ATLANTA — In the state investigation spurred by then-President Donald Trump's call to Georgia’s top election official, people who have been called to testify — or who might be — about potential interference in the 2020 presidential contest are turning to high-profile lawyers.
Trump has hired Drew Findling, one of Atlanta's most prominent criminal defense attorneys who is perhaps best known for representing rap stars. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has brought on Trump's former White House counsel Don McGahn, who was in federal court in Atlanta last week as part of a legal team fighting a subpoena for Graham.
No one has been charged with a crime in the investigation and both Trump and Graham have denied any wrongdoing, but the moves come at a particularly precarious legal moment for Trump.
FBI agents conducted an unprecedented search of his Florida estate on Monday in an unrelated investigation into whether Trump removed sensitive information from the White House. He also invoked his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination on Wednesday as he testified under oath in the New York attorney general’s long-running civil investigation into his business dealings.
But the attorney hires in Atlanta suggest Trump and his allies are paying especially close attention to the investigation led by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.
“You’re not going to go and hire an expensive lawyer unless either you want to send a message that, ‘You guys better come correct or my fancy lawyer will blow you out of the water,’ or you actually are worried,” said Caren Morrison, a Georgia State University law professor and former federal prosecutor.
Legal experts nonetheless warn that the hires alone don't suggest that someone is the subject or target of an investigation.
“I don’t think that’s any indication that anybody’s about to be charged or these folks necessarily are concerned that they’re going to jail. It’s just what a smart person would do,” said Page Pate, an Atlanta defense lawyer who is not involved in the case.
Willis began the investigation early last year. A special grand jury with subpoena power was seated in May at her request and began hearing from witnesses in June. Though the panel's proceedings are secret, related public court filings have given some insight into where the investigation might be headed.
Willis last month filed paperwork seeking to compel testimony from seven Trump advisers and associates, including Graham and former New York City mayor and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani. Graham is awaiting a federal judge's ruling on his challenge to his subpoena, while Giuliani has been instructed to appear before the special grand jury on Wednesday.
Willis has confirmed since the beginning that she’s interested in the Jan. 2, 2021, phone call between Trump and Raffensperger, which came four days before the congressional certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s White House victory that was interrupted by the riot at the U.S. Capitol. During that conversation, Trump suggested the secretary of state could “find” the votes needed to overturn his narrow loss in the state.
Recent court filings have made clear that Willis is also interested in other calls made by Trump and his associates to officials in Georgia, false statements about the election made during Georgia legislative committee hearings and the submission of a fake slate of Republican electors to Congress and the National Archives. In several filings, she specifically alleged that there was “a multi-state, coordinated plan by the Trump Campaign to influence the results of the November 2020 election in Georgia and elsewhere.”
Willis has said that she is considering subpoenaing Trump, a step that would surely kick off a legal battle.
Trump has hired Findling and former prosecutor Jennifer Little, with attorney Dwight Thomas serving as a consultant on matters related to special grand jury proceedings.
A lot has been made of past social media postings by Findling that suggest he’s no fan of the former president, whom he called “racist” and “pathetic” in one August 2018 tweet.
Andrew Fleischman, an appellate attorney in Atlanta who’s not connected to the case, said being a defense attorney “doesn’t necessarily mean believing your client is innocent or likeable, but it does mean taking a close look at the law and making sure the state has checked all the boxes.”
“We defend the process,” Fleischman said. “And if they’re convicting the president, you want the process to be damn near perfect.”
Findling is a well-respected and media savvy lawyer. That second point is crucial when there's so much attention on a case and can present challenges with a client like Trump who's so accustomed to speaking for himself without a filter, Pate said.
“You want to respect the fact that (the client) needs in many cases to make statements to the media, but at the same time, you don’t want to jeopardize your case," he said.
Perhaps the most important reason to have a lawyer at this stage of the investigation is to have a channel of communication with prosecutors, Pate said.
“They have a way of getting you to make admissions about something you think may be completely harmless which actually fills a piece of their case,” he said of prosecutors. “So you don’t want to be on a call or a meeting with the government yourself when your statements can be used against you.”
A lawyer can also negotiate dates for an eventual appearance if a subpoena is issued and review any documents that may be requested before they're handed over. And a lawyer can reach out to other witnesses who have appeared before the special grand jury to see if they're willing to talk about what was asked.
Steven Frey has worked with Findling on several cases, including the successful defense of a sheriff who was facing 27 felony charges in an indictment that accused him of using his office for personal gain. He called Findling “one of the finest lawyers I've ever dealt with.”
McGahn also garners high praise. When he left that post in 2018, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “I’ve known every White House Counsel since I arrived in Washington. Even in such impressive company, Don is a cut above.”