Exclusive: Fulton County DA sends 'target' letters to Trump allies in Georgia investigation

·8-min read

ATLANTA — In the latest sign that she is moving rapidly in her investigation into Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, Fulton County, Ga., District Attorney Fani Willis has sent so-called target letters to prominent Georgia Republicans informing them they could be indicted for their role in a scheme to appoint alternate electors pledged to the former president despite Joe Biden’s victory in the state, according to legal sources familiar with the matter.

The move by Willis, a Democrat, could have major political implications in a crucial battleground state with high-profile races for governor and the U.S. Senate this fall. Among the recipients of the target letters, the sources said, are GOP state Sen. Burt Jones, Gov. Brian Kemp’s running mate for lieutenant governor; David Shafer, the chairman of the Georgia Republican Party; and state Sen. Brandon Beach.

Jones and Shafer were among those who participated in a closed-door meeting at the state Capitol on Dec. 14, 2020, in which 16 Georgia Republicans selected themselves as the electors for the state, although they had no legal basis for doing so. Shafer, according to a source who was present, presided over the meeting, conducting it as though it were an official proceeding, in which those present voted themselves as the bona fide electors in Georgia — and then signed their names to a declaration to that effect that was sent to the National Archives.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks at a news conference with four officials wearing masks standing behind her.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks at a news conference in Atlanta on May 11, 2021. (Reuters/Linda So)

The offices or spokespersons for Jones, Shafer and Beach did not respond to requests for comment. Willis, in an interview, declined any comment on the target letters. But she confirmed she is considering another potentially controversial move: requesting that Trump himself testify under oath to the special grand jury investigating his conduct.

“Yes,” said Willis when asked if there was any chance Trump will be called to testify. “I think it's something that we’re still weighing and evaluating.” She also said she had spoken to Dwight Thomas, a veteran local defense lawyer who has been retained to represent Trump, as recently as Thursday. She declined to say what they talked about. Thomas did not respond to requests for comment.

Willis also brushed aside the possibility that she will be sharply criticized by state Republicans, and perhaps others, for using her powerful prosecutorial position to target political adversaries. “I don’t make decisions based on what people say about me,” she said.

Charlie Bailey is the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor and a close ally of Willis (she recently helped sponsor a fundraiser for him). He has made Jones’s role in the so-called fake elector scheme a major issue in his campaign. “To come in and say: 'No, the voters don’t matter, and I get to decide, the party gets to decide who wins this election,' that is authoritarian,” Bailey said in an interview on the Yahoo News "Skullduggery" podcast this week. “It’s the most un-American thing you can do.”

Georgia state Sen. Burt Jones at an open-air podium.
Georgia state Sen. Burt Jones at a rally held by former President Donald Trump in Commerce, Ga., on March 26. (Alyssa Pointer/Reuters)

Randy Evans, a Republican lawyer in Georgia who served as Trump’s ambassador to Luxembourg, said the target letters will reinforce GOP efforts to attack the credibility of Willis’s probe. “It drops it right into a characterization of this as a political, partisan witch hunt, as opposed to a legitimate inquiry,” he said in an interview. Evans, who has been briefed about the target letters, added: “It will become a fundraising letter [for the Republican Party]: 'Help us fend off the unfounded legal attacks by the Democratic district attorney for Fulton County.’ You and I know that’s what’s going to happen.”

(After this story was published, Jones on Friday filed a motion in Fulton County Superior Court to disqualify Willis and her chief prosecutor on the Trump probe, Nathan Wade, for "conflicts of interest" due to their financial support for Bailey, Jones's opponent. "This is a blatant effort to sway the outcome of the election in Mr. Bailey's favor," the motion reads. "Therefore, District Attorney Fani Willis should be disqualified.")

The plan by the Trump campaign to designate alternative electors was not limited to Georgia. Pro-Trump Republicans in Wisconsin, Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Michigan took similar steps — bolstered by constitutional lawyer John Eastman’s view that alternate electors could provide a basis for then-Vice President Mike Pence to reject the certification of Biden’s victory on Jan. 6, 2021.

But details about the events in Georgia have attracted particular scrutiny, both by Willis’s grand jury and by the U.S. Department of Justice, whose prosecutors in Washington also recently subpoenaed the GOP electors from the state.

Among those details was an email from Robert Sinners, who served as the Trump campaign’s Election Day coordinator in Georgia, which was sent to the would-be electors on the day before the Dec. 14 meeting. In the email, Sinners urged them to act with “complete secrecy” and to refuse to speak to any members of the news media about what they were doing. If asked, they were to say they were attending a meeting with Jones and Beach, the two state senators.

“I must ask for your complete discretion in this process,” Sinners wrote at the time, according to the Washington Post, which first reported on the email. “Your duties are imperative to ensure the end result — a win in Georgia for President Trump — but will be hampered unless we have complete secrecy and discretion.”

David Shafer in front of a huge image of a billowing American flag.
David Shafer, chair of the Georgia Republican Party, at a Republican runoff election night event in Atlanta on Jan. 5, 2021. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

He also instructed the electors to tell security guards at the Capitol that they had an appointment with one of two state senators. “Please, at no point should you mention anything to do with Presidential Electors or speak to the media,” Sinners wrote in bold.

George Chidi, an Atlanta-based independent journalist and political activist, told Yahoo News that he testified Wednesday for about an hour in front of the special grand jury, and was closely questioned by prosecutors about how he was tipped off about the secret meeting of electors at the Capitol that day. He said he attempted to report on it until he was evicted from the room. “They wanted to know how I knew to barge into that meeting,” he told Yahoo News.

Chidi said he was informed that the room had been reserved by somebody in the office of Speaker of the House David Ralston. (Ralston testified before the grand jury on Thursday, but declined comment, citing respect for “the privacy of grand jury proceedings,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)

When he tracked down the room and entered, Chidi testified, he was told the assembled group was holding “an education meeting.” “A guy got up and walked me out the door,” he testified, adding that “they posted a guy out front” to keep others out. (An Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, Greg Bluestein, has written that he, too, was kept from the room.)

Rusty Bowers, Brad Raffensperger and Gabriel Sterling listen as a laptop shows former U.S President Donald Trump talking in front of a flag.
From left, Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling at a June 21 hearing of the House Jan. 6 committee. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Prosecutors appear to be focusing on the secrecy of the meeting as evidence of consciousness of guilt on the part of the Trump electors. But defense lawyers will argue that Sinners's email and Chidi’s eviction from the room notwithstanding, the alternative electors did not attempt to keep the secret after their business was over — and that they had a valid reason to act as they did: to preserve the Trump campaign’s legal rights in the event that one of its legal challenges to Biden’s victory in Georgia prevailed. (The theory was that the state Legislature would not have time to formally name new electors before the Jan. 6 deadline, when Congress was due to certify the Electoral College vote.)

Shafer gave a number of interviews that day saying as much, although it's not clear whether he did so because he had learned that Chidi and Bluestein had discovered the meeting.

It is also not clear how the target letters to Jones and Shafer fit into Willis’s overall strategy in the investigation. She could indict the fake electors on a so-called false writing charge — alleging that they filed a fraudulent document naming themselves electors for the state.

Alternatively, or in addition, she could use a false writing charge as a “predicate act” as part of a much broader conspiracy indictment encompassing all the Trump campaign’s efforts to overturn the election results in the state, including Trump’s Jan. 2, 2021, phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger urging him to “find” enough votes to flip the electoral result there.

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