legislation.

It’s all playing out against the backdrop of an impending election-year session in 2024 when tensions will inevitably rise higher — as well as the possibility of a special session at this year’s end to redraw Georgia’s political maps.

“I will force votes on defunding Fani Willis,” Moore said. “I represent the people of northwest Georgia. And those people don’t want their tax dollars contributing to this investigation.”

‘Absolutely ridiculous’

An auctioneer and truck driver from Trenton, Moore was a 24-year-old recent college graduate in 2018 when he won an upset GOP primary victory against a Georgia House incumbent.

Moore drew headlines that year when he bought the domain name from a California public relations strategist who had been directing it to a website for Kemp’s Democratic opponent in the governor’s race, Stacey Abrams.

He won a close GOP primary last year over retiring state Sen. Jeff Mullis’ handpicked favorite to succeed him, and leaders quickly tried to include Moore in key decisions, even delivering a “bronze elephant” — doled out weekly by Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch — as an award.

But that bonhomie evaporated this month when Moore berated his colleagues for not joining his call for a special legislative session to impeach Willis — a move that GOP leaders quickly opposed as a pro-Trump fantasy because it would require Democratic support.

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

“Senator Moore put his letter out and pasted it all over social media and did interview after interview while using the issue to raise money online,” state Sen. Russ Goodman, a Homerville Republican, told his constituents in an open letter.

“He never once called anyone in the Republican caucus to discuss his letter,” Goodman added. “I’ll be perfectly frank: I think what he is doing is disingenuous and I’m not going to purposely mislead y’all.”

The temperature has only risen since then. Moore has called Republicans who have objected to his petition spineless “RINOs” (Republicans in name only) and even warned of impending violence.

“Do you want a civil war? I don’t want a civil war. I don’t want to have to draw my rifle,” Moore said during a recent appearance on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast. “I want to make this problem go away with my legislative means of doing so.”

His broadsides may have also spurred threats against some Republican senators that led the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to seek details from lawmakers about harassing activity and suspicious behavior.

After state Sens. Bo Hatchett and Shelly Echols issued a joint statement criticizing Moore’s call, they said the senator dispatched robocalls, texts and emails targeting them.

“It’s a horrible abuse of power. A violation of Colton Moore’s oath of office,” Hatchett said. “He’s using the money he steals from conservatives to attack fellow Republicans — doing nothing but helping the Democrats across the state and putting his conservative colleagues in danger.”

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

House Speaker Jon Burns even penned a letter to members trying to beat back any hysteria that could come from calls by Moore and national Republicans to defund Willis’ office.

“A select few are calling to defund a duly-elected district attorney of this state and her office in an attempt to interfere with the criminal justice system,” Burns said in his letter. “Targeting one specific DA in this manner certainly (flouts) the idea of separation of powers, if not outright violates it.”

Moore’s growing national media attention has put leaders in the Senate, who typically skew further to the party’s conservative flank than in the House, in a bind. Gooch told the AJC that he’s spoken repeatedly with Moore to “calm down” his belligerent language.

As for Moore, he said that his GOP colleagues should be ready to join him rather than criticize him.

“To hear that I need to tone it down when I’m encouraging my colleagues to do their legislative duty is absolutely ridiculous,” Moore said, “and I hope the people of Georgia see what’s going on.”

‘He’s hurting Republicans’

Moore’s attacks add to an already fraught environment in the chamber.

State Sen. Shawn Still, another first-term Republican, was among those charged in the indictment in connection with the GOP elector scheme. Still, from Norcross, has said he did nothing wrong.

And Jones, whose duties as lieutenant governor include serving as president of the Georgia Senate, is one of 30 people who prosecutors said participated in the alleged conspiracy to overturn the 2020 presidential election but were not charged with a crime.

Although the lieutenant governor could face charges in the future, that decision will rest with a special prosecutor who has yet to be assigned to the case. While Senate Republicans have rallied behind Jones, Democrats are more divided over how to handle the evolving situation.

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

When Senate Democratic Caucus leaders called for an investigation of Jones’ role in the “scandal,” several Democrats in the chamber privately objected to the sharp phrasing.

Senate Democratic Leader Gloria Butler of Stone Mountain said she was unaware of any issues caucus members had with the statement she released the day after Trump and others were indicted.

“I don’t have to talk to the caucus about putting out statements,” she said. “They should be talking to me about putting out statements. That’s why you elect a leader. None of them called me about statements they were making, and no one said anything to me about the statement that I made.”

A few days later, three Georgia Senate Democrats were quoted in a Fox News article complimenting Jones on his willingness to work across the aisle during the legislative session. That prompted internal grumbling about why the party isn’t taking a unified approach over a powerful Republican who could run for governor in three years.

State Sen. Josh McLaurin, a first-term Democratic senator from Atlanta, said he was simply acknowledging Jones’ work across the aisle.

“They asked my opinion about Burt’s work as lieutenant governor and I answered honestly: Georgia voters sent him to the Senate, and they sent me, too,” McLaurin said. “I want to do the best job I can, and that means we work together for as long as we’re both here.”

The fissures could reach a climax soon. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling could trigger a new round of legislative redistricting by year’s end. And a new legislative session full of polarizing decisions is around the corner.

Gooch, the Senate GOP leader, suggested that lawmakers focus their attention on other ways to reprimand Willis, such as hearings to investigate her use of public resources. But some fear the rift in the Senate won’t soon be healed.

“I’ve had numerous constituents express that if Trump’s presidential campaign brings people like Colton to the forefront of our state politics, they don’t want the former president back in office,” Hatchett said.

“The only person Colton is helping is Colton,” Hatchett added. “He’s hurting Republicans. He’s hurting Republican leaders. And he’s hurting former President Trump.”

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC