Georgia Election Investigation

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, right, and Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney speak in the county courthouse on July 11, in Atlanta. Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

ATLANTA — For more than two years, people here and across the country have watched and waited for clues that the high-profile Georgia investigation into whether former president Donald Trump and his allies broke the law in their attempts to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state was winding to an end.

That speculation hit fever pitch in recent days with the installation of orange security barriers near the main entrance of the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta. It was the most visible sign yet of the looming charging decision in a case that has ensnared not only Trump but several high-profile Republicans who could either face charges or stand witness in a potential trial unlike anything seen before in this Southern metropolis.

It is one of several investigations into attempts to reverse Trump’s loss in 2020, including a sprawling Justice Department probe overseen by special counsel Jack Smith that has sparked its own intensifying waiting game in recent days. Smith and his team have interviewed or sought information from several witnesses also key to the Georgia investigation. Trump has said he received a letter from the Justice Department saying he could face criminal charges for his efforts after the election that preceded the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Georgia Election Investigation

Former President Donald Trump arrives to speak at the Moms for Liberty meeting in Philadelphia on June 30. Matt Rourke/Associated Press

While the pace of Smith’s investigation has been unpredictable, Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis took the unusual step of publicly telegraphing that she plans to announce a charging decision in the Georgia case during the first three weeks of August, a period that opens Monday.

“The work is accomplished,” Willis (D) told Atlanta’s WXIA-TV Saturday. “We’ve been working for two-and-a-half years. We’re ready to go.”

In Atlanta, local, state and federal law enforcement officials have been privately meeting for months to plan enhanced security measures in anticipation of that announcement.

All eyes are now on two criminal grand jury panels sworn in on July 11 – one group that meets on Mondays and Tuesdays, the other that meets on Thursdays and Fridays. One of the panels will probably decide whether charges should be filed in the closely watched election interference case – a decision that could put Trump, who is now under indictment in two other criminal cases, in even more legal peril.

Willis has strongly hinted for months that she will seek multiple indictments in the case, using Georgia’s expansive anti-racketeering statutes that allow prosecutors not only to charge in-state wrongdoing but to use activities in other states to prove criminal intent in Georgia. In court filings, Willis has described her probe as an investigation of “multi-state, coordinated efforts to influence the results of the November 2020 elections in Georgia and elsewhere.”

At least 18 people were informed by prosecutors last year that they were targets of the investigation. That list that includes former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who acted as Trump’s personal attorney after the election, and several Georgia Republicans who served as alternate Trump electors and falsely signed documents claiming Trump won Georgia – though some have since been granted immunity.

But Willis’s scope is believed to be larger than that. Georgia law does not require individuals to be formally notified they are targets of an investigation.

Behind the scenes, law enforcement officials have already been discussing how it could all play out – including the anticipated crush of media and curious onlookers and potential protests that officials fear could be disruptive in a key part of downtown Atlanta.

Officials are also considering the logistics of how potential high-profile defendants might surrender for arrest, according to a person familiar with the preparations who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private meetings or sensitive plans. People who are indicted in Fulton County usually are arrested and processed for fingerprints at the Fulton County Jail before making their first court appearance.

But the decrepit condition of the jail – including crowding and unsanitary conditions – recently sparked a Justice Department civil rights investigation into the facility. That has led to speculation that Trump, if indicted, could be processed at the courthouse or another location for security reasons – a request that could come from his attorneys or the Secret Service.

The Fulton County Courthouse sits directly across the street from the Georgia Capitol building, where hundreds of Trump supporters, some armed, gathered in anger in the aftermath of his 2020 election loss. State officials at the time received death threats related to the fraud claims posed by Trump and his allies. Atlanta City Hall sits adjacent to both buildings, while the Richard B. Russell Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse is located a few blocks away.

The county courthouse has already been subject to enhanced security because of ongoing threats to Willis and her staff – including racist, threatening phone calls related to the election investigation, according to two people familiar with the threats. It’s an issue that Willis, who is often accompanied by armed bodyguards during public appearances, has raised both privately and publicly.

In January 2022, just days after she received approval to impanel a special grand jury to investigate the case, Willis, the first Black woman elected as Fulton County district attorney, sent a letter to the head of the FBI’s Atlanta field office requesting a risk assessment of the courthouse, citing “alarming” rhetoric from Trump.

In the letter, Willis pointed to remarks Trump had made at a Texas rally the previous weekend, where he attacked unnamed prosecutors investigating him in cities including Atlanta as “racist” and “mentally sick.” Willis also cited “communications” she and her staff had received from “persons unhappy” with the investigation.

Since then, Trump has escalated his attacks, describing Willis’s probe as a “political witch hunt” and repeatedly referring to her as the “racist D.A. from Atlanta.” Willis has largely declined to comment on Trump’s remarks. “It’s ridiculous in nature,” Willis told Atlanta’s WSB-TV in April. “But I respect his right to be protected by the First Amendment and say what he likes.”

But Willis has continued to raise concerns about security, which some have read as a hint that Trump may be among those who are charged in her investigation.

In an April letter to Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat, Willis offered her appreciation for additional security at the courthouse – including increased officers and new metal detectors that were installed amid jury selection in another high profile case involving rapper Jeffery Lamar Williams, known as Young Thug. But Willis said “the need for vigilance will increase” and urged “heightened security and preparedness” ahead of her announcement in the election case.

“Open-source intelligence has indicated the announcement of decisions in this case may provoke a significant public reaction,” Willis wrote in her letter. “We have seen in recent years that some may go outside of public expressions of opinion that are protected by the First Amendment to engage in acts of violence that will engage the safety [of] our community. As leaders, it is incumbent for us to prepare.”

Similar letters were also sent to the chief of the Atlanta Police Department and other top law enforcement officials in the region – prompting meetings between local, state and federal law enforcement and other local officials about security around potential indictments and possible arraignments, according to two people familiar with the preparations.

Labat, who oversees security at the courthouse and the jail, has spearheaded much of the planning process, according to two people familiar with those plans. In April, the sheriff dispatched two deputies to observe proceedings in New York, where Trump was indicted on charges related to hush money payments made to an adult film actress. Fulton County deputies also traveled to Miami, where Trump was arraigned in June on federal charges tied to his handling of classified documents.

Labat, who could not be reached for comment, told WXIA-TV in June that the deputies sent to New York and Miami understand “the gravity of it” as the agency made its own preparations in advance of Willis’s announcement.

The Atlanta Police Department, which has jurisdiction over the city streets around the courthouse, also sent an officer to Miami during the Trump arraignment, according to a spokeswoman who otherwise declined to comment on the department’s planning.

Those agencies have been coordinating with the Georgia State Patrol, which oversees security on the capitol grounds. Officials with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the FBI and Secret Service have attended security meetings, according to a person familiar with the plans. All agencies declined to comment – though a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office confirmed the coordinated efforts.

“The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office is proactively coordinating with local, state and federal agencies to enhance security during . . . high profile legal proceedings at the Fulton County Courthouse,” Natalie Ammons, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said in an email. “Some of the measures we are deploying, such as barriers that will limit parking near the courthouse, will be obvious to the public. For security reasons, other measures being deployed will not be as obvious.”

Under Georgia law, a defendant does not have to be present when an indictment is unsealed – meaning the grand jury’s decision could be made public as soon as it is delivered to a presiding judge, who will read the charges in open court.

Anyone charged in an indictment would then negotiate with the sheriff’s office on when to surrender to authorities for processing. An initial court date could occur immediately upon surrender or at a later date. If Willis does charge multiple defendants as part of an anti-racketeering case, it is not expected they would make their first appearance in court together but would likely have joint hearings at a later date.

In her letters to Labat and other law enforcement officials in April, Willis initially presented a seven-week period beginning in mid-July when she would announce her charging decision in the election case.

She later narrowed that window even further, announcing in a letter to the chief judge in Fulton County and copied to other top county officials that much of her staff would work remotely during the first three weeks of August. Noting that many judges were already scheduled to be at a conference the first week of August, Willis asked that no trials or in-person proceedings be held at the courthouse between Aug. 7 and 18 – though the courthouse remains open to the public.

Willis’s suggested charging window opens as the judge who oversaw the special grand jury rejected a motion from Trump’s Georgia-based legal team to disqualify Willis and her office from investigating the former president and block prosecutors from using evidence gathered by the grand jury. The Trump motion was also joined by Cathy Latham, a Georgia Republican and alternate Trump elector who is also facing scrutiny for her role in the breach of voting equipment in Coffee County, Ga.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney said in a Monday ruling that Trump and Latham had no legal standing to block the Georgia probe because no indictments have been announced in the case. He said their claims of due process violations were “speculative and unrealized” until charges are filed.

“While being the subject (or even target) of a highly publicized criminal investigation is likely an unwelcome and unpleasant experience, no court has ever held that that status alone provides a basis for the courts to interfere with or halt the investigation,” McBurney wrote.

McBurney said there “will be a time and a forum” where Trump and Latham can raise their objections about Willis, the use of a special of a special grand jury and even his own supervision of the case. “That time is not now, and that forum is not here,” the judge wrote.

Last month, the Georgia Supreme Court rejected a Trump motion to block Willis’s investigation. A second near-identical motion filed in Fulton County Superior Court remains pending. An outside judge assigned to hear the case scheduled an Aug. 10 hearing on the motion, but McBurney suggested his Monday ruling now renders that case “moot” – though he acknowledged the decision will “indubitably generate an appeal.”

Drew Findling, who leads Trump’s Georgia legal team, did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Willis declined to comment.

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