Essential Politics: The other Trump investigation heats up

Fulton County Georgia District Attorney Fani Willis photographed in her office.
Georgia’s Fulton County Dist. Atty. Fani Willis asked a judge to impanel a special grand jury earlier this year.
(Ben Gray / Associated Press)

One of the biggest investigations into President Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election is heating up. Trump allies have been subpoenaed, a member of Congress has refused to cooperate and Trump has called the probe a witch hunt.

And no, I’m not talking about the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Welcome to today’s Essential Politics newsletter. I’m Arit John, a national political reporter filling in for David Lauter, and today we’ll be taking a look at Fulton County Dist. Atty. Fani Willis’ investigation into Trump.

A special grand jury issued seven subpoenas to Trump allies on Tuesday, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani. The jurors are also seeking testimony from John Eastman, Jenna Ellis, Cleta Mitchell and Kenneth Chesebro — lawyers who helped craft Trump’s strategy to overturn the election results — and a conservative pundit.

The Jan. 6 investigation has been getting the spotlight, but some legal experts have argued that the former president is most likely to face criminal charges in Georgia. The congressional committee can only make criminal referrals to the Justice Department. Willis has independent power to bring criminal charges against the former president and has already laid out what those might be.

This latest round of subpoenas aimed at Trump’s inner circle has only increased speculation about the scope of the investigation.

She also hasn’t ruled out a subpoena for Trump. “Anything’s possible,” she told NBC News this week.


Looking for 11,780 votes

Willis was elected in November 2020 after beating her boss, former Dist. Atty. Paul Howard, in the Democratic primary.

She’d previously spent nearly 20 years in the office as a prosecutor and is best known nationally for using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act — a 1970 law designed to target mobsters — to go after a ring of Atlanta educators who manipulated student test scores.

The Georgia election probe was sparked by Trump’s Jan. 2, 2021, phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. The former president asked the secretary to “find 11,780 votes,” one more than Joe Biden’s margin of victory in the state. The Washington Post released the audio of that call a few days later.

In interviews, Willis has said it was clear to her she would need to investigate the call. She’s signaled that her probe will look into whether Trump and his allies broke state laws, including those prohibiting the solicitation of election fraud, conspiracy and racketeering.

“An investigation is like an onion,” she told the New York Times in February 2021. “You never know. You pull something back, and then you find something else. … Anything that is relevant to attempts to interfere with the Georgia election will be subject to review.”

Earlier this year a judge granted Willis’ request for a special grand jury to help investigate potential criminality. Unlike the district attorney’s office, the 23-member panel has the power to subpoena officials and can convene for up to a year. The grand jury interviewed Raffensperger last month, and Gov. Brian Kemp will give a sworn recorded statement to the panel later this month.

The district attorney appears to be also investigating the scheme to send a fake slate of electors to Washington, Giuliani’s baseless testimony about election fraud to a state legislative committee and a November 2020 phone call in which Raffensperger claims Graham asked him whether he had the power to throw out certain votes.

Graham at the time disputed Raffensperger’s account of the call and denied that he wanted the secretary to toss legal ballots. The senator’s lawyers said this week he plans to challenge the subpoena, calling the election probe “all politics.”

Willis pushed back on those claims. “What do I have to gain from these politics?” she told NBC News. “I hope he’ll come and testify truthfully before the grand jury.”


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The latest from the Jan. 6 investigation

— The next Jan.6 committee hearing will take place on July 12 at 7 a.m. Pacific time. The hearing is expected to focus on how the Jan. 6 mob formed, including who helped finance it, and the participation of far-right groups such as the Proud Boys.

— Former White House Counsel Pat Cipollone is set to testify before the committee Friday in a closed door, transcribed interview. Recent hearings have highlighted Cipollone’s key role in the events the committee is investigating. Several witnesses have pointed to moments he expressed concerns about the legality of the actions the president and his allies were taking.

— Try as it might, Chapman University just can’t seem to get past John Eastman, the conservative legal scholar and former law professor who has emerged as a central figure in the Jan. 6 probe. Teresa Watanabe has the story on how Eastman’s actions continue to haunt the Orange County school where he taught.

— What else can you expect from the upcoming Jan. 6 hearings? Check out our guide.

The view from Washington

— Biden spoke Friday morning “on protecting access to reproductive healthcare services.” He was expected to outline executive actions that are intended to mitigate some potential penalties women seeking abortion may face after the Supreme Court ended the constitutional right to the procedure, though the actions may be limited in their ability to safeguard access to abortion nationwide.

— Our Atlanta bureau chief Jenny Jarvie went to Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is running for reelection on an anti-abortion platform in a state where a majority of voters support abortion rights. Although Democrats hope that abortion will help their candidates, the reality is that many voters are more concerned about inflation and the economy. “Abortion is not a top-tier issue,” Democratic pollster Steve Vancore told Jarvie. “Ron DeSantis is going to win in a landslide.”

— The Constitution doesn’t mention “separation of powers” or a “separation of church and state,” but the conservative majority on the Supreme Court has embraced the former as it breaks down the latter, writes Supreme Court reporter David Savage in an analysis of the recent court term. “While the recently concluded court term will be best remembered for its rulings on abortion and guns, it also saw the emergence of a new anti-regulatory activism,” Savage writes.

— More than 250,000 young adults and children on dependent visas are at risk of having to leave the United States after aging out of their parents’ visas, writes immigration reporter Andrea Castillo. A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress is working to pass the America’s Children Act, which would create new protections for these young people, who are sometimes called documented Dreamers. The bill will likely pass the House but faces a tougher road in the Senate.

— A new Biden administration program will allow migrant children to quickly reunite with relatives like uncles and grandparents at the border, writes Hamed Aleaziz. The new effort, called the Trusted Adult Relative Program, is being tested at a Border Patrol station in Texas.

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The view from California

— Is Gov. Gavin Newsom running for president in 2024? The California Democrat drew attention with his recent political ad urging Floridians to move here, but he’s probably not hitting the campaign trail just yet. “History has shown how tough it is for a governor with full-time responsibilities in Sacramento to run for president and succeed,” writes columnist Mark Z. Barabak. As politics reporter Seema Mehta noted, the tiny $105,000 ad buy airing on Fox News was likely aimed at getting national media attention.

— Back home, Newsom is facing criticism from community groups for failing to set aside money to a potential fund aimed at health equity and racial justice. The state Senate and Assembly allocated $75 million to the fund that didn’t make it into the $307.9-billion 2022-23 fiscal year budget that was finalized last week. Community groups said the lack of funding suggests the governor isn’t interested in taking bold action on racial justice.

— Before running for Los Angeles County supervisor, Lindsey Horvath spent nine years on the West Hollywood City Council. But that’s not clear from her campaign website. As Jeong Park and Hailey Branson-Potts write, Horvath’s campaign recently scrubbed references to the famously liberal city from her site as she seeks to represent a district that includes parts of the more conservative San Fernando Valley. Her supporters say it’s a non-issue, but it’s rubbed some WeHo locals the wrong way. Horvath will face state senator Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) in a November runoff.

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