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For first-term Georgia prosecutor Fani Willis, a historic decision looms in Trump election investigation

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Georgia grand jury likely to hear Trump case next week 05:32

The prosecutor overseeing the investigation into former President Donald Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election could face perhaps the biggest decision of her career in coming days, as she weighs whether to present indictments stemming from the probe to a grand jury.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has indicated repeatedly in recent months that indictments may be coming in mid-August. This pivotal moment comes after a two-and-half-year investigation that included testimony from dozens of witnesses, and potential targets that include not only Trump but also some of his allies.

Willis has remained tight-lipped on potential actions her office will take. If Trump is charged, it would be his fourth indictment this year, and the first time in U.S. history a local prosecutor has charged a former president for efforts to hold onto power after losing an election.

If Willis brings charges against the former president — and current contender for the 2024 nomination — she could be positioned to mount a high profile prosecution in a county courthouse that has previously permitted cameras and live television coverage. The potential for it to become a riveting national spectacle, or even a circus, is hard to ignore.

Georgia Election Investigation
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, right, talks with a member of her team during proceedings to seat a special purpose grand jury on May 2, 2022, to look into the actions of former President Donald Trump and his allies following the 2020 election. Ben Gray / AP

Among other things, the investigation focused on a Jan. 2, 2021, phone call in which Trump told Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, "I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have." In addition to Trump, Willis' office has indicated others have also faced legal scrutiny in the probe, including a group of 16 Georgia Republicans who participated in an alternate elector scheme, and former Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, according to court filings. 

State and federal officials interviewed for the investigation include Raffensperger, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a close ally of Trump. 

Jennifer Little, an attorney for Trump, said in a Feb. 26 interview that Trump intends to fight any potential indictment.

"We absolutely do not believe that our client did anything wrong, and if any indictments were to come down, those are faulty indictments," Little said. "We will absolutely fight anything tooth and nail."

Judges recently rejected two efforts by Trump's attorneys to quash a report made by a special purpose grand jury in a case, and to have Willis removed from any potential prosecution.

The Fulton County investigation, and the decisions Willis makes on any charges, will be her most highly-scrutinized actions in the more than two years she's served as district attorney and 17 years she previously served as a prosecutor in that office.

Willis graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1992 and Emory University School of Law in 1996. She started working in the Fulton County District Attorney's Office in 2001 and climbed the ranks over nearly two decades, serving in nearly every division of the office. She was lead prosecutor in over 100 jury trials and prosecuted hundreds of murder and other high-profile cases.

"The best trial lawyers have an ability to take a complicated set of facts, ingest them quickly and immediately identify the issues that are going to be the crux," said former prosecutor Charlie Bailey, who worked under Willis for four years. "She [has] that ability in spades." 

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis
Fani Willis, the district attorney of Fulton County, Georgia, in her office chambers in the Fulton County Justice Center Tower in Atlanta, Sept. 20, 2022. David Walter Banks/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Bailey said Willis was someone who younger prosecutors in Fulton County sought out for her unfiltered  advice. 

"She had this corner office where people outside lined up, waiting for their turn. There were other great attorneys there but she was probably chief among equals in that department," Bailey said.

One of Willis' most well-known cases was the 2015 prosecution of 12 Atlanta Public School educators accused of conspiring to inflate students' results on standardized tests. All but one of the defendants were found guilty of racketeering and other crimes. 

"She was no nonsense, determined, intelligent and driven," said Linda Dunikoski, who prosecuted the Atlanta Public School scandal along with Willis and who is now senior assistant district attorney in Cobb County, Georgia. "[The prosecution] was controversial. People said teachers can't be criminals."

Willis left the Fulton County District Attorney's Office in 2018 and opened her own practice focused on criminal defense and family law. Two years later she ran for district attorney, challenging her longtime boss and mentor, six-term incumbent Paul Howard, who was embroiled in multiple scandals.

Bailey said he told her before the run, "You're the only one that can do this. You have to run and you will win."

"It is no small thing to run against someone that you worked under for so long, but she felt that she didn't really have a choice. It was very tough and she did not pull any punches," Bailey said.

She won, becoming the first woman to hold the position in Georgia's most populous county. 

Willis had been in office for less than two days when Trump called Raffensberger on Jan. 2, 2021, asking to "find" the votes needed to change the outcome of the presidential election in Georgia.

Dunikoski believes Willis had no choice but to investigate the call.

"When a crime has been brought to an elected official's attention, they are obligated to investigate and that's what she has done. She's done the right thing," Dunikoski said.

On Feb. 10, 2021, Willis sent letters to Raffensperger and other state officials informing them of her office's probe into potential solicitation of election fraud, false statements, conspiracy and racketeering. 

"You don't get to come to Fulton County and commit crimes, and anyone who comes to Fulton County and commits a crime should be held responsible for their actions," said Dunikoski.

Willis' critics have accused the Democrat of pursuing Trump to heighten her national profile and further her political ambitions. Trump has insisted his phone call was "perfect" and  called the investigation a "strictly political witch hunt." 

Her political career collided with her office's investigation in July, when the judge overseeing the special purpose grand jury chastised Willis for hosting a fundraiser for Bailey, who at the time was a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor competing in a primary. 

Judge Robert McBurney called the optics of Willis' participation in the fundraiser "horrific." McBurney blocked Willis from pursuing an investigation into then-State Senator Burt Jones, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor who was among those implicated in the alternate elector scheme. Jones won the election against Bailey on Nov. 8.

But Bailey said he doesn't believe politics will drive Willis' decisions in the investigation.

"She believes Lady Justice is blind, and it doesn't matter that the alleged crimes you're talking about were committed by a president," Bailey said. "And so I think she would say it's the most obvious thing in the world. It looks like crimes might have been committed. There's at least enough to where we need to investigate. I have to do it."

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