ATLANTA – On her first day at the office, Fani Willis was still unpacking boxes when Atlanta's top prosecutor began considering the potential implications of an extraordinary telephone call between the then-president of the United States and Georgia's chief elections officer.
A recording of the now-infamous exchange, in which Donald Trump pressed Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to "find" more votes to overturn his defeat, burst into the public domain Jan. 3, 2021 – the day after the call was placed. The president's voice ran on a seemingly endless loop on television and radio in the hours before the newly-elected Fulton County district attorney crossed the threshold of her third-floor suite on Jan. 4.
"I knew an investigation may be warranted on day one ... the literal physical day I walked into the office," Willis said in a recent interview with USA TODAY at her office, tucked into the Beaux-Arts style courthouse in Atlanta. That Trump phone call was "enough to raise eyebrows and even cause grave concern that it was already necessary to at least preliminarily look at other facts."
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Just more than a month later, Willis disclosed the actual existence of what is now a far-reaching investigation that not only threatens Trump but is certain to define her tenure and, indeed, a career largely spent in the trenches of the criminal justice system that she learned to navigate at an early age from her father, a longtime Washington, D.C. defense lawyer and civil rights activist.
While a grand jury is set to begin work in May, the decision whether to charge Trump with a crime ultimately falls to Willis, who expects to make a decision by the end of 2022.
What to know about Fani Willis
- Fani Willis, a hard-charging prosecutor who built a career going after murderers and cheating teachers, leads the probe into Trump's now-infamous phone call with Georgia's top election official.
- Willis, the first Black woman to be Fulton County district attorney, took office just days after the call.
- The investigation has drawn racially charged threats and abusive communications to her Atlanta office.
- Her career has been shaped by her father, a longtime Washington, D.C. attorney and civil rights activist.
The Georgia investigation is one of three shadowing the former president, including a sweeping examination of the Trump family business operations by New York state authorities and a special House committee's review of the deadly Jan. 6 attacks in Washington, D.C.
Yet, like all things with Trump, the local county inquiry has profound implications across a deeply polarized landscape where national politics are largely defined by those who continue to support the former president and those who do not. In Georgia, regarded as ground zero in the struggle for election legitimacy and voter access, Willis' investigation has drawn Trump's ire, and a torrent of racially charged threats and abusive communications (the district attorney is the first Black woman to hold the office).
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Even more ugly has been a steady stream of threats to her personal safety that have altered daily life.
"There are cameras everywhere, except maybe in my bathroom," said John C. Floyd III, Willis' live-in father, referring to the security measures that have become necessary in his daughter's new role.
There also is no ignoring the potential consequences should the current investigation result in criminal charges against a former president.
"The Fulton County investigation could be of historic significance," said Clark Cunningham, a Georgia State University law professor who refers to greater Atlanta and much of Georgia as the "eye of the hurricane" that was the 2020 election.
"The phone call to the secretary of state is probably the clearest evidence of criminal conduct by former President Trump," the professor said. "It is entirely possible that the empaneling of a special grand jury could result in a decision to recommend charges.”
Cunningham referred to the district attorney's decision to seek a special grand jury that is expected to begin compelling witness testimony and other potential evidence in the coming months.
Citing Willis' experience in racketeering and corruption investigations, Cunningham described the prosecutor as "extremely well qualified to take this on."
"Her election was welcome here," he said.
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As a former top assistant in the same county office she now manages, Fani Willis never shied from a fight.
During her previous 16-year stint in the Fulton County office, Willis, 50, was known as a hard-charger who relished the legal combat of the courtroom while raising two daughters as a single mother.
She moved from trying murder cases to overseeing the office's complex crimes unit, crediting her father as a source of professional drive that launched her on a legal career as a young girl growing up Washington, D.C., and later earning a law degree at Emory University Law School in Atlanta.
"I think a lot of my strength and non-traditional training comes from him," she said.
In 2014, she led the prosecution of a dozen Atlanta-area educators in one of the largest public school cheating scandals in U.S. history.
At trial, Willis cast the collection of teachers and administrators as akin to mobsters who hosted “cheating parties,” where they gathered to change answers on standardized tests to boost student scores. It was a scheme, prosecutors asserted, aimed at securing the educators' jobs and the collection of lucrative bonus payments.
Atlanta attorney Bob Rubin, who represented a popular local school principal in the case, clearly recalls the "formidable" prosecutor on the other side who he described as a "street fighter."
"She has a way of using sarcasm, anger and righteous indignation in her favor," Rubin said. "She connects with juries. She was always ready to fight when a fight was necessary."
During a tense moment in the cheating trial, Rubin said Willis did not hesitate to convey a quiet warning to her courtroom adversary.
Rubin said he was returning to the defense table after an aggressive examination of a key prosecution witness when an annoyed Willis approached.
"Oh, the fight is on," Willis whispered out of earshot of the judge.
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"She was pissed, but it was never, ever personal," Rubin said. "It was part of the job and that's where she always left it."
The successful prosecution proved a calling card for an eventual landslide campaign victory. Willis ousted the six-term incumbent and her former boss, Paul Howard, who had become mired in sex harassment allegations.
While enormously consequential, the Trump investigation is just one of several high-profile cases to land in Willis' inbox in the year since taking office.
Following a killing spree at three area massage businesses last March, which left eight dead and stunned the local Asian community, Willis announced her intention to seek the death penalty against the accused shooter Robert Aaron Long.
The attack highlighted troubling incidents of violence targeting Asian Americans across the country amid the deadly coronavirus pandemic, and brought President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to Atlanta where they condemned the assaults
While some have disputed whether Long targeted his victims because of their race, Willis has charged the case as a hate crime and is seeking the maximum penalty even though Long already has pleaded guilty to four of the murders in neighboring Cherokee County, receiving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
The decision also marked a reversal of sorts for Willis, who during her campaign for the Fulton office indicated that she was not likely to seek such a punishment.
"Last year, I told voters of Fulton County that I could not imagine a circumstance where I would seek (the death penalty)," Willis told reporters then. "And at the time, I did not ... Unfortunately, a case has arisen in the first few months of my term that I believe warrants the ultimate penalty."
The Trump investigation is not a matter of life and death, but analysts said the inquiry brings an outsized focus unlike any local criminal inquiry.
Jeffrey Engel, director of Southern Methodist University's Center for Presidential History, said the prospect of a former president facing state criminal charges –whether in New York or Georgia – is "certainly not like anything I can think of."
"This is a case where you wear your belt and suspenders," Rubin said. "If you are going to put the country through something like this, you have to take every precaution to get it right."
If charges are filed, Rubin said: "I think this is going to be an all-out war."
David Wolfe, an Atlanta-area defense lawyer who has known Willis for about 20 years, said her long experience as a trial lawyer is likely serve her well in the Trump investigation, especially in "determining whether a prosecution should go forward."
"She's smart enough to know that you have to investigate before you make a charging decision," Wolfe said. "Some think that where there is smoke there is fire, but a lot people don't know what smoke is. She's very skilled."
Although they have been on opposite sides of local legal wars, Wolfe said Willis has earned the respect of the defense bar.
"She's a friend even though she's the Kansas City Chiefs and I'm the Buffalo Bills," Wolfe said, referring to the bitter National Football League rivalry.
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A special grand jury and 100 potential witnesses
A year into the Trump investigation, Willis told USA TODAY investigators have identified more than 100 potential witnesses, indicating the inquiry has grown substantially since it was first disclosed.
Willis said a "significant" number of those witnesses require subpoenas to compel their appearances, which prompted her to seek a special grand jury to assist in the investigation.
"There is a significant enough number of people, who when we're calling ... politely to say we'd like an opportunity to sit down and talk to you about matters related to this (investigation), refrained from wanting to do that. And some even specifically requested subpoenas," she said.
Willis has declined to identify any of the witnesses, including whether they would include former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows who was a party to the Jan. 2, 2021, call when Trump urged Raffensperger to find the necessary number of votes needed to reverse the former president's defeat in Georgia.
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"So look," Trump told Raffensperger, according to the recording first disclosed by the Washington Post. "All I want to do is this: I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have. Because we won the state."
The call essentially launched the current inquiry that is weighing a range of possible crimes, from solicitation of election fraud and false statements to conspiracy, oath of office violations, racketeering and violence associated with threats to the election process.
Since then, Willis has signaled the investigation has expanded to include the submission of an alternate slate of electors by Republicans in Georgia, one of seven states in which officials allegedly sought to reverse Trump's defeat.
Last month, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco told CNN the Justice Department also was weighing whether to press criminal charges over fake Electoral College certifications in the 2020 election.
Yet a year into the Georgia inquiry, Willis said she has no preliminary judgments.
"I am not privy to ... enough information to even say whether charges will or will not be brought," she told USA TODAY. "You don't go into investigations like that, with the end in mind; you go in seeking information that leads you to the truth ... I can foresee any of the possibilities, but my mind is completely open."
Willis said a team of 10 prosecutors, investigators and support staffers are working the inquiry full time, and she confers with them about twice each week.
The district attorney also said that she met as recently as December with attorneys representing the former president who sought information on the status of the inquiry.
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Fox - 5 Atlanta, Fox - 5 Atlanta
Willis described the meeting as "very cordial" but brief and that the discussions did not address details of the investigation or the prospect of Trump's cooperation. She said that she told the lawyers that they "could rely on" a decision on possible charges by the end of this year.
An Atlanta-area attorney representing Trump did not respond to inquiries from USA TODAY.
Trump, however, has not held back, using a recent public appearance to attack prosecutors in New York and Atlanta, going as far as to suggest the investigations were racially motivated.
“If these radical, vicious, racist prosecutors do anything wrong or illegal, I hope we are going to have in this country the biggest protests we have ever had in Washington, D.C., in New York, in Atlanta and elsewhere because our country and our elections are corrupt., Trump told supporters last month in Conroe, Texas. "These prosecutors are vicious, horrible people. They’re racist and they’re very sick."
Like Willis, New York Attorney General Letitia James and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg are Black, as is Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who is co-chairing the special House panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack.
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In the hours immediately after Trump's broadside, a wave of troubling calls poured into Willis' office, prompting her to seek federal help to further secure the downtown government complex that houses her office.
It also triggered a reassessment of her personal safety.
"I signed up to do this job and to do a very good job, and to work very hard," Willis said. "I did not sign up to die, though."
An 8-year-old future DA gets her start in a DC courtroom
Willis' journey into the national spotlight started very early – in the home law office of her father, a busy D.C. criminal defense attorney who raised his daughter as a single parent.
John Floyd, 79, raised in rugged south central Los Angeles, found the law at UCLA as a young civil rights activist and following a brief association with the Black Panthers. He moved to D.C. to pursue his new calling and ultimately "specialized in whatever walked through the front door."
"I wanted to give her (Willis) everything I never had," Floyd said, referring to a troubled home life where he often "went to bed hungry."
At 8 years old, Willis was working in the family business, organizing her father's files –graphic crime scene photographs included. And on occasion, she accompanied her father to court.
One of those trips appeared to set her firmly on her own legal career.
Floyd said he had just returned to the courtroom from a backroom holding cell where he was interviewing a potential client, when he caught sight of his daughter – dressed in a t-shirt and jeans – sitting with a friendly Superior Court judge overseeing detention hearings.
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Willis, the father recalled, was sitting with elbows perched on the bench while the judge appeared to be conferring with his young assistant before determining who should be released and who should remain in custody.
Sometime after leaving the courthouse, Floyd said Willis talked of becoming a judge.
"I told her that you have to be a lawyer first," Floyd said.
Willis took her father's advice to heart and his influence has shaped the arc of her life, including some "non-traditional" instruction in the household graces, dispensed as only a criminal defense lawyer could.
"I remember when he was training me how to set a table and I couldn't remember what side the knife goes on. He told me the knife goes on the right side because that's where you would stab someone. So, I am certain that other little girls did not learn how to set a table because the right side is where you would stab someone," she said.
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"But we all do the best we can with the gifts that we have," Willis said, adding that her father also "made sure" she had access to a quality education that included a degree from Howard University in D.C., and law school in Atlanta, where she remained after graduation.
In her new job, Floyd said he provides no professional counsel, only moral support.
"Hell no," he said, adding that he has steered clear of offering any advice on the investigation of the former president. He acknowledges, however, that some of the criticism has stung.
"She's my child," Floyd said. "She's just doing her job; that's all that there is. I know my daughter is going to do the right thing."
Willis acknowledges the "public interest" in the Trump investigation, even as local violent crime, human trafficking and gangs also require law enforcement's attention.
"I appreciate the significance of this (Trump) investigation," Willis said, adding that she had "no choice" but to pursue it.
"I would be derelict in my duties if I didn't do both."
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