Behind the scenes of the Trump grand jury
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution March 15, 2023
ATLANTA (Tribune News Service) — The bomb-sniffing dog was new. The special grand jurors investigating interference in Georgia’s 2020 elections hadn’t before seen that level of security on the third floor of the Fulton County courthouse where they had been meeting in secret for nearly eight months.
Oh, God, I hope it doesn’t find anything, one juror recalled thinking as the German Shepherd inspected the room. “It was unexpected. We were not warned of that,” she said.
The reason for the heightened surveillance was the day’s star witness: Michael Flynn, former President Donald Trump’s national security adviser. An election denier who suggested martial law should be imposed to seize voting machines in Georgia and other swing states where Trump lost, Flynn had only agreed to appear after being compelled to by two courts in his home state of Florida.
Fulton law enforcement was taking no chances on that unseasonably warm December day, concerned about who might turn up to protect Flynn, a prominent figure among far-right, conspiracy theorist and Christian nationalist groups. Outside, on the courthouse steps, sheriffs’ deputies and marshals carrying automatic weapons kept watch.
No bomb was found. Flynn, who was ultimately the last witness jurors heard testimony from, went on to assert his Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer many of prosecutors’ questions.
But the experience brought home to some jurors just how important and consequential their work could be.
In an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, five of the 23 special grand jurors recounted what it was like to be a pivotal — but anonymous — part of one of the most momentous criminal investigations in U.S. history; one which could lead to indictments of former President Donald Trump and his allies.
“One of the most important things we’ll be a part of in our life was this eight-month process that we did,” one juror told the AJC. It was “incredibly important to get it right.”
Over two hours, in a windowless conference room, the jurors shared never-before-heard details about their experiences serving on the panel, which met in private, often three times a week.
They described a process that was by turns fascinating, tedious and emotionally wrenching. One juror said she would cry in her car at the end of the day after hearing from witnesses whose lives had been upended by disinformation and claims of election fraud.
For months, they were unable to talk to friends, family members and co-workers about what they were doing. They said the overall panel was diverse, with different races, economic backgrounds and political viewpoints represented.
Many emerged with heightened respect for election workers and others who kept the state’s voting integrity intact.
‘I took it very seriously’
The grand jury was dissolved in January after submitting its final report.
The jurors who spoke to the AJC declined to talk about portions of the document which remain under seal, including who they recommended Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis indict. They also remained mum on their internal deliberations. In a previous interview with the AJC, jury foreperson Emily Kohrs said “it’s not a short list” when asked how many people the special grand jury suggested be indicted. (Kohrs was not among the jurors the AJC interviewed for this article.)
Several jurors said they decided to speak out for the first time in response to criticism leveled at the probe after Kohrs spoke to multiple media outlets last month. Some detractors, including Trump’s Georgia-based legal team, said that Kohrs’ remarks showcased an unprofessional, politically tainted criminal investigation.
The jurors, who stressed their aim was not to drag down Kohrs, underscored that they understood the gravity of their assignment and took care to be active participants and attend as many sessions as possible. They said the investigation was somber and thorough.
“I just felt like we, as a group, were portrayed as not serious,” one of the jurors said. “That really bothered me because that’s not how I felt. I took it very seriously. I showed up, did what I was supposed to do, did not do what I was asked not to do, you know?”
Their friendly rapport was also evident throughout the interview, as jurors at times cracked inside jokes and teased one another. They indicated they held the DA’s team of prosecutors and investigators in high regard.
They also divulged details from the investigation that had yet to become public.
One was that they had heard a recording of a phone call Trump placed to late Georgia House Speaker David Ralston in which the president asked the fellow Republican to convene a special session of the legislature to overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s narrow victory in Georgia.
One juror said Ralston proved to be “an amazing politician.”
The speaker “basically cut the president off. He said, ‘I will do everything in my power that I think is appropriate.’ … He just basically took the wind out of the sails,” the juror said. “‘Well, thank you,’ you know, is all the president could say.”
Ralston and other legislative leaders did not call a special session. A former Ralston aide declined to comment for this story, and a Trump campaign spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
‘I’m never gonna be on time ever again’
The Fulton County residents who would become grand jurors first reported to the courthouse on May 2, 2022. Some had no idea what they were in for.
One remembered looking at her phone the morning of jury selection to see an alert from Channel 2 Action News warning about road closures downtown due to selection of the Trump special grand jury. After some quick online searching, she realized what could be in store.
“I emailed my boss and I was like, I’m gonna be out a little bit longer than I probably thought today,” she said.
They arrived to a courthouse under lockdown.
The Fulton Sheriff’s Office had blocked off vehicle traffic on the surrounding streets and stationed deputies with assault rifles at the building’s main entrance. The emptiness inside created an eerie feeling.
Two-hundred Fulton residents were summoned, but Fulton County Judge Robert McBurney whittled down the pool quickly. He asked only two questions: did they have any conflicts and could they keep an open mind?
Would-be jurors were assigned numbers based on the order in which they arrived at the courthouse. Those picked — 23 jurors and three alternates — were the early birds.
“I’m never gonna be on time ever again,” one juror joked.
After briefly introducing themselves, jurors were tasked with selecting a foreperson who would sign subpoenas and administer the oath to witnesses.
Kohrs, 30, quickly volunteered for the position. Despite having never voted, she was interested in politics and the legal process and knew she could devote more time than many others because she was between jobs.
No one stepped up to challenge Kohrs, though one juror considered nominating the panel’s lone lawyer. The lawyer agreed to serve as deputy foreperson, jurors said.
After their work that day was done, jurors were silently led through tunnels to the courthouse basement, walking past a SWAT team stationed in the hallways to armored vans that took them to their off-site cars.
“It was the haunted house of SWAT,” one juror said.
For others, that’s when the gravity of their assignment hit home.
“We knew it was big, but as they were leading us out, then that’s when it hit. I was like, holy moly,” one said.
After that first day the jurors received no special security as they reported to and from the courthouse, carrying bag lunches. Many would walk through the front entrance, past the bay of cameras waiting for A-list witnesses, praying that the news media wouldn’t figure out why they were there.
‘We can do business with that’
The DA’s office gave each juror a binder, which quickly grew swollen with notes. They rarely had advance notice of who would be testifying. Instead, they would file in a little before 9 a.m., taking their usual seats in the three rows of chairs which had been arranged in a large conference room, and be handed a piece of paper with the name and photo of the day’s witness.
Their first order of business was to make sure they had a quorum. When special prosecutor Nathan Wade received a number of 16 or more, he’d say, “We can do business with that,” a phrase the grand jury wove into their final report as a nod to Wade.
When witnesses appeared before them, the jurors in the front row were so close they could have reached out and touched them.
One of the jurors described how the 75 witnesses they heard from or were told about fell into three buckets. The first set, who they questioned early on, were generally forthcoming. The second was witnesses who needed to receive subpoenas but were willing to talk. The third was people who clearly did not want to be there and had fought their summons. They were the last witnesses jurors heard from, and many had at least at one point been close to Trump.
“It was like night and day when that second group finished and we got to the third,” the juror said. “The tone in the room completely changed, like overnight.”
Prosecutors generally took the lead on questioning witnesses and recommending who to subpoena, but jurors would step in to ask their own questions. Jurors said prosecutors took pains not to give their opinions, only offering guidance on what was illegal under the law. Several jurors said prosecutors never tipped their hand about who might be charged.
Among the most compelling witnesses, various jurors said, were Fulton County poll workers Ruby Freeman and her daughter Shaye Moss, who had received death threats after being singled out by Trump and his then-attorney Rudy Giuliani. Another mentioned Eric Coomer, the onetime executive for Dominion Voting Systems, who left his job after being vilified. Also mentioned was Tricia Raffensperger, the wife of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who broke down when describing the vitriol and threats leveled at her, one juror said.
“I was pretty emotional throughout the whole thing,” a juror said. “I wouldn’t cry in front of any of the witnesses, but when I would get in my car, I was like, I just left that and I have to just go do my job now? ... I just know things that are hard to know.”
The jurors heard first from Bo Rutledge, dean of the University of Georgia law school and a former clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Rutledge, who appeared under subpoena, explained presidential election law and repeatedly told jurors he was nervous because he didn’t want to make mistakes.
Former. U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler each testified. Both lost runoff bids which took place as Trump railed against election fraud in the state.
Perdue, a key Trump ally, was asked about a meeting at Truist Park in December 2020, during which he told Gov. Brian Kemp he wanted the legislature to convene a special session to challenge Biden’s victory, a juror said.
One grand juror recalled U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s testimony about Trump’s state of mind in the months after the 2020 election.
“He said that during that time, if somebody had told Trump that aliens came down and stole Trump ballots, that Trump would’ve believed it,” the juror said.
Taking the Fifth
Some of the more trying days were when a witness invoked his or her Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions.
“When people would take the Fifth over and over, we could kind of go, ugh” one juror said. “Not because we’re like, oh my gosh you’re guilty, whatever. It was like we’re going to be here all day.”
Two of the jurors estimated that as many as 10 witnesses invoked their Fifth Amendment rights, some doing so even when asked to describe their education. In the prior interview, foreperson Kohrs said high-profile witnesses like Flynn, former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and attorney Rudy Giuliani refused to answer some, if not most, of prosecutors’ questions.
On some occasions, when a witness invoked the Fifth, a prosecutor would play video of speeches, TV interviews or testimony the witness had given elsewhere.
“I don’t know if it was like cruelty, but they’re like, if you’re going to take the Fifth, we’re going to watch you,” one of the jurors said.
Another juror said the panel was told repeatedly by prosecutors that they should not perceive someone invoking his or her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination as an admission of guilt.
“They were very passionate about saying: ‘I need you to understand that,” she said.
A notable moment came as prosecutors were questioning a witness who said he possessed additional evidence of election fraud at his office.
“‘I mentioned something like, ‘oh, I’d like to see that.’ One of the DA’s team stood up immediately, left, came back in and he handed a subpoena to the witness still sitting there,” a juror recounted, declining to disclose who the witness was.
At another point, they learned a man babbling about election fraud had appeared on the third floor of the courthouse. He never breached the jury room.
The Trump question
Jurors’ accounts of the proceedings largely aligned with Kohrs’. But one area where they differed involved the jury’s role in the decision not to subpoena or voluntarily ask Trump to testify. One of the male grand jurors pushed back on Kohrs’ use of the collective “we” during her previous interviews.
“I think the president just was one where we chose to focus our energies elsewhere, because it would be more productive in the long run,” Kohrs previously told the AJC.
That statement raised questions among some critics about whether Kohrs had improperly disclosed jury deliberations. But the other jurors told the AJC that the group had never discussed summoning Trump during its deliberations, suggesting it was prosecutors’ decision. In response, Kohrs said in a text that she “trust(ed) their recollection. And honestly with so much we talked about, it’s definitely possible I got it mixed up a bit.”
One of the jurors said he believed the special grand jury already had the information it needed and that Trump had he been summoned would likely have invoked the Fifth Amendment, which he reportedly did more than 400 times when he sat for a deposition last summer with the New York Attorney General’s office.
But the same juror said, “with the benefit of hindsight, we should have sent a voluntary invitation to former President Trump and just invited him.” He said he changed his mind after the Manhattan DA asked Trump to appear before that grand jury investigating hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels.
Jurors said it took them four days to complete their final report, although they noted it had been a work in progress. Prosecutors provided a list of relevant laws, but the jurors said they wrote the report themselves.
When they wrapped up, in mid-December, there was no celebration or fanfare — the jurors simply went home.
On Feb. 1, they gathered at the courthouse again for a mandatory meeting to discuss their “continuing obligations” as jurors. Willis thanked them for their service. McBurney told them they were allowed to publicly discuss witnesses, what prosecutors said and what was in the final report but not the substance of their deliberations.
Prosecutors told the jurors that their notes would be destroyed, an announcement that angered one of the jurors, who had been toying with writing something about his experience. And they promised to send jurors a pen and coffee mug as a mark of their appreciation. Jurors said they’ve received neither so far.
‘It’s gonna be massive’
Looking back, several participants said they were honored to be a small part of history but were glad that they got to do so anonymously.
One juror expressed appreciation for the behind-the-scenes look the group received of Georgia politics and the ballot-counting process. Another indicated he had grown more jaded after it became clear that some witnesses were telling the grand jury one thing about the election under oath and then casting doubt on the system when they returned to the campaign trail, sometimes hours later.
The group said they had no idea what Willis planned to do in response to their recommendations. But many described an increased regard for the elections system and the people who run it.
“I can honestly give a damn of whoever goes to jail, you know, like personally,” one juror said. “I care more about there being more respect in the system for the work that people do to make sure elections are free and fair.”
Said another juror: “I tell my wife if every person in America knew every single word of information we knew, this country would not be divided as it is right now.”
The grand jurors said they understand why the public release of their full final report needs to wait until Willis makes indictment decisions.
“A lot’s gonna come out sooner or later,” one of the jurors said. “And it’s gonna be massive. It’s gonna be massive.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.
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