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How Atlanta prosecutor Fani Willis took on Donald Trump

The former president was charged with 13 counts in Georgia.

Fani Willis leans against a bookshelf full of legal-looking tomes.
Fani Willis, the district attorney of Fulton County, Georgia, inside her office chambers in Atlanta on September 20, 2022.
David Walter Banks / The Washington Post via Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

A prosecutor in Georgia has filed charges against Donald Trump over his efforts to steal the 2020 election in that state.

On Monday, Fani Willis, the district attorney of Fulton County, charged Trump with 13 counts, including racketeering and conspiracy. And the former president had company. Several of his attorneys, campaign aides, and administration officials were charged as well, including Rudy Giuliani and former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. You can read the full indictment at this link.

The subject matter covered in the new indictment overlaps somewhat with special counsel Jack Smith’s election-related case, in which Smith’s team filed federal charges earlier this month. But Willis’s probe predated Smith’s, and focused on Georgia state law rather than federal law.

Willis zeroed in on several issues in particular, including the infamous call in which Trump urged Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” votes for him and the secretive convening of fake electors who pledged their votes to Trump rather than Biden.

The new indictment means Trump has gone four for four — he’s now been indicted in all four of the known criminal investigations into him. (The other three are Smith’s election probe, Smith’s classified documents probe, and New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s hush money probe.)

Notably, if Trump wins the presidency in 2024, he would have no power to end this prosecution or pardon himself, since it’s being brought under state rather than federal law. However, a trial could be a long way off given the complexity of the case.

How Trump tried to steal the election in Georgia

Trump’s Georgia legal jeopardy stems from his actions after the 2020 presidential election. When it became clear that Joe Biden had won the presidency due to his narrow victories in a handful of swing states, Trump and his allies set about trying to flip the outcomes of those states. The first stage of that effort involved urging state legislators or top state officials to intervene — to block certification of vote totals, or simply to change the outcome based on bogus assertions of fraud.

Georgia became a particular focus of Trump’s efforts. The outcome there was quite close — in the end, Biden won by 11,779, a 0.23 percent margin. More importantly, the state was entirely in Republican hands — unlike Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania (which had Democratic governors) and Arizona (which had a Democratic secretary of state). If there was any place where Trump could change the outcome by applying pure partisan pressure, Georgia looked like his best shot.

Yet Republicans there did not cooperate. As early as November 16, 2020, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger went public about pressure he was getting from Trump’s allies, raising alarm bells about a call from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) that he interpreted as a suggestion to throw out mail ballots from certain Democratic-leaning counties. (Graham denied this is what he meant.)

In early December, Rudy Giuliani testified before a state legislature subcommittee hearing and made various false, misleading, and nonsensical claims about supposed voter fraud, in an effort to get the legislature to throw out the results. They didn’t bite. After a recount didn’t change the outcome, Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp certified the final result December 7.

Then, on December 14, electors around the country cast their electoral votes, and Georgia’s cast theirs for Biden. But the Trump team had a plot to assemble what they called their own “alternate” electors from seven states, and they hoped that when Congress counted the electoral votes on January 6, Vice President Mike Pence would toss Biden’s electoral votes and decide to count Trump’s instead, thus stealing the election for him. Publicly, Trump’s team pretended the alternative electors were merely a routine measure to keep their legal options open. They made similar representations to some of the would-be electors they roped into the plot.

The Georgia elector plot involved some skullduggery. The Trump team wanted to give the alternative elector votes the legal fig leaf of being cast in the state capitol the same day the genuine votes were being recorded, so they made plans to do it in “complete secrecy,” as one campaign aide emailed. A journalist ended up uncovering their meeting that day.

Trump’s pressure on Georgia officials continued after the electoral votes had been cast. In late December, he tracked down and called Georgia’s top elections investigator, asking her to do more to find “dishonesty” in the results. In January, the US attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, Byung Pak, abruptly resigned after being told that, because he refused to say widespread fraud was found in Georgia, Trump would fire him.

But the centerpiece of the effort was the January 2, 2021, phone call Trump made to Raffensperger.

During the hour-long call, which Raffensperger’s team recorded and swiftly provided to the Washington Post, Trump repeatedly urged the secretary of state to change the outcome so he would win. “There’s nothing wrong with saying that, you know, that you’ve recalculated,” Trump said at one point. “I just want to find 11,780 votes,” he said at another. He even threatened that Raffensperger could be committing “a criminal offense” by purportedly not reporting ballot fraud, adding, “That’s a big risk to you.”

Much of Trump’s previous post-election conduct had been legally questionable, but the revelation of the Raffensperger call was the point when many experts began to argue that Trump had crossed the line into outright criminal conduct, arguably violating both state and federal law. Since Georgia’s capital, Atlanta, is in Fulton County, state law violations would fall under the purview of Fulton County’s district attorney — Fani Willis, an elected Democrat who had been sworn in just the day before the call took place.

How Fani Willis’s investigation played out (and why she focused on racketeering)

At first, Willis appeared to be moving quickly. On January 4, 2021, she released a statement saying she found reports of the call “disturbing” and that “anyone who commits a felony violation of Georgia law in my jurisdiction will held accountable.” Then, that February, she announced in letters to state officials that she’d opened an investigation, and was exploring possible criminal violations of election fraud, false statements, conspiracy, and racketeering. And that March, she hired one of the state’s top racketeering experts.

Willis’s focus on racketeering as a potential charge stood out. The crime of “racketeering” was essentially created as a prosecutorial tool to help target organizations deemed corrupt, like the Mafia. Previously, prosecutors had often struggled to prove which individual mobsters were personally responsible for specific criminal acts, with key figures often avoiding being directly tied to serious crimes like murder. But under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act of 1970, even minor crimes like mail fraud committed as part of a “racketeering enterprise” could result in large prison sentences. The threat of such sentences could also now help convince mobsters to flip on higher-level figures.

Georgia passed its own RICO law in 1980 in part “to go after Black street gangs,” the New Yorker’s Charles Bethea writes, adding that its version is particularly broad because it doesn’t “require prosecutors to demonstrate an underlying criminal enterprise” or organization. All that’s necessary, per Bethea, is “the commission of a range of illegal acts that furthered a single criminal goal.”

Over the past few decades, both federal and state prosecutors — including Willis herself — have broadened RICO’s scope well beyond gangsters, and toward other organizations or conspiracies they deem corrupt in some way. As a lower-level prosecutor in the mid-2010s, Willis led a racketeering case against 35 Atlanta teachers and administrators accused of cheating on standardized tests. And last year, as district attorney, she used RICO against the rapper Young Thug and more than two dozen of his associates, in a controversial case that relied partly on rap lyrics as evidence. “RICO is a tool that allows a prosecutor’s office and law enforcement to tell the whole story,’’ Willis has said.

Willis’s Trump investigation went quiet for much of 2021, but by the end of the year she had decided on her way forward — she’d use a “special grand jury,” which can remain active longer than the county’s typical two months. That special grand jury was seated in May 2022 and started hearing testimony the following month. In public filings, legal battles over who should have to testify played out, and Willis won most of them, getting testimony from Graham, Giuliani, and many other key figures. Willis also revealed that at one point, all 16 of Georgia’s fake electors were targets of her investigation, though she later struck immunity deals with at least eight of them. (A judge barred her from investigating one, because he was running for lieutenant governor and Willis had headlined a fundraiser for his Democratic opponent.)

The special grand jury finished its work and submitted a report last December. Since special grand juries can’t indict, Willis convened a regular grand jury this July, which heard evidence and voted on the indictment Monday. And now, Trump can add Georgia to his list of legal woes.

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