Investigating Trump a big early move for Atlanta's new DA

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FILE-In this Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014 file photo, Fulton senior Assistant DA Fani Willis questions retired Atlanta Public Schools principal Tony Overstreet in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial, in Atlanta. Willis, entered the national spotlight Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, when letters to top state officials revealed her office is investigating whether illegal attempts were made to influence the state's 2020 elections. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kent D. Johnson, Pool, File)

ATLANTA – The district attorney investigating whether former President Donald Trump should face charges for attempting to pressure Georgia's elections chief into changing the results of the presidential race in his favor has a reputation as a tough courtroom veteran, not only as a prosecutor but also as a defense lawyer and judge.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who was sworn in last month after winning a resounding 2020 election victory over her former boss, entered the national spotlight Wednesday when letters to top state officials revealed her office is investigating whether illegal attempts were made to influence the state’s 2020 elections. That includes the Jan. 2 phone call in which Trump was recorded asking Georgia’s secretary of state to overturn his defeat.

Prosecuting Trump would likely prove a career-defining move for Willis — and one fraught with risk, said Atlanta attorney Robert James, a former district attorney in neighboring DeKalb County. Constituents in heavily Democratic Atlanta would demand an aggressive prosecution. The Republican ex-president would likely unleash an army of lawyers to defend him. And news coverage would scrutinize every step, or misstep.

“Nobody should be confused about the fact that you’re going into a whirlwind,” James said. “If this is what she chooses to do based on the facts and the evidence, from what I know about her as a prosecutor, she’s smart enough and tough enough to handle it.”

In her first weeks on the job, Willis has already faced criticism for trying to hand off two high-profile cases against police officers, including a fatal shooting. But fellow lawyers who have faced her in court say she's a skilled litigator who isn't afraid of tough cases.

“She is a hard-charging, tough trial lawyer,” Atlanta defense attorney Page Pate said. “I would never question her ethics. I would never question her diligence or her intelligence. She is a bulldog when she thinks she’s on the right side.”

Willis worked 17 years as an assistant district attorney under Paul Howard, who was Georgia's first Black DA when he took office in 1997. Before challenging Howard for his job in 2020, Willis spent short stints as a criminal defense lawyer and a municipal court judge.

Running an aggressive campaign in which she accused Howard of mismanagement, Willis trounced him in an August runoff election for the Democratic nomination, winning nearly 72% of the vote. With no Republican on the ballot, Willis cruised to victory in November.