Jurisprudence

Why the “Target Letters” Fani Willis Sent Out in Her Trump Probe Are Such a Big Deal

Giuliani squishes his face. The shot of Jena Ellis, who is next to him, is blurry.
Rudy Giuliani speaks during an appearance before the Michigan House Oversight Committee on December 2, 2020 in Lansing, Michigan.(Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images) Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Last week news broke that Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis had sent “target letters” to state senator Burt Jones, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s running mate for lieutenant governor, as well as to the chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, David Shafer. It has since emerged that such letters have gone to all 16 of the pro-Trump fake electors who met secretly on December 14, 2020 to falsely name themselves Georgia’s “official electors.” Their actions were part of the Trump campaign’s unlawful scheme to keep Trump in power. (The campaign also organized false electors in the battleground states of Wisconsin, Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and Michigan.)

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The target letters show that Willis appears to be ahead of the U.S. Department of Justice on this front. While Merrick Garland’s DOJ has subpoenaed Shafer, as well as Brad Carver, another one of the fake electors in Georgia, as part of its general Jan. 6 investigation and has also asked the House January 6 Select Committee for its witness interviews regarding the fake elector scheme, target letters signal a more advanced step. Such letters generally go to individuals to notify them that there is substantial evidence that they have committed a crime, and there is potential for indictment.

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Willis is showing just how to do exactly what good prosecutors do: follow the facts wherever they lead, without fear or favor. Attorney General Garland has promised the same on the federal level and we hope that his department catches up to Willis.

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Not only do the target letters map onto Willis’ no-nonsense and transparent style in this investigation, they also show she is moving forward diligently against any Trump-related alleged crimes to which the facts may lead, regardless of which high officials in her state may be charged. With opposite party politicians in her crosshairs, she would know the pushback to come: “This is all political.”

And it didn’t take long.

Quickly after the news broke, Randy Evans, a Georgia Republican who was Trump’s ambassador to Luxembourg, described Willis’ action this way: “It drops it right into a characterization of this as a political, partisan witch hunt.”

Willis’ response? “I don’t make decisions based on what people say about me.”

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Good for her. Just as we have seen from Willis before, she is showing herself to be a prosecutor unfazed by allegations of partisanship when she sees evidence that politicians with large megaphones with which to denounce her may have committed chargeable crimes.

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As if to punctuate the point, on Monday, Willis subpoenaed failed Georgia Republican secretary of state candidate, Rep. Jody Hice, who was among 11 House Republicans who met with Trump on December 21, 2020 to make plans for January 6.

That kind of boldness seems to stand in contrast with the DOJ. Observers have suggested that the Justice Department is moving more slowly and cautiously to investigate Trump out of concern that he might label the effort a “partisan witch hunt” and that some might believe his disinformation campaign.

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Willis has not shown any such hesitation. She has said that she is considering subpoenaing Trump. She already subpoenaed Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Trump- attorneys Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman, Jenna Ellis, Cleta Mitchell, and Kenneth Chesebro.

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As is to be expected, as the investigation has intensified, those who were involved whether as targets or witnesses have begun flailing about, filing motions making a range of arguments from attempting to disqualify the prosecutor to arguing that their conduct is somehow constitutionally protected to contending that they have been treated unfairly. We’re accustomed to these kinds of wild allegations from our collective century plus of experience with the criminal justice system. We do not anticipate that they will slow this driven prosecutor down.

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Meanwhile, Trump, who is reportedly mulling a ploy of his own, is said to be considering announcing his candidacy before the midterms. One obvious motivation to jump in so early—would be for Trump to try to use his reelection bid to save himself from the Georgia grand jury probe and any investigations stemming in part from the Jan. 6 committee.

Of course, as criminal lawyer Ty Cobb, Trump’s attorney in the early phases of the Mueller investigation said in an interview with NBC News, “such an announcement … does not inoculate him from criminal investigation.”

Willis knows that too.

Her investigation appears to have multiple prongs. They include the bogus elector scheme; Trump’s infamous recorded phone call on January 2, 2021, soliciting Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes”; Trump’s call to election investigators in the Georgia secretary of state’s office; Trump having phoned Georgia’s attorney general; the targeting of local Georgia election workers for harassment and disinformation; and Giuliani’s and Eastman’s December 2020 testimony before Georgia state legislators trying to cause them to replace the Democratic slate of electors that had already been certified as part of Joe Biden’s win in the state with the phony set of “winning” Trump electors.

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Those actions might be charged as individual Georgia crimes, such as solicitation of election fraud. Alternatively, they might be charged as “overt acts in furtherance of a conspiracy” to violate Georgia criminal statutes. The law of conspiracy requires the charging and proof of at least one such “overt act.”

Or a Georgia grand jury could list the interlocking schemes as related “predicate” crimes supporting a racketeering charge under Georgia’s RICO statute. The statute provides that no person may control or participate in the conduct of an enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity, which means committing two or more related “predicate” crimes on a long list of offenses in that statute.

All of these offenses are potentially serious. A person convicted of a Georgia RICO violation may receive up to 20 years in state prison.

DA Willis has said that even “a high-ranking public official” is not “immune from prosecution.” That’s a fundamental principle if no one is truly to be above the law. As Willis said earlier this month about her commitment to protecting the integrity of Georgia’s elections: “This is not a game.” Her actions meet her words.

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