Fulton DA says she’s not coordinating with Special Counsel Jack Smith, warns of safety risks as indictments loom

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, center, arrives to the Fulton county courthouse, Tuesday, July 11, 2023, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Sometime in the next three weeks, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is expected to ask a grand jury to indict multiple people for trying to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election result. 

July 31 is the first of 10 days between now and August 18 that Willis has instructed most of her staff to work remotely, citing safety precautions.

That window comes as U.S. Department of Justice Special Counsel Jack Smith is preparing to bring criminal charges stemming from his federal investigation into the Jan, 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

Willis says the two investigations have not coordinated.

“I don’t know what Jack Smith is doing and Jack Smith doesn’t know what I’m doing,” Willis told WABE in a Saturday interview. “In all honesty, if Jack Smith was standing next to me, I’m not sure I would know who he was. My guess is he probably can’t pronounce my name correctly.”

Former President Donald Trump, who is also a focus of the Fulton County probe, received a target letter in the federal investigation, suggesting an indictment may be imminent in that case.

Security measures begin at Fulton Courthouse

As charging decisions are looming in D.C. and Atlanta, orange security barriers went up around the Fulton County Courthouse on Thursday.

“The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office is proactively coordinating with local, state and federal agencies to enhance security during high-profile legal proceedings at the Fulton County Courthouse,” spokesperson Natalie Ammons wrote in a statement. “Some of the measures we are deploying… will be obvious to the public. For security reasons, other measures being deployed will not be as obvious.”

As those security measures began to take effect downtown, Willis spent Saturday handing out backpacks stuffed with school supplies to students heading back to school this week and next. At four stops, Willis mingled with families as staffers passed out bookbags, snacks and cold drinks. The district attorney’s office collected more than 2,500 backpacks this year.

At events like these, Willis says constituents “absolutely” ask about the Trump probe and have a lot of questions, even though she usually can’t answer them. She says they have other concerns, too, like gang violence.

“We’re not one-dimensional, right?” Willis said. “You know, I can do that case and make sure that justice is served, but while making sure that, as you see, the murder rate is dropping in Atlanta. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.” 

Some critics of Willis’ probe have questioned whether devoting significant resources to potentially prosecuting a former president will come at the cost of resolving a backlog of violent crime cases that still require adjudication. “Is it worth it?” one defense attorney, Don Samuel, asked last year.

As the investigation now comes to a head, Willis says she has never doubted whether the probe was worthwhile. 

“Absolutely not,” Willis said. “There are some moments that are troubling and concerning. But those moments are based on some of the racist comments that get sent to me, either via voicemail or email or on social media. It saddens me.”

Willis says she sent an e-mail to county commissioners on Saturday instructing them to make sure they are keeping themselves and their staff safe and included a taste of the hateful messages she receives.

Willis’ email included a recent message she received that, per the AJC, called her a “corrupt (racial expletive)” and said, “You are going to fail, you Jim Crow Democrat (expletive).”

“You know, this is serious,” Willis says. “We have people unfortunately that think like this. It’s kind of foreign to me, I have this really diverse office, right? We serve this diverse community, diverse people chose me, but yet we have people that are still so ignorant. And so, you know, I have to deal with that reality, but that reality will not deter me from my work.”

Judge rejects Trump’s latest attempt to disqualify Willis

Meanwhile, Trump’s Georgia lawyers continue to fight the investigation and have asked the courts to disqualify Willis and her office from prosecuting him. Trump has called the probe a “witch hunt” and his lawyers have said the Fulton County investigation violates “all notions of fundamental fairness,” arguing that Willis, an elected Democrat, has used her Trump probe to boost her political fundraising.

On Monday, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney rejected Trump’s motion. The Georgia Supreme Court refused to grant a similar one earlier this month. On Friday, a visiting judge from neighboring Cobb County had just scheduled a hearing on Trump’s motion for Aug. 10, after the other Fulton judges were recused from hearing that request.

“We don’t think it’s something that’s very credible,” Willis said of Trump’s moves to quash the case. “I always believe in justice, I believe in the law and I believe that judges will do the right thing.”

Standing in the shade near the Mozley Park pavilion where Willis and her team were passing out backpacks on Saturday, East Point resident Gail Alexander said she’s voted in every election since she was 18 and recognizes the power of her vote. So it felt like a slap in the face when Trump and his allies tried to interfere with the election result.

“Oh, it made me mad,” Alexander says. “Really, really mad.”

Twelve of 23 grand jurors need to agree there is probable cause to hand down criminal charges and move toward trial. Winning convictions in a criminal trial is a much higher bar. 

Alexander says she is glad her district attorney took on this investigation, but she is not confident the case will result in accountability.

“If it does, it will surprise me, truly,” Alexander says. “But I would really like to see (Trump) held accountable.”