Donald Trump’s lawyers are making money.
The former president’s lawyers have raced to put out one fire after another in recent months as they defend Trump against investigations into the leak of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, his role in the attack on the Capitol during his final days in office, and two investigations into his business in New York.
But the biggest legal danger for Trump may come from the quiet work of a Georgia grand jury hearing evidence about his illegal attempts to overturn the state’s 2020 presidential election results and prevent Joe Biden from taking office.
“It’s a bigger legal threat to the president and some of his followers than any other investigation going on right now,” said Ronald Carlson, Georgia’s leading trial attorney and a professor at the University of Georgia School of Law. “Some of the potential charges carry very serious penalties.”
Carlson said that even if Trump were prosecuted for removing classified documents from the White House, other officials who mishandled classified material received only misdemeanor convictions and probation, such as former CIA Director David Petraeus.
He said New York’s investigations into allegations of financial fraud are focused more on Trump’s businesses than on the former president. It remains unclear what, if any, criminal charges could result from a congressional investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
But Carlson said the strong evidence of Trump’s broad efforts to reverse his narrow loss to Biden in Georgia by pressuring state officials to commit fraud puts the former president squarely at the heart of an investigation into alleged crimes that carry more serious penalties than those for which he could be charged. face in other probes.
An analysis by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, concluded that Trump is “in grave danger of possible state charges based on multiple crimes” after what it described as his “sustained attack” on the election process in Georgia.
Among other charges, prosecutors appear to be considering indictments under anti-conspiracy laws written to fight organized crime that carry potentially lengthy prison sentences.
In Atlanta, Fulton County District Attorney Fannie Willis convened a “special purpose grand jury” that will spend up to a year focused on Trump’s multifaceted attempt to fix the Georgia election.
Willis appears to build on a significant body of testimony from some of Trump’s closest allies who witnessed the defeated president’s actions and in some cases intervened themselves, including his lawyer and adviser Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York. Two days before he testified last month, Giuliani was informed that he too was the target of a criminal investigation.
The grand jury is also seeking testimony from Sen. Lindsey Graham, an ardent Trump convert who contacted Georgia officials seeking to swing the vote, and former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.
Lawyers said that since any allegations against Trump would further inflame America’s already raw politics, Willis will want to ensure he has a closed case to prevent accusations of political prosecution. But it also means any decision on prosecution could come around the time the next presidential campaign gets under way, and Trump has indicated he will run again.
The evidence presented to the grand jury is secret, but any case against Trump is likely to be based on a tape of his call to Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, demanding that he “find” enough votes to overturn Biden’s victory in the state.
When Raffensperger denied the request, Trump made vague threats to charge him with a crime for failing to investigate allegations that Democrats rigged the vote.
“You know what they did and you don’t report it. You know, it’s a crime. And you know, you can’t let that happen. It’s a big risk for you,” he told Raffensperger.
The then-president spoke with other top Republicans in Georgia, including Gov. Brian Kemp and Attorney General Chris Carr, to urge them to challenge the state’s vote count. And they resisted the pressure.
Raffensperger and Carr have already testified before a grand jury. Kemp is resisting the subpoena.
Trump also tried to get federal officials at the Justice Department to intervene. His lawyers have filed a series of lawsuits making extraordinary claims of foreign interference and other conspiracy theories. They were all fired.
When that all failed, Giuliani and others made the bogus claim that the law allowed the Georgia legislature to replace its Electoral College members with a slate that would vote for the defeated president. Lawmakers refused to play along and the Trump campaign instead sent 16 “mock voters” using fake voter certificates — another failed attempt to overturn elections replicated in six other states that Trump lost.
Willis told some of those involved in the voter fraud conspiracy that they are the target of a criminal grand jury investigation, including Georgia Republican Party Chairman David Shafer and state Sen. Brandon Beach.
Carlson said the combination of Trump’s actions potentially constitutes a significant body of evidence of widespread wrongdoing.
“The focus of this grand jury is the incitement of election fraud. It is likely that most of the evidence they receive will focus on that. Then there will be giving false statements to the state or other state authorities. Under that kind of umbrella will come the creation of a voter list, which took the position that Trump won the election. Then we’ll probably have a grand jury looking at criminal conspiracy and perjury,” he said.
A combination of all or some of these charges could also pave the way for Trump to be prosecuted for a pattern of crimes under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (Rico) statute. Although Rico is more often associated with the prosecution of organized crime, Willis used it seven years ago to convict 11 Atlanta teachers of fixing test scores for their students.
The district attorney brought in a Rico expert to investigate Trump. A special grand jury can sit until next May, giving it plenty of time to gather evidence. But unlike regular grand juries, which meet for only two months and issue indictments, it can only issue a report recommending prosecution. Willis must then decide whether to follow that recommendation and appoint a regular grand jury to seek indictments against Trump or anyone else.
Carlson predicted that if a special grand jury recommends prosecution, the district attorney will proceed.
“She is a very energetic and courageous advocate. I believe it will succeed,” he said.
The Brookings Institution said that if Trump is charged with a crime, he is likely to argue that he cannot be held criminally responsible for his actions as president. However, it said the defense is unlikely to succeed, as immunity from liability only applies to actions taken by the president that were within the scope of his lawful duties.