Atlanta DA Fani Willis Took Down a Grammy-Winning Rapper. Now She’s Targeting Trump

Georgia prosecutor eyes racketeering charges over the former president’s interference in the 2020 election.

(Bloomberg) — The next place where former President Donald Trump may be indicted is Atlanta, where prosecutor Fani Willis has a history of going big.

She went big when she prosecuted a dozen Atlanta school officials, most of them teachers, for falsifying test scores, winning 11 racketeering convictions.

She did it again when she decided to pursue racketeering, drug and other charges against Grammy-winning rapper Young Thug and more than two dozen others.

The Fulton County, Georgia, district attorney has said she’ll decide this month whether to charge Trump and his supporters for their attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election in the state. Legal observers have speculated that she’ll bring charges under Georgia’s version of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization act, or RICO — a statute often associated with organized crime — just as she did in the Young Thug and Atlanta test scandal cases.  

If she does indict Trump, it would add to his mounting legal troubles as he’s pursuing his third bid for the White House.  On Thursday, he pleaded not guilty to charges by Special Counsel John “Jack” Smith accusing him of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election. Smith separately charged Trump in Florida with illegally retaining classified documents and trying to obstruct their recovery. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg also charged Trump over hush-money payments to a porn star to boost his 2016 election odds. 

Willis has been building her case against Trump and his allies for more than two years. Her office first convened a special grand jury and interviewed 75 witnesses. But that panel was advisory only and didn’t have the power to indict. Two grand juries that can indict were seated on July 11, and one is expected to hear Trump’s case. She said in a July 29 television interview that she will decide by Sept. 1 whether to charge Trump.

“The work is accomplished,” Willis said. “We’ve been working for two-and-a-half years. We’re ready to go.”

Trump has attacked Willis with the same vitriol that he’s unloaded on Smith and Bragg. Both Willis and Bragg are Black. The attacks don’t faze Willis, said attorney and Georgia NAACP President Gerald Griggs.

“Fani is the quintessential tough prosecutor,” he said. “She is very deliberate. And if she believes that a crime has been committed, she will go to the extent of the law to get a conviction. She is also one who does not take well to attempts to intimidate her, whether in person or in a tweet. I am thinking of the 45th president.”

Love of Law

Willis was destined to be a lawyer. Born in 1971 in Inglewood, California, she split her time between divorced parents. Her father, a former Black Panther turned criminal defense attorney, routinely brought her to court, instilling in her a love of the law.

After graduating from Howard University, she found her way to Atlanta through Emory University’s law school. She worked in a small law firm and city government before joining the county prosecutor’s office. Her boss and mentor was Paul Howard, Georgia’s first Black district attorney.

In 16 years under Howard, she became his chief deputy and prosecuted many of the highest-profile cases. With a preacher’s gift for oratory and a mastery of the common touch, she was a tour de force as a trial lawyer.

In 2014, Willis made national news when she tried the Atlanta school officials for changing test scores. The controversial case, whose eight-month trial was the longest in Georgia history, marked her first use of RICO. 

J. Tom Morgan, a former prosecutor, represented a defendant who was dismissed from that case for failing health. He went to court anyway to watch Willis.

“She is a natural with a jury,’’ he said. “She’s not like some DAs who don’t spend time in court. The courtroom is her sandbox. She has this innate talent of relating with jurors.”

Willis left the DA’s office in 2018 to campaign for a judge’s seat. She lost. Two years later, she ran against Howard. By then, he faced sexual harassment complaints, ethics investigations and backlash over a rushed indictment of two cops involved in the shooting death of a Black man. Willis won 72% of the vote.

When she assumed office in 2021, she walked into a mess. A case backlog included 685 unindicted felonies, 5,100 open cases dating to the 1990s and 11,000 more indicted cases. Atlanta was also experiencing a crime spike amid Covid. 

Willis, who declined to be interviewed for this article, portrays herself as an equal-opportunity prosecutor, targeting Black or White, rich or poor. She has a healthy regard for her courtroom prowess, having described herself as “one of the best murder prosecutors in this country. I’ve tried over 100 cases.”

She made an impassioned appeal to the county board for more money, rooting her argument in protecting people like the mothers of crime victims. 

“You tell me how we’re supposed to get these cases indicted without lawyers and investigators and legal assistants to do it,’’ Willis said. “How are we supposed to get them tried? And how are we going to tell them mommas, we’re going to do the very best job possible?’’

The county gave her office $5 million to hire another 55 staffers. In January, Willis told an applauding crowd at a luncheon that her office’s case backlog was gone.

The Call

What could become the defining case of Willis’ career landed immediately. News of Trump’s recorded phone call pressuring Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to find him enough votes to reverse his loss leaked less than 24 hours before Willis’ first day. She made her investigation known within weeks.

“Certainly, this is not what we expected we would inherit on Day One,” she said then. “You just deal with the hand you’re dealt.”

A racketeering prosecution is complicated. Seven months after the Young Thug racketeering trial began, jury selection is continuing. About 2,100 potential jurors began the process, and 700 remain. They could hear a case against eight defendants that may run for nine months.  Two pregnant defense attorneys had claimed they could deliver babies, finish maternity leave and return before opening statements.  But the judge has since severed their clients from the case. Eight of the original 28 defendants have pleaded guilty. 

Willis makes plain her affection for racketeering charges, saying jurors appreciate the larger scope: “RICO is a tool that allows a prosecutor’s office and law enforcement to tell the whole story,’’ Willis said last year.

In the Trump case, Willis could tie the Raffensperger call, Trump supporters who falsely claimed to be Georgia’s electors, false legislative testimony and pressure on other state officials into one sweeping tale. 

“The district attorney is at a crossroads,’’ said Clark D. Cunningham, a law professor at Georgia State University. “On the one hand, she could follow the example of Jack Smith and file an indictment that’s as simple as possible. Such an indictment would only name the former president and probably not include RICO allegations. If, on the other hand, she wanted to tell a story of a vast conspiracy, she would sacrifice simplicity in favor of RICO.’’

Willis has already gotten pushback from Trump.

“They’ve got a local racist Democrat district attorney in Atlanta who is doing everything in her power to indict me over an absolutely perfect phone call,” Trump said after his Manhattan indictment.

“The comment does not concern me at all,” Willis retorted. “It’s ridiculous in nature, but I support his right to be protected by the First Amendment and say what he likes.”

And she faces potential blowback from her own voters if she doesn’t indict. In Democratic Fulton County, where Joe Biden beat Trump by a 3-to-1 margin, many want her to use the same racketeering cudgel on Trump that she’s used against Black defendants.

Griggs, the NAACP president, said he expects Trump will be indicted. Trump will then “have to surrender to the Fulton County sheriff, where he will be booked and fingerprinted, and his mug shot will be taken, like any other defendant in the state of Georgia.’’

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