Why Georgia Republicans are protecting the DA who indicted Trump GOP leaders, including Gov. Brian Kemp, are shielding Fani Willis from political threats, not so much to protect her, as to protect the image of the state. Walking a political tightrope »

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Colton Moore, a 30-year-old auctioneer from rural Dade County, Georgia, enjoys rare bragging rights for a freshman state senator. Donald 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, Moore demanded that his fellow lawmakers call a special session to consider firing or defunding Fani Willis, the Atlanta-area district attorney leading a criminal racketeering case against 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 Trump.

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

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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 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 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.’”

Kemp has publicly chastised those who would try to remove 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 GOP leaders are intent on derailing any serious threats to her position.

Kemp is walking a political tightrope: In a likely acknowledgment of 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 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 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 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 Trump made after Election Day to Kemp and Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state, in which Trump sought their help in changing the election outcome to favor him. Both men enraged Trump by refusing to help him. And both men went on to handily defeat Republican primary rivals hand-picked 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 Kemp and Raffensperger. “They feel like they can stand up to him, and they won’t be punished.”

Willis’ 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 Trump and his remaining co-defendants has not been set, although this week, Willis said a trial could stretch beyond next fall’s elections and into 2025.

The threats to 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 Trump. Willis has only partially complied, and accused the committee chair, Rep. Jim Jordan, of an “attempt to obstruct and interfere with a Georgia criminal prosecution.”

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 other Republicans’ reluctance to help 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.

Some liberals were alarmed this year when 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 Willis with the new commission at the first opportunity to do so, in early October. One of them, Sen. Clint Dixon, told an Atlanta TV station that 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 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 Willis’ August indictment of Trump beyond their reach.

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

Moore’s star, meanwhile, has only been rising in pro-Trump circles. His efforts to have 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 Trump at a recent National Rifle Association fundraiser in Rossville, Georgia, 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 fundraiser, 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.

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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