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Fani Willis is investigating Trump's efforts to overturn Georgia's 2020 election

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Investigations into former President Trump are underway here in Washington, D.C., and in New York. But there is another probe that seems to be accelerating in Atlanta. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is investigating whether Trump and his allies committed crimes when they tried to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia. WABE's Sam Gringlas reports.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: A few months before Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in Georgia, Fani Willis claimed an election victory of her own.

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FANI WILLIS: My career has taught me, no matter the political pressure, just do what's right.

GRINGLAS: Willis unseated her old boss to become Fulton County's first female district attorney.

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WILLIS: And no matter if you were at the state Capitol or the slums, you will be held accountable if you commit a crime in my community.

GRINGLAS: Now, Willis is helming a criminal investigation that may entangle a former president.

NORM EISEN: The DA has two smoking guns in her hands.

GRINGLAS: That's Norm Eisen with the Brookings Institution, who served as special counsel during Trump's first impeachment. The smoking guns he's talking about - one is a phone call when Trump pushed Georgia's secretary of state to find him votes; the other, a slate of fake Georgia electors for Trump.

EISEN: Those two pieces of devastating evidence and the context lead to a series of Georgia crimes.

GRINGLAS: Eisen says the possible crimes tightly match specific Georgia laws, like criminal solicitation to commit election fraud. He also thinks Willis may be more free than the Justice Department to charge a former president.

EISEN: She's not in D.C. She's not a part of the Biden administration. She has more distance.

GRINGLAS: Don Samuel, an Atlanta defense attorney representing the Georgia legislature in the proceedings, is skeptical of Fulton County's investigation. He says the case is far from a sure bet. And meanwhile, it's sponging resources from a district attorney's office already backlogged with violent crime cases.

DON SAMUEL: When you take one case and say this is going to dominate our judicial system for weeks or months or a year, it's just a political decision she needs to make. Is it worth it?

GRINGLAS: Willis is no stranger to high-stakes cases. She first made her name prosecuting an Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, winning 11 convictions.

CLINT RUCKER: You know, listen, man; she dives right into the deep end.

GRINGLAS: Her co-prosecutor back then, Clint Rucker, says the high visibility and controversy the case inflamed all prepared her for this moment. Willis has been condemned by Trump and has faced threats.

RUCKER: If you've gotten one shot when you go into the doctor, you know what it feels like to take a shot. So if you have to take two or three more, you can handle it.

GRINGLAS: Still, Willis has made some mistakes. In June, she hosted a political fundraiser for the opponent of one of the fake electors her investigation was targeting. A judge disqualified Willis' office from prosecuting him.

RUCKER: She's learning to be more comfortable in that driver's seat. Every now and then, you know, you may get a little close to the edge, and hopefully you've got an alarm that goes beep, beep, beep, beep, beep to tell you to bring it back to the center. And I think she will.

GRINGLAS: The investigation isn't expected to conclude by the November election. Even if a grand jury decides to indict Trump or his allies, Samuel questions whether going to trial in Georgia will be worth the cost.

SAMUEL: Twelve jurors are going to make a decision - 12 jurors. And I'm not sure the people all across the country are going to say, well, that solved it. That's not the way we're going to be able to resolve this monumental dispute that is dividing our country right now.

GRINGLAS: Eisen disagrees.

EISEN: We've just suffered through one of the greatest assaults on our democracy. It's not only about accountability for what happened before, but we will be defending our democracy going forward.

GRINGLAS: Whether to prosecute Trump or his allies will likely be the biggest decision of Willis' career and a pivotal moment for the country.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Gringlas in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.