(The Hill) — The Atlanta-area prosecutor who is probing the effort by former President Donald Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election result in Georgia was disqualified by a judge Monday from criminally investigating one of the 16 Republicans who served on a phony slate of pro-Trump electors.
The ruling, a stunning rebuke to Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, came after a judge found that a conflict of interest barred Willis and her office from investigating state Sen. Burt Jones, one of the sham electors.
The district attorney last month hosted a fundraiser for a Democratic candidate who went on to win his party’s nomination and will now face off against Jones, whom Willis had identified as a target of the grand jury’s investigation.
“This scenario creates a plain — and actual and untenable – conflict,” Judge Robert McBurney of the Superior Court of Fulton County wrote in his Monday order disqualifying Willis from pursuing Jones. “Any decision the District Attorney makes about Senator Jones in connection with the grand jury investigation is necessarily infected by it.”
“An investigation of this significance, garnering the public attention it necessarily does and touching so many political nerves in our society, cannot be burdened by legitimate doubts about the District Attorney’s motives,” he wrote.
The order Monday rejected similar disqualification requests from 11 other phony electors who were subpoenaed by Willis’s office, meaning the Fulton County District Attorney’s probe of those targets may continue, and the investigation of Jones is expected to be handed off to another prosecutor’s office.
Still, the development represented a significant unforced error by a prosecutor handling one the nation’s most sensitive and high-profile criminal investigations, one which poses perhaps the most significant legal threat to Trump as the former president eyes a 2024 bid for the White House.
The issue arose after Jones and 11 other pro-Trump electors filed a court motion to disqualify Willis, arguing in part that her role in hosting and headlining a mid-June fundraiser for Charlie Bailey, a Democratic candidate vying against Jones for lieutenant governor of Georgia, represented a conflict of interest.
Willis, in court papers, had urged the judge to reject Jones’s request to disqualify her. She argued that Bailey was still locked in a runoff with a fellow Democratic contender.
But McBurney was unpersuaded, noting that whoever won the runoff would go on to face Jones.
“Thus, the District Attorney pledged her name, likeness, and office to Bailey as her candidate of choice at a time when, if Bailey were successful (which he was), he would face Senator Jones,” he wrote. “This choice — which the District Attorney was within her rights as an elected official to make — has consequences.”
The Georgia investigation has intensified recently as Trump considers whether to launch a White House campaign as early this summer.
The grand jury recently issued subpoenas to several high-profile figures, including Trump allies Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, as well as conservative lawyers John Eastman, Jenna Ellis and Cleta Mitchell. Willis’s office recently informed 12 of the 16 Republicans who served as fake Trump electors that they could face criminal charges.
Georgia has figured prominently into investigations of Trump’s effort to overturn his defeat by President Biden. In the weeks after the election, a telephone recording shows, Trump told Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” the number of votes required to overturn Biden’s margin of victory, which Raffensperger refused to do.