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As Atlanta DA’s Trump Election Probe Advances, She Explains Her Approach

7 minute read

Fani Willis, the District Attorney of Fulton County, Ga., began investigating the possibility of criminal interference in Georgia’s November 2020 election in early February last year, several weeks after a recorded phone call during which former President Trump asked Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” over 11,000 votes. (Repeated tallies, recounts and audits have shown that now President Joe Biden beat Trump by about 12,000 votes in Georgia.) Last week, Willis asked for a special grand jury to continue an investigation of what she described as a “reasonable probability” of “possible criminal disruptions” of the 2020 presidential election.

And on Monday, about 15 minutes before we were scheduled to speak by phone, Willis’ request was granted by Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Christopher S. Brasher, after a majority of the county’s 20 superior court judges—all of whom were seated after technically non-partisan elections or were midterm appointments made by the state’s long string of Republican governors—voted in favor of it.

Read more: Atlanta’s First Black Female District Attorney Is at the Center of America’s Converging Crises

Judge Robert McBurney, initially appointed to the bench in 2012 by then Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, has been assigned to supervise the jury. The special-purpose grand jury will, at least initially, have 12 months to do its work. During that time, like other grand juries, it will have something that Willis’ public-corruption team has not: subpoena power. With this, testimony can be compelled, along with evidence. At the end of the process, the special grand jury will issue a report and recommendation to a regular grand jury about whether or not any indictments should be handed down.

Willis, whose county includes the city of Atlanta, is generally tight-lipped about the investigation but took questions illuminating a process that doesn’t exactly appear on every episode of Law & Order. She also hinted at the possibility that the Supreme Court’s recent decision to grant Congress access to hundreds of Trump Administration documents may have meaning in Georgia. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported that Willis’ office is sharing information with committees investigating the events of Jan. 6 in Congress and with New York officials examining Trump’s businesses and charities for possible wrongdoing.) What follows are her answers edited for clarity and length.

TIME: So the chief judge has just issued the order. A special-purpose grand jury will be seated in May. I think the natural question is, why May? Why not next week or next month?

Grand juries work in two month terms. So you have a January-February term, which we’re currently already in the midst of, then you’ll have a March-April term, and then you have the May-June term. There [are also] still things that I thought we could do before, in preparation for the special-purpose grand jury. And so the next available time for me, that was May.

What is it that a special-purpose grand jury has the power to do and, in particular, what is this jury going to be asked to do?

[In Fulton County] we’re in this historical backlog and actually running two [ordinary grand] juries. And what those grand juries do is they just hear case, after case, after case, after case, after case—typically somewhere between 40 and maybe 65 cases a day, every day. Everything from drugs to murder to rapes and and our police shooting cases, everything. Those grand juries do not have time to conduct an investigation. So this [special] grand jury will not be hearing any [other] cases. They won’t do any of the other business of Fulton County. All they will do is receive information as it relates to this particular investigation.

Some people might read the need for a special-purpose grand jury as an indicator that your office hasn’t been able to make enough progress on its own. What’s your response to that sort of reaction?

I’m going to define the word because I don’t ever want to be offensive to anyone. I think that’s kind of ignorant. Ignorant just means ill-informed, not stupid. If you asked me anything about medicine, I’m completely ignorant, right? Because it’s not my trade. What I think is very intuitive, on the other hand, is that we need to collect more information and that’s absolutely right. When you are in larger investigations [a special purpose grand jury] is often used as a tool of a district attorney’s office to gather more information.

I’m curious then what you make of Georgia’s Secretary of State saying that your office has been “slow walking” this investigation?

Honestly, you’re the first time I’ve heard it. I don’t really make anything of it.

He has in public statements, on Fox News, indicated that he thinks this is a politically driven witch hunt of sorts. And I guess I wonder if there is anything that you would want to say in response to that idea.

I think the public will have to make interpretations about the Secretary of State’s motivation to make any of those comments. Frankly, I had not heard, again, the comments referred to. The public will have to draw conclusions about whatever is causing such a shift.

[Trump] also said last week that the phone call in question that drew so much attention to Georgia was “perfect.” I wonder what you would say to that comment.

I guess you would say nothing to that because he’s a citizen of the United States. He certainly has rights to make statements and has freedom of speech. And ultimately, we’re conducting an investigation.

After about a year of investigation by the public corruption division in your office, what if anything is clear right now that definitely went on in Georgia in terms of the election?

I respect you so much for asking, but I’m going to decline answering that question.

I guess the reason that I asked that question is because I took note of some particular language in the letter, which was, there is a “reasonable probability” that “possible criminal disruptions” of the election had occurred. I just wonder what it is that you all are seeing.

All I will tell you is that the district attorney herself was involved in the drafting of that letter. And there was no word put into the letter that was a mistake or an accident or just kind of thrown in inadvertently. So we hope that the letter speaks for itself. We are very happy today that the judges in Fulton County Superior Court decided that it was legal and appropriate to give us a special-purpose grand jury and we’re going to continue on with our work.

There has been some public commentary about what the former President might have been trying to do on that call. Is there any, for instance, expectation that the special-purpose grand jury or your staff will need to obtain records from the [Congressional] committees investigating the events of Jan. 6?

I’m going to actually leave that on the floor.

Okay. I guess I’ll ask why, in this case, that’s a question that you feel shouldn’t be answered.

I think you should call us back in a week. I think that’s a different story.

There are people who would say, you know, that tape is what it is. Trump says what he says on tape. And that person is perhaps wondering why this process that has already gone on for almost a year is about to continue. Why is this so complicated?

Because what I’m going to do is do the full investigation, and this is the process that’s required.

Having been in your office and seeing the sort of fine-toothed comb with which you go through charges, I do wonder if in this case there’s a higher standard. It’s unprecedented to investigate a former President for possible crimes. So, will there be a finer-toothed comb applied?

I mean, you’ve seen my comb. It’s been effective for over 25 years now. And I will pull it out once again.

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