Saying that “decisions are imminent” in one of the most publicized criminal investigations in the country, Fulton County, Ga., District Attorney Fani Willis on Wednesday asked a judge to temporarily hold off releasing a special grand jury report into Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election in order to protect the rights of potential defendants in the case.
Willis’s comments were the strongest indication yet that she is close to announcing whether she will bring criminal charges against the former president and potentially multiple allies who assisted him in his efforts to flip Georgia’s 16 electoral votes.
“The state understands the media’s inquiry and the world’s interest,” Willis told Fulton County Judge Robert McBurney during a hearing on whether to release the report compiled by the special grand jury.
“But we have to be mindful of protecting future defendants’ rights,” she added. “I don’t think there’s any way that the court would be able to guarantee that if that report is released. The argument could be made that it impacts the rights of later individuals who want to get a fair trial.”
Willis and one of her deputies, Donald Wakeford, made clear that their request to keep the report sealed applied only for a relatively brief period while she wraps up what was described several times as an “ongoing investigation” by her office.
But McBurney seemed to be looking for ways to publish at least some portions of the widely anticipated report, noting that Georgia law requires that only special grand jury deliberations be kept secret, not the reports they write after they finish their work.
“Those grand jurors ought not to talk about their deliberations, but when they’re done, what pops out of the toaster — instead of an indictment — is a final report,” McBurney said at one point. “I don't see how that’s secret based on the statutory framework in which we’re working.”
Moreover, the judge noted, the grand jurors themselves recommended that their report be made public. But he also made clear that his inclination to disclose at least some portions of the document was “not dispositive.” At the end of the 90-minute hearing, he said, “This is not simple” and added that he would “think about this a little bit” and then notify Willis’s office, and lawyers for a coalition of media organizations that urged public disclosure of the entire document, before he issues any final order. (Yahoo News is among a number of media organizations, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the New York Times, that are members of the media coalition.)
Willis first announced her investigation two years ago after the disclosure of the phone call that Trump made on Jan. 2, 2021, to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger urging him to “find” just enough votes to reverse Joe Biden’s narrow victory in the state and appearing to threaten criminal penalties if Raffensperger did not.
Since then, her probe has expanded to include other efforts by Trump and his allies to alter the Georgia election results. Among the issues under scrutiny, sources have said, are Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani making false claims to a Georgia legislative committee about alleged election fraud in Fulton County and the appointment of so-called fake electors pledged to Trump even though the state’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, had officially certified Biden electors from the state.
But Willis, who in January 2021 took over an office with thousands of unindicted cases, initially moved slowly in her probe and only last year requested a special grand jury to investigate the matter. Such special grand juries are relatively rare in Georgia and, while they have the power to subpoena witnesses and hear testimony, do not have the power to issue indictments.
After receiving the report and its recommendations on whether criminal indictments should be pursued, Willis now has the momentous decision about whether to seek indictments from a regular grand jury.
Sources familiar with the matter say she is likely to make that decision by May. That could well come before any final decisions by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on whether to charge Trump for the two matters being investigated by special counsel Jack Smith: the former president’s refusal to turn over classified documents found at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida and his role in the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
The report has been especially anticipated because the Fulton County grand jury heard from several witnesses — including former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. — who did not testify before the House of Representatives' Jan. 6 select committee.
All told, McBurney revealed, 75 witnesses appeared before the special grand jury during the seven-month investigation, which began last May and lasted until the end of the year. But that was all McBurney revealed about the report, which was delivered to him and to Willis’s office several weeks ago.
One issue that hung over the proceeding was whether the release of the report would damage the reputations of individuals who may or may not be ultimately charged with any crimes by Willis. But Tom Clyde, a lawyer representing the media organizations, said that under Georgia law, that consideration should not be a sufficient factor to prevent the release of an official court document.
“A general statement that people’s reputations might get hurt is not enough,” he said. “We are talking about one of the most compelling situations for legitimate public interest that I can think of in this courthouse. There is genuine public interest in what these grand jurors found. They are community citizens and speaking to these issues from that vantage point as well.”