Why Georgia Republicans Are Protecting the D.A. Who Indicted Trump

Colton Moore, a 30-year-old auctioneer from rural Dade County, Ga., enjoys rare bragging rights for a freshman state senator. Donald J. Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, recently singled him out by name as a man of “courage and conviction.”

A few months ago, Mr. Moore demanded that his fellow lawmakers call a special session to consider firing or defunding Fani T. Willis, the Atlanta-area district attorney leading a criminal racketeering case against Mr. Trump and his allies. His move mirrored House efforts to investigate or strip funding from the office of Jack Smith, the special counsel leading the federal prosecutions of Mr. Trump.

But in Georgia, it got Mr. Moore booted out of the Senate Republican caucus.

Mr. Moore’s excommunication demonstrates that there are limits to Georgia Republicans’ tolerance for Trumpian high jinks that would derail the case against the former president. And it has become evident that members of the Republican establishment, led by Gov. Brian Kemp, are shielding Ms. Willis not because they share any ideological affinity with her, but because they are concerned that removing her would damage Georgia’s reputation, and its ability to attract and retain businesses.

“They know that if they went after her, there would be national press berating them as being a bunch of far-right nuts,” said Roy E. Barnes, the moderate Democrat who served as governor from 1999 to 2003. “And that’s the last thing they want to do. They want to say, ‘Listen we can run this state, we can take stands that keep us prosperous.’”

Mr. Kemp has publicly chastised those who would try to remove Ms. Willis, calling such efforts “political theater that only inflames the emotions of the moment.” His office did not respond to a request for comment for this article. But other hints have emerged that G.O.P. leaders are intent on derailing any serious threats to her position.

G.O.P. leaders in Georgia appear intent on derailing any serious threats to Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis’s position.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

Mr. Kemp is walking a political tightrope: In a likely acknowledgment of Mr. Trump’s sustained popularity, he has said he will support the Republican nominee in the 2024 general election, even as he sets limits on what can be done to Ms. Willis. That has not fully insulated him from criticism from Georgia’s Trumpist wing, however.

“I think they’re cowards,” Debbie Dooley, a prominent Georgia conservative activist aligned with the Tea Party movement, said of Mr. Kemp and other establishment Republicans. “She should be investigated and removed from office.”

But in Georgia, Republicans have held the governorship for two decades by promising practical, business-friendly policies and by generally keeping a lid on some of the more extreme tendencies of their party. Indeed, these clashing forces are at the heart of the racketeering conspiracy case against Mr. Trump, who was indicted in August along with 18 allies for their efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state.

Two pillars of the racketeering conspiracy, according to the indictment, were now-infamous phone calls Mr. Trump made after Election Day to Mr. Kemp and Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state, in which Mr. Trump sought their help in changing the election outcome to favor him. Both men enraged Mr. Trump by refusing to help him. And both men went on to handily defeat Republican primary rivals handpicked by an openly vengeful former president.

“So I think they’ve been sort of emboldened,” Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University, said of Mr. Kemp and Mr. Raffensperger. “They feel like they can stand up to him, and they won’t be punished.”

Ms. Willis’s office has begun to notch some successes in recent weeks, as three Trump-aligned lawyers and another co-defendant pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for promises to testify against others. A trial date for Mr. Trump and his remaining co-defendants has not been set, although this week, Ms. Willis said a trial could stretch beyond next fall’s elections and into 2025.

The threats to Ms. Willis have come from outside of Georgia as well. The Republican-led House Judiciary Committee has demanded that she turn over information about her investigation, including any communication she has had with the Justice Department, which has brought two separate criminal cases against Mr. Trump. Ms. Willis has only partially complied, and accused the committee chair, Representative Jim Jordan, of an “attempt to obstruct and interfere with a Georgia criminal prosecution.”

Mr. Trump’s effort to overturn the Georgia election has badly split the state Republican Party, and resulted in criminal charges against some influential members, including its former chair, David Shafer, who has pleaded not guilty to racketeering and seven other felony counts.

A number of observers said that other Republicans’ reluctance to help Mr. Trump is rooted in a long Georgia tradition of understanding how the state’s internal decisions reverberate on the national and international stage, particularly given the economic harm that can flow from perceptions of bigotry or Southern backwardness.

Gov. Brian Kemp has publicly chastised those who would try to remove Ms. Willis, calling such efforts “political theater that only inflames the emotions of the moment.”Credit…Dustin Chambers for The New York Times

Some liberals were alarmed earlier this year when Mr. Kemp signed a law creating a Republican-controlled oversight commission with the power to punish or remove elected Georgia prosecutors.

Eight Republican state senators filed a complaint against Ms. Willis with the new commission at the first opportunity to do so, in early October. One of them, Senator Clint Dixon, told an Atlanta TV station that Ms. Willis “prioritized cases that align with her political party’s interests rather than focusing on the merits of each individual case.”

The commission’s members have declined to comment on the complaint, citing a pending lawsuit challenging the establishment of the body. But there have been indications that the commission will not remove Ms. Willis over the Trump case.

Commission members have said that they would not rule on actions that prosecutors took before the Georgia Supreme Court approved the commission’s proposed rules; such approval has yet to be given. That would put Ms. Willis’s August indictment of Mr. Trump beyond their reach.

J. Tom Morgan, a Democrat and former prosecutor in DeKalb County, Ga., said that appointees to the board, which include many prosecutors, were intent on serious oversight of their peers, rather than scoring political points on Mr. Trump’s behalf. “These are not the kind of people who would try to unseat Ms. Willis because of this indictment,” he said.

Mr. Moore’s star, meanwhile, has only been rising in pro-Trump circles. His efforts to have Ms. Willis removed from office have earned him appearances on talk shows hosted by Steve Bannon, Dinesh D’Souza and Charlie Kirk.

He hinted at his connection to Mr. Trump at a recent National Rifle Association fund-raiser in Rossville, Ga., in the midst of some rapid-fire patter as he raffled off a 9-mm handgun with fancy gold detailing: “Gold inlay, $800, and now nine, you got to beat nine hundred, here now $900 on a bidder, ladies love it when it’s gold inlay, here you know who else likes it? Donald Trump! Donald Trump loves gold, nine hundred …”

In a brief interview at the fund-raiser, Mr. Moore said the Republican establishment had created a “rock wall” between themselves and the many Trump voters who had turned out that evening. And he said he planned to speak on their behalf when the legislature is back in regular session next year.

“I told them it was the dumbest thing they could possibly do to kick me out of the caucus,” he said.

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