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The trailblazing prosecutor who may be charging Trump in Atlanta

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Former President Donald Trump could be indicted again this week, this time in Georgia over efforts to subvert the state's 2020 election result. The person responsible for pursuing that case is Fani Willis, the district attorney in Fulton County. Willis is known for her wide-reaching racketeering cases and making history as the first Black woman elected top prosecutor in Atlanta. WABE's Sam Gringlas reports.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Orange security barriers now surround the Fulton County Courthouse as prosecutors inside prepare what could be a historic case focused on a former president. But as this new security took effect downtown, Willis spent a recent Saturday at a local park, handing out bookbags to kids heading back to school.

FANI WILLIS: We want people to not only see us as being those people that put their nephews or their sons in jail but that we're serious about being a part of the community.

GRINGLAS: Willis was elected in 2020 and took office just a few days before that infamous phone call when Trump asked Georgia's secretary of state to find him votes. Two and a half years after that phone call spurred Willis' investigation, she says her office is ready to go and has strongly signaled she'll ask a grand jury to charge multiple people.

WILLIS: I'm living my dream. There's a lot of people as smart as Fani Willis, but somehow the citizens of Fulton County selected me. I'm still very humbled. And as long as I sit here, I'm going to do what's needed to keep this community safe.

GRINGLAS: Willis got her start as a prosecutor in the Fulton DA's office and first made her name prosecuting a cheating scandal in Atlanta public schools. The sweeping racketeering case resulted in 11 convictions. Willis has said she's a fan of using Georgia's broad RICO law to prosecute complex webs of criminal activity. She's deployed RICO to go after gangs and is expected to use it for a Trump indictment, too.

GWEN KEYES FLEMING: At least I believe she was called for a time such as this.

GRINGLAS: That's former DeKalb County prosecutor Gwen Keyes Fleming, who's known Willis for two decades. But not everyone is praising Fulton County's district attorney. Some have questioned whether devoting resources to potentially prosecuting a former president comes at the cost of resolving other cases. And former federal prosecutor Elie Honig recently suggested Willis' investigation could undermine the federal election interference case against Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIE HONIG: Willis' investigation has been unforgivably sloppy, hampered by prosecutorial incompetence and hopelessly tainted by her own self-interest in politics.

GRINGLAS: Hoenig notes that Willis, a Democrat, was disqualified from prosecuting a fraudulent elector because she hosted a fundraiser for his political opponent. Trump has unsuccessfully filed formal motions to disqualify Willis, but he's also gone further, disparaging her at rallies as the young racist in Atlanta. Gwen Keyes Fleming says it's not easy being the first. Like Willis, she was also the first Black woman elected district attorney in her county.

FLEMING: While we may be presented with headwinds that are different, all of us were more than prepared to step into the role, Fani included. And we all honored our oath, and Fani will do the same.

GRINGLAS: Willis says she's never doubted whether the Trump probe was worth pursuing.

WILLIS: Absolutely not. There are some moments that are troubling and concerning, but those moments are based on, like, some of the racist comments that get sent to me.

GRINGLAS: She says she's received numerous threats.

WILLIS: We have people that are still so ignorant, but that reality will not deter me from my work.

GRINGLAS: Nearby the pavilion where Willis is handing out backpacks, East Point resident Gail Alexander says it felt like a slap in the face when Trump and his allies tried to interfere with Georgia's election result.

GAIL ALEXANDER: Oh, it made me mad, really, really mad.

GRINGLAS: Alexander says she's grateful her district attorney took on this investigation, but she's not confident anyone will ultimately be held accountable.

ALEXANDER: I will be honest with you. If it does, it will surprise me, truly.

GRINGLAS: If a grand jury does return an indictment this week, the path ahead will be long and uncertain, both for Fani Willis and potentially former President Trump. For NPR News, I'm Sam Gringlas in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF VAMPIRE WEEKEND SONG, "OTTOMAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.