Corrupt Dems hand Trump another win
Moves against the former president continue to backfire. Daniel Lazare reports on the Fani Willis case
Three years ago, Atlanta Democrats thought they had Donald Trump nailed to a wall. “I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have, because we won the state,” he told a top state election official on January 2 2021, in a devastating phone call that had just come to light. Since Trump had lost Georgia by 11,779, that would have been just enough to move the state into the plus column and put him within shooting distance of winning the electoral college.
It was as clear a case of election interference as the Democrats could wish for. With the corporate press hanging on their every word, local prosecutors in Democratic-controlled Atlanta went to work investigating Trump in full confidence that he would eventually go away to prison for a long, long time. With the Capitol Hill insurrection occurring just a few days later, the goal was to remove a threat hanging over bourgeois politics and banish it for good.
But now they have done the opposite, providing Trump with yet another boost in his journey toward a second White House term.
How did they manage to shoot themselves in the foot so spectacularly? The answer is simple: corruption.
The Democrats’ latest nervous breakdown centres around Fani Willis, a 52-year-old Atlanta prosecutor elected in 2020 on a pro-cop, anti-crime platform. She has been in charge of the Trump election-fixing case from the start. But events took an unexpected turn early this month, when Michael Roman, a former campaign official who is one of Trump’s 18 co-defendants, filed a motion to dismiss on the basis of legal documents indicating that Willis had brought on board a romantic partner to assist with the prosecution. The alleged partner - a suburban attorney named Nathan Wade - had mainly handled low-level criminal cases. Yet not only did Willis hire him for something far more demanding: she paid him two-thirds more than another attorney - a specialist in the complex anti-racketeering laws that are the basis for the case. All told, she paid Wade more than $650,000, according to the complaint - money that he then used to take Willis on a Caribbean cruise and treat her to a vacation in California wine country.
Sound like a kickback? It certainly does to a county auditor who recently sent Willis a letter demanding that she turn over documents indicating whether the public funds she used to pay to Wade “were converted to your personal gain in the form of subsidized travel or other gifts.”1
It is a stunning setback. Putting on a brave face, Democratic legal experts are now arguing that the case remains untainted and that it can go forward under Willis’s leadership regardless of her infractions. Indeed, Norman Eisen, a White House special counsel under Barack Obama, argues that it should go forward, since replacing Willis with another prosecutor would “delay the case unnecessarily” and would be “inconsistent with the public interest”.2
All of which makes little or no sense. Trump is not just any defendant or any presidential candidate, for that matter, but, rather, a frontrunner who is as much as four points ahead, according to the latest polls.3 Moreover, he is a frontrunner because he has succeeded in convincing a plurality of Americans - 46% to 40%, according to another survey4 - that Democrats are guilty of “lawfare”, which is to say putting together a phony legal offensive in order to put him behind bars before ‘we, the people’ get a chance to vote.
For a growing portion of the electorate, therefore, the Willis scandal is proof that Trump is right, that both wings of the establishment are rotten to the core, and that it is better to elect a wealthy real-estate magnate, since only a non-politician is capable of cleaning out the Augean stables. For Americans who are “mad as hell and are not going to take it any more” (to quote the 1976 movie Network), Fani Willis is merely the latest object of their wrath.
But why Willis, why Atlanta, and why now? To understand why it is all coming together in such an explosive way, it is necessary to know something about her and the town she lives in.
With a population of just under half a million, Atlanta is one of the most dysfunctional cities in the United States. At 16.41 per 100,000 people, it has the 20th worst homicide rate in the country, according to FBI statistics - one that is five times higher than New York’s, seven times higher than Canada’s, and at least 15 times higher than western Europe in general. It also has the biggest gap between rich and poor of any major US city and one of the biggest racial gaps as well, with black families earning on average just a third of what white households make. If Atlanta were a country, it would be the third most unequal on earth. With a Gini coefficient of 57.86, it would be just behind South Africa at 63.00 and Namibia at 59.10.5 Even by third world standards, it is radically unjust.
But every third world country needs a comprador class, which is where Willis comes in. She has excelled in at least two respects. One is by portraying herself as a tough-as-nails prosecutor, who will come down on the city’s black underclass like a ton of bricks, while raking in votes and campaign donations from wealthy white homeowners. Another is by using an increasingly dangerous and rightwing legal instrument known as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act - RICO for short - the same tool she is using against Trump. RICO’s purpose is clear: to put more and more lower-class offenders away for longer and longer stretches of time.
As an up-and-coming assistant district attorney, Willis used Georgia’s RICO statute to go after 35 Atlanta teachers and school administrators - all of them black - who were accused of doctoring test scores on state education exams. Raphael Warnock - senior pastor at an Atlanta church where Martin Luther King once held forth and now a US senator - described her heavy-handed approach as “a dark chapter” in the city’s history, while Van Jones, a former special advisor to president Barack Obama, said it amounted to a plain case of “over-criminalization”.6 Yet Willis’s fortunes continued to soar.
After getting herself elected DA on the heels of an anti-Black Lives Matter backlash, Willis then used RICO to go after gang members closely linked with Atlanta’s thriving hip-hop scene. In May 2021, she charged a dozen members of a gang known as the Bloods with RICO violations and then, in May 2022, used RICO against such well-known rappers as Young Thug and Gunna, along with 26 of their associates. A few months after that, she accused 26 more gang members of racketeering. “We have a message,” she told a press conference. “Get out of this county or expect to start seeing sentences that go life-plus, because I am not going to negotiate with gang members.”
Corporate media loved it. The New York Times lauded Willis as “the baddest DA in the country”, while The Washington Post called her “a pit bull”.7 But there is a problem - a big one.
Sometimes described as “the crime of being a criminal”,8 RICO is a catch-all that can be used to jack up penalties for nearly any offence under the sun. One Atlanta defence attorney says it allows prosecutors to employ a longer statute of limitations to go after “garden-variety” offenders and then hit them with longer sentences. He says:
Now when you have two or more individual crimes, you can charge that as RICO, which makes the statute of limitations five years instead of two and comes with a mandatory minimum of five years in prison rather than no mandatory minimum.
Other defence attorneys complain that Georgia’s RICO laws are so expansive that they can be used against “any drug smuggler, prostitute, gambler or pornographer who committed at least two crimes by which he made money”.9
A study has found that, by 2012, prosecutors were using RICO - originally designed for use against the Mafia - to go after gangs that 86% of the time were black, Asian, or Latino.10 Last September, Georgia’s state attorney, Christopher Carr, widened the scope even more by using RICO to indict 61 people opposed to a $90 million police-training facility that Atlanta was building in a nearby county. As evidence of racketeering, Carr cited the “mutual aid” that protestors extend to one another. It’s “a term”, he said, “popularised by anarchists to describe individuals who exchange goods and services to assist other individuals in society without government intervention”. Other examples of racketeering, according to the ‘Cop City’ indictment, include transferring money, blogging anonymously, trespassing, purchasing camping supplies and passing out leaflets.11
It is an updated version of the ‘criminal syndicalism’ laws used to crush the Industrial Workers of the World (better known as ‘the Wobblies’) during and after World War I. If that was not bad enough, Georgia Republicans have recently proposed to expand RICO to cover loitering, littering, disorderly conduct and pasting up unauthorised posters. A racketeer can thus be someone who drops a gum wrapper on a sidewalk or who leans against a lamppost in a disreputable manner. Even worse, Republicans are also pushing for stepped-up penalties on the basis of “political affiliation or beliefs”.12 A RICO offence is thus anything prosecutors do not like perpetrated by particular people either - which is to say anyone who is lower class, the wrong colour or who stands to the left.
Willis did herself no favours by claiming she was a victim of racism at a service for Martin Luther King at a local black church on January 15. Describing herself as “a very flawed, hard-headed and imperfect servant” of god, she told the congregation that “only one percent of the district attorneys in this country are women of colour” and added: “First thing they say, oh, she’s going to play the race card now. But no, god, isn’t it them who’s playing the race card?”
Playing the race card by pointing to legal documents that leave little doubt that she is guilty of misappropriation? Plainly, race has nothing to do with it. But race has everything to do with how the scandal is now playing out. The reason is not that Willis is black. Rather, it is that she is a black Democrat - which is to say a supporter of a party that acts as if it owns black people and can use them however it likes. Black Americans were taken aback when Joe Biden told a radio interviewer during the 2020 campaign: “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” They were incredulous that he presumed to define who is black and who is not and to expel those who do not meet his political criteria. But it was a perfect example of how the Democrats expect black workers to toil away on the party plantation for the benefit of a liberal political elite, even as their own condition goes downhill.
Fani Willis was happy to use dubious legal means to put away alleged black gang members. But, now that she is accused of wrongdoing, she wraps herself in the mantle of Martin Luther King and claims that she is a victim of racial persecution. Hypocrisy of this sort benefits one person only: Donald Trump.
Major cities are those with 100,000 people or more. A Gini coefficient of zero means a society in which everyone earns the same amount, whereas 100 means one in which one person earns everything and everyone else earns nothing at all. See www.governing.com/community/atlantas-income-inequality-is-the-highest-in-the-nation and worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/gini-coefficient-by-country.↩︎