A judge in Fulton County, Georgia, heard arguments from media organizations Tuesday on whether a special grand jury report on Donald Trump’s alleged interference in the 2020 election should be made public.
A coalition of media companies, including Bloomberg News, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Associated Press, New York Times and CNN argued that there is no legal basis for not releasing the report. The special grand jury itself recommended its findings be made public.
“The public interest in the report is extraordinary,” the coalition said in a motion filed Monday.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who convened and oversaw the special grand jury, said it would be unfair to any potential future defendants to release the report.
The judge’s decision will come at a later date.
“In this case, the state understands the media’s inquiry and the world’s interest, but we have to be mindful of protecting future defendants’ rights,” Willis said at the hearing.
Willis also said a decision was “imminent” as to whether charges would be pursued against anyone in the case.
Georgia law allows a special purpose grand jury to investigate potential crimes and make recommendations but not issue indictments. That would be up to a separate grand jury convened to review charging recommendations from Willis’ office. A grand jury was seated earlier this month and is meeting every Tuesday and Friday.
Trump’s lawyers didn’t participate in the hearing, but said in a statement that they assumed the special grand jury had found the former president had done no wrong.
“The grand jury compelled the testimony of dozens of other, often high-ranking, officials during the investigation, but never found it important to speak with the president,” they said in the statement. “He was never subpoenaed nor asked to come in voluntarily by this grand jury or anyone in the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office.”
Because of that, they said, “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.”
Lawyers for other potential targets of the investigation didn’t appear at the hearing.
Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney repeatedly asked a prosecutor from Willis’ office to show why the report shouldn’t be released.
State law doesn’t bar disclosure, McBurney said.
”I see nothing that says thou shalt not disclose,” he said. He also appeared to reject arguments about the embarrassment that might be suffered by those whose names are mentioned in the report but never charged.
“We need to be thoughtful about a lot of interests,” McBurney said.
Prosecutor Donald Wakeford argued that the discussion of releasing the report was premature.
“The time for this conversation really should be after the district attorney has had an opportunity to state I am not pursuing charges, or I am pursuing charges, or I have pursued charges and here is the indictment,” he said.
Wakeford, a prosecutor in Willis’ office, said she and her staff have not had enough time to evaluate the report and make a decision on whether to seek indictments.
McBurney asked how the report is different from the highly-public revelations of the Jan. 6 committee, which covered some of the same ground and presumably some of the same witnesses as the special grand jury.
McBurney said he would take some time to think about the arguments and would continue communicating with the district attorney’s office and the media organizations with questions.
Convened last year, the 26-member special purpose grand jury spent eight months reviewing evidence and hearing from 75 witnesses about Trump and his allies’ attempts to change the 2020 election results in Georgia. It submitted its findings to McBurney earlier this month and is now disbanded.
The grand jury looked at events that unfolded after President Joe Biden narrowly won the state, including a recorded call in which Trump urged Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” him more votes, false and misleading presentations to state lawmakers and a scheme to submit a slate of fake Republican electors to the National Archives. Those electors have said they were trying to preserve Trump’s options in case a court threw out Biden’s win.
Witnesses included Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, his former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, ally and U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham and local Republicans who submitted the fake elector forms. The grand jury also subpoenaed top state officials, including Raffensperger, and Governor Brian Kemp, who refused Trump’s request that he call a special legislative session to challenge the election results.
If released, the report is likely to be heavily redacted, according to former U.S. Ambassador Norm Eisen, author of the Brookings Institution report on the case, and former DeKalb County prosecutor J. Tom Morgan.
In a press briefing ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, both said they believed the report would eventually be released, but not before a grand jury issues charges.
Eisen said he expects indictments for solicitation of election fraud, general fraud and, potentially, for racketeering. Georgia has one of the most sweeping RICO laws in the country and Willis has used it before. The state’s most prominent RICO lawyer has also been working with her office during the investigation, he said.
A RICO case, which is more complicated than a trial on a specific criminal charge, would require prosecutors to show multiple defendants coordinated to commit underlying crimes like soliciting fraud.
Willis has used the state’s RICO laws to prosecute gang members and — several years ago — Atlanta school teachers convicted of falsifying student test results.
“She’s done a lot of RICO in the past,” Eisen said.
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