Mass protests. Hordes of media. The specter of one of the most remarkable “perp walks” in memory.
That could all play out in the days ahead in Manhattan, where a grand jury on Thursday reportedly did what was once unthinkable: indict a former U.S. president.
For months, it looked like Atlanta would move first to bring criminal charges against Donald Trump. But Fulton County prosecutors lost their spot in the history books when Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg apparently secured felony indictments on unknown charges.
The developments in New York could serve as a dry run for what may unfold in Atlanta, potentially later this spring. And they might take some heat off DA Fani Willis, at least in the short term, in assembling what could be a complicated conspiracy or racketeering case involving more than a dozen players.
Local and state officials are closely watching the criminal case in New York, the consequences of which have reverberated in the halls of Congress and on the 2024 campaign trail even before an indictment has surfaced.
‘The Acts Speak for Themselves’
The Manhattan and Fulton probes could not be more different.
The former is focused on whether Trump tried to cover up hush money payments to the porn star Stormy Daniels, allegedly to cover up an affair, in the lead-up to the 2016 campaign. The ex-president could be charged with violating New York laws against falsifying business and campaign finance records, which mostly constitute misdemeanors but could be combined to form a felony.
The Fulton inquiry focuses on whether Trump and his allies criminally meddled in Georgia’s 2020 elections as they pushed state officials to, among other things, “find” thousands of fraudulent ballots, convene a special session of the legislature and appoint a slate of “alternate” Republican electors.
Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com
Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com
Among the state laws being examined by prosecutors: criminal solicitation to commit election fraud, the making of false statements to state and local governmental bodies, involvement of violence or threats related to election administration and racketeering. Some could be tried as felonies, the most severe being RICO, which carries a penalty of five to 20 years imprisonment.
Most legal analysts have argued that the Fulton case presents more legal peril to Trump. They point to the recording of the phone call Trump made to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Jan. 2, 2021, during which he pressed him to “find” 11,780 votes, as particularly damning proof.
“The Georgia charges are far more serious and, personally, I think easier to prove,” said J. Tom Morgan, a former DeKalb district attorney. “Bragg has to jump through hoops to make what Trump did in New York a felony. Should Trump be indicted in Georgia, the acts speak for themselves.”
The early reaction to the expected prosecution in New York provides a preview of what could come in Georgia.
U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, the Ohio Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, and two other powerful committee chairmen on Capitol Hill accused Bragg of an “unprecedented abuse of prosecutorial authority” and launched a probe into his criminal investigation.
A few days later, Bragg’s office fired back in a letter, calling the House GOP’s demands an “unlawful incursion into New York’s sovereignty” and refusing to hand over any of the requested information.
At the center of the storm in Georgia is Willis, no stranger to biting criticism. Trump has called the Democrat a racist and accused her of blindly focusing on an investigation he labels a “witch hunt” rather than taking more assertive steps to combat violent crime. An indictment of Trump from her office, however, would invite even bigger blowback.
But the pressure wouldn’t be limited to the DA’s office. Fulton Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney’s handling of the case has already been called into question by Trump’s lawyers, and the former president’s allies are likely to step up their attacks. McBurney left little doubt Monday about his role overseeing matters, issuing an order directing prosecutors to respond to Trump’s motion by May 1 but ignoring the former president’s recent request that he step aside.
The case in New York could taint how voters view the Fulton County investigation — particularly if Trump beats the charges in Manhattan.
“A successful defense in New York has every chance to embolden the public narrative here and to make it less politically palatable for (Willis) to chase after Trump,” said Brandon Bullard, an Atlanta-based appellate attorney. “One big public win will tend to undermine the ethos of the other prosecution no matter how valid.”
Any potential prosecutions in Manhattan and Fulton would be moving on separate tracks, subject to different sets of state laws. Willis and Bragg are not required to coordinate — or even keep one another updated of what they’re up to in their jurisdictions.
Trump’s call for mass demonstrations to protest his expected indictment has also triggered new concerns about violent unrest — and worries about a repeat of the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection that he promoted.
Metro Atlanta law enforcement officials say they’re monitoring the potential protests, and the Georgia State Patrol has said it will “work cooperatively and appropriately” with local agencies.
Fulton County officials have grown accustomed to increased security situations.
Credit: Miguel Martinez
Credit: Miguel Martinez
Willis travels with a security detail and has equipped some members of her team with bulletproof vests and keychains with panic buttons. Early last year, she urged the FBI to conduct a risk assessment of the Fulton courthouse and government center after Trump called for similar large-scale protests against “prosecutorial misconduct” during a political rally.
A few months later, the Fulton Sheriff’s office blocked off vehicle traffic on the streets surrounding the courthouse the day members of a special grand jury were selected and deployed a SWAT team to protect jurors as they returned to their cars hours later. It also assigned heavily armed officers to guard the courthouse steps and a bomb-sniffing dog the day a key witness, Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, arrived to testify.
A person familiar with Willis’s planning said the DA is “watching closely” to see what develops should Trump be indicted in Manhattan.
Outside the courthouse, an indictment could force state GOP leaders to confront their strained relationship with Trump, who unsuccessfully sought to depose Kemp, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Attorney General Chris Carr and Insurance Commissioner John King.
Kemp largely sidestepped questions during his reelection campaign about Trump, who endorsed the governor in 2018 and then vowed to defeat him three years later after Kemp refused to illegally reverse the results of Joe Biden’s 2020 victory in Georgia.
But after his convincing reelection win, Kemp has taken new steps to distance himself from the former president – and blasted Trump’s “un-American” dinner in December with white supremacist leaders.
The governor has so far been tightlipped about the Fulton investigation, in part because he was among the 75 or so witnesses to testify behind closed doors.
Trump investigations in Georgia and elsewhere - Continuing Coverage
The Trump Grand Jury podcast from the AJC - Breakdown Season 9
Listen: An extraordinary look inside the Georgia grand jury probe
Georgia and Trump: Takeaways from the push to overturn the 2020 election
Who is Fani Willis: An indepth profile of the Georgia prosecutor
AJC Special Report: Inside the campaign to undermine Georgia’s election
DA says indictment announcement coming this summer in Trump probe
RELATED: The New York grand jury investigating Trump
Trump indicted: Comparing the Georgia and New York cases
Can a former president be indicted? An AJC podcast explored the historic record
What Trump’s indictment in New York means for Fulton inquiry
Fulton DA faces biggest decision of career as Trump grand jury looms
Fulton County judges approve special grand jury for Trump Georgia election probe
Gov. Brian Kemp testifies in Fulton County Trump probe
Fulton grand jury subpoenas Rudy Giuliani, Lindsey Graham, Trump campaign lawyers
Key players in the campaign to undermine Georgia’s election
Trump’s state of mind central to Fulton DA’s investigation
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com