An Atlanta district attorney has said “decisions are imminent” on whether to charge Donald Trump with criminal offences over his attempt to to overturn the results of the 2020 election in Georgia.
But a highly anticipated hearing on Tuesday remained largely inconclusive after a judge decided not to immediately rule on whether or not to make public an investigative report on the actions Trump and his allies took to baselessly challenge the legitimacy of the election.
Fani Willis, Fulton county district attorney, strongly hinted she could prosecute a former president for the first time in US history at the hearing. She cautioned, however, that openly revealing the grand jury’s investigation could prejudice a fair trial for “multiple” accused.
The judge overseeing the hearing, Robert McBurney, reserved his decision on whether to release the special purpose grand jury’s report before any announcement about prosecutions in what he described as an “extraordinary” case, leaving Tuesday’s hearing without a final conclusion.
Willis’s office is holding the only copy of the results of the grand jury’s investigation into a series of alleged crimes, including criminal solicitation to commit election fraud, intentional interference with the performance of election duties, conspiracy and racketeering. The Fulton county district attorney said she wanted to keep the grand jury’s recommendations on who to prosecute, and on what charges, under wraps until she has decided whether to pursue charges for crimes that potentially carry significant prison sentences.
“We have to be mindful of protecting future defendants’ rights,” she said. “We want to make sure that everyone is treated fairly and we say for future defendants to be treated fairly it’s not appropriate at this time to have this report released.”
Willis then added: “Decisions are imminent”.
If Willis decides to press charges, she will be required to make her case to another grand jury which has the authority to issue indictments.
The district attorney spoke about the prospect of “individuals, multiple” being prosecuted. At least 18 other people have been told they also potentially face charges including Trump’s close ally and lawyer, the former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Before the special purpose grand jury was dissolved two weeks ago after months of hearings, its members recommended releasing its findings.
Lawyers for media organisations told Tuesday’s hearing that the grand jury’s wish should be respected because of overwhelming public interest and challenged the claim that the report’s release would prejudice any trial.
At the conclusion of the hearing, McBurney reserved his decision on whether to make public the report.
“This is not simple. I think the fact that we had to discuss this for 90 minutes shows that it is somewhat extraordinary,” he said. “Partly what’s extraordinary is what’s at issue here, the alleged interference with a presidential election.”
McBurney said that if he does order that the report is made public, he will give prosecutors notice before it is released.
“No one’s going to wake up with the court having disclosed the report on the front page of the newspaper,” he said.
Legal scholars have said they believe Trump is “at substantial risk of prosecution” in Georgia over his attempts to strong-arm officials into fixing the election in his favour when it looked as if the state might decide the outcome of the presidential election. Trump’s lawyers did not participate in the hearing because, they said, Willis had not sought to interview the former president for the investigation.
“Therefore, we can assume that the grand jury did their job and looked at the facts and the law, as we have, and concluded there were no violations of the law by President Trump,” the lawyers said in a statement.
Willis launched her investigation into “a multi-state, coordinated plan by the Trump campaign to influence the results” just weeks after the former president left office. The probe initially focussed on a tape recording of Trump pressuring Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to conjure nearly 12,000 votes out of thin air in order to overturn Joe Biden’s win.
Willis expanded the investigation as more evidence emerged of Trump and his allies attempting to manipulate the results, including the appointment of a sham slate of 16 electors to replace the state’s legitimate members of the electoral college. The fake electors included the chair of the Georgia Republican Party, David Shafer, and Republican members of the state legislature who have been warned that they are at risk of prosecution.