It has been nearly two years since Donald Trump lost his bid for reelection, refused to concede, and instead launched an all-out campaign to remain in the White House.
In the time since, numerous investigations and public hearings have probed the actions of the then-president and his team for evidence of criminality, including the House committee hearings investigating the attack on the US Capitol.
But far from the bright lights and dramatic live broadcasts of those hearings, a potentially more significant probe is underway in Georgia — one that may offer the best chance of criminal charges being brought against the former president.
This week, a special grand jury investigating potential criminal interference in Georgia’s 2020 presidential election results subpoenaed key players in the legal team that advised Mr Trump during the aftermath of the vote. Among this group were Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman, Cleta Mitchell, Kenneth Chesebro and Jenna Ellis. Senator Lindsay Graham, a Trump ally, was also included.
The court filings allege “a multi-state, coordinated plan by the Trump Campaign to influence the results of the November 2020 election in Georgia and elsewhere.” A 23-person grand jury was impaneled in May and has already heard from numerous witnesses.
Although the subpoenas do not necessarily imply that the recipients are the subjects of inquiry, they do represent the closest a criminal investigation into election interference has reached Mr Trump and his inner circle.
The investigation from which they sprung was launched in February 2021 by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis. It targeted Trump’s attempt to overturn Georgia’s election results, an effort that included his infamous 2 January phone call to Georgia’s secretary of state Brad Raffensperger during which he asked him to “find” 11,000 votes.
This week’s subpoenas are the clearest sign yet that the investigation is making progress, according to Norman Eisen, the former special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the first impeachment of Donald Trump and senior fellow in governance studies at Brookings.
“I think this is a sign that the prosecutor moving fast, she’s driving hard and there is a lot of legal jeopardy for Trump and his associates,” he told The Independent.
He added that the Georgia investigation was the “single greatest legal threat” to Mr Trump and his fellow travellers.
“Having the prosecutor that has the best-fitting state law, some of the best evidence, including the smoking gun tape of January 2, and who has the character and experience to actually prosecute the president. So, yes, I think it is,” he added.
The investigation could have a profound impact on the future not just of Mr Trump and his allies, but of the United States. Mr Trump has indicated that he plans to run again in 2024, and it is likely that he would win the Republican nomination. One thing that could ruin those plans are criminal charges for election interference.
Democrats and democracy advocates have been frustrated with the Justice Department and attorney general Merrick Garland for failing to move fast enough with its investigation into 2020 election interference. The department has also given no public indication that it is considering a case against Mr Trump.
The findings of the January 6 committee have only fuelled those frustrations. But Mr Garland, a former federal judge who promised to restore the Justice Department’s independence following a tumultuous four years under the Trump administration, has remained cautious.
Ms Willis, who is leading the Georgia investigation, does not face the same considerations. On Wednesday, she refused to rule out a subpoena to Mr Trump.
“Anything’s possible,” she told NBC News, adding that she expects the grand jury in Atlanta to issue additional subpoenas to more Trump associates.
She continued: “I think that people thought that we came into this as some kind of game. This is not a game at all. What I am doing is very serious. It’s very important work. And we’re going to do our due diligence and making sure that we look at all aspects of the case.”
The grand jury has heard testimony from a number of witnesses who had direct contact with Trump and his associates in the aftermath of the election, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which first reported the subpoenas. Among those witness was Brad Raffensperger, who was a prime target of Mr Trump’s pressure campaign.
The Trump allies subpoenaed this week all played a role in that campaign. Mr Giuliani pushed bogus claims of “suitcases” of ballots being taken away by election workers and rigged election machines in testimony before Georgia legislators in late 2020.
The subpoena issued to him said he “possesses unique knowledge concerning communications between himself, former President Trump, the Trump Campaign, and other known and unknown individuals involved in the multi-state, coordinated efforts to influence the results of the November 2020 election in Georgia and elsewhere.”
Perhaps most relevant to a potential criminal indictment against Mr Trump is the subpoena issued to Cleta Mitchell, an attorney who sat in on the January 2021 phone call with Mr Raffensperger.
Her subpoena said: “During the telephone call, the witness and others made allegations of widespread voter fraud in the November 2020 election in Georgia and pressured Secretary Raffensperger to take action in his official capacity to investigate unfounded claims of fraud.”
Lindsay Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, called Mr Raffensperger and his staff twice about reexamining some of Georgia’s absentee ballots.
Mr Graham’s attorneys Bart Daniel and Matt Austin said in a statement shared with news outlets on Wednesday that the Republican senator “plans to go to court, challenge the subpoena, and expects to prevail.”
“This is all politics. Fulton County is engaged in a fishing expedition and working in concert with the January 6 Committee in Washington,” they wrote.
“As Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Graham was well within his rights to discuss with state officials the processes and procedures around administering elections.”
Mr Eisen said the subpoenas may yet reveal new information about the effort to overturn the 2020 election.
“To the extent that some of the subpoena recipients choose to cooperate, there is still more to be learned. Look at the January 6 committee. They’ve had hearing after hearing with startling new revelations. I think there is no information to be learned about the conspiracy to attack the 2020 election, how it unfolded, and in particular, how it hit Georgia,” he said in a statement to The Independent over the phone this week.
Aunna Dennis, executive director of democracy non-profit Common Cause Georgia, said she was “encouraged” by the grand jury’s progress.
“The coordinated attempts by former President Donald Trump and his associates to discount and ignore the will of Georgian voters during the 2020 election cannot be swept under the rug,” she told The Independent via email this week.
“Georgia can not continue to be the testing grounds for sensationalized propaganda attempts that are designed to deter voters from the ballot box. We need to know those who broke our laws in their dangerous attempts to hold on to power be held accountable. The transparency in this investigation into potential criminal misdeeds has bolstered my hopes that justice will ultimately be served,” she added.
Wherever the subpoenas lead, the latest legal developments appear to have irked Mr Trump.
“I did NOTHING wrong in Georgia, but others did. They CHEATED in the 2020 Presidential Election, and those are the ones that should be investigated (and prosecuted)! Letter to follow,” he wrote on his Truth social network on Thursday.