Georgia prosecutor Fani Willis vs. Donald Trump: His defense? Call her a racist

WASHINGTON − Donald Trump was not at a loss for words Monday night after Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, the first Black woman to serve in the position, became the latest prosecutor to indict the former president.

“So, the Witch Hunt continues! 19 people indicated tonight, including the former President of the United States, me, by an out of control and very corrupt District Attorney,” the former president posted Monday evening on his social media platform Truth Social.

Willis is spearheading the investigation that led to a Georgia grand jury indicting the 2024 presidential candidate and several of his allies on charges of conspiracy to try to overturn the election results in Georgia. She is the most recent example of a Black judge, district attorney or prosecutor bearing the brunt of Trump’s verbal attacks that are often interlaced with racial undertones.

Trump has used words like “racist” and “criminal” to describe Black prosecutors like New York Attorney General Letitia James, who sued Trump and his family-run business for fraud last September, and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who charged Trump with falsifying business records in connection with hush money payments to an adult film actress.

“He consistently refers to any prosecutor that is investigating him or bringing charges against him who happens to be Black, he refers to that person as racist,” Clark Cunningham, a law professor at Georgia State University, told USA TODAY.

Fulton County DA Willis becomes latest target

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during a news conference at the Fulton County Government building on August 14, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. A grand jury today handed up an indictment naming former President Donald Trump and his Republican allies over an alleged attempt to overturn the 2020 election results in the state.

A week before Donald Trump was struck with a fourth indictment − this time out of Georgia − the former president telegraphed a familiar offensive against the investigation’s lead prosecutor.

A 60-second spot by the Trump campaign called Willis the “newest lackey” for President Joe Biden and national Democrats. It also blames Willis for Atlanta’s crime rate, which is an attack often lobbed by Trump and his allies against prosecutors.

But the TV ad went further by asserting Willis “got caught hiding a relationship with a gang member she was prosecuting.”

It’s a claim she has vehemently denied, and one that is easily debunked by fact-checkers. But it represents a troubling escalation, according to civil rights leaders, who point to a pattern of racially fueled attacks against Black officials in the U.S. legal justice system.

“Trump’s pattern is to attack the prosecutors, particularly the prosecutors and judges of color,” Marc Morial, president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League, told USA TODAY. “Trump’s pattern is to attack Black women, especially.”

The same campaign ad also labeled prosecutors James, Bragg, Willis and Special Counsel Jack Smith − who charged Trump in Washington D.C. in connection with an alleged conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election − a “Fraud Squad.”

‘Just beyond the bounds’

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg Jr. give a press conference detailing the charges against former President Donald Trump on April 4, 2023 in New York City.

Trump has frequently referred to Willis and other Black prosecutors who’ve hounded him legally as racist.

James, the first black attorney general in New York, sued Trump and his family-run business for fraud last September, alleging that they overvalued property holdings in order to obtain favorable bank loans. When James first filed the suit, the former president said she is “racist” and called her “Peekaboo.”

Cunningham said Trump’s practice of calling black prosecutors “racist” is “one of the most despicable” and “just beyond the bounds.”

“It’s a completely indefensible thing for him to do and he’s very consistent about it,” he said.

Bragg, who serves as New York City borough’s first Black district attorney, became the first prosecutor to criminally charge a former president. Trump pled not guilty to the 34 felony counts listed in the indictment.

Trump then attacked Bragg and his family during remarks to supporters at Mar-A-Lago hours after his New York arraignment. He later called Bragg a “criminal” and alleged the district attorney leaked grand jury information and should be prosecuted.

Trump has since targeted U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan who is overseeing the case charging Trump with seeking to steal the 2020 election. The former president called her “highly partisan.”

Morial points out how the former president chastised Chutkan by saying the Jamaican-born federal judge who identifies as Black and Asian is “biased” and “unfair” without explanation.

“I think it’s designed to try to appeal to his base, to discredit the integrity of these prosecutors and their competence and their ability,” Morial said.

“To suggest, ‘you see, they’re Black, they’re political, they’re out to get me, I’m a white guy.’ He’s playing the victim. He plays it consistently. He plays it aggressively, and I think that most of Americans are not falling for that.”

A pattern in Florida?

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd holds up a visual displaying a popular meme that he photoshopped State Attorney Monique Worrell into during a press conference held by Gov. Ron DeSantis so he could announce the suspension Worrell on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023.

The verbal attacks toward prosecutors of color have been mirrored by others in the Republican party.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is running against Trump for the GOP presidential nomination, suspended State Attorney Monique Worrell, a Black Democrat and elected prosecutor for Orange and Osceola counties. He contended that Worrell failed to pursue appropriate charges in serious cases.

“This is an outrage,” Worrell posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. “I will not be bullied by DeSantis or used as a tool in his failing and disastrous presidential campaign.”

Her suspension drew concern from the National District Attorneys Association. The organization wrote in a press release: “We firmly believe in the critical importance of preserving the independence and exercise of discretion of locally elected prosecutors.”

Worrell was not the first state attorney removed by DeSantis − he previously pulled Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren from office last year over what was viewed as his progressive political stance.

Will Georgia be different?

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp delivers the State of the State address on the House floor of the state Capitol in Atlanta, Jan. 25, 2023.

Unlike other parts of the country, top Republicans in Georgia have publicly defied Trump and have taken stances opposing the former president’s false claims the 2020 election was rigged.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a popular GOP incumbent who is mentioned as a possible White House hopeful, has publicly criticized Trump since winning reelection in 2022. He wrote on X Tuesday the 2020 election was not stolen.

“The future of our country is at stake in 2024 and that must be our focus,” Kemp posted, replying to a Truth Social post from Trump claiming to have an “irrefutable report” on election fraud in Georgia that will be released next week.

Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, has repeatedly defied Trump’s claims that the last presidential contest was stolen. He resisted pressure from then-President Trump in January 2021 to “find” more votes and reverse Biden’s victory in the state.

“The most basic principles of a strong democracy are accountability and respect for the Constitution and rule of law. You either have it, or you don’t,” Raffensperger said in a statement Tuesday.

Cunningham told USA TODAY he wishes more Republicans − like Kemp or Raffensperger − would call Trump out specifically for his labeling of Black prosecutors as racist.

“It’s striking in Georgia that he’s gone after the top stakeholders who are Republicans and all of them won reelection handily,” Cunningham said.

“I think Georgia keeps him awake at night because his tricks don’t seem to work here,” he added.

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