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The real reason for Fani Willis' letter to local police is obvious

Georgia's Fulton County DA is a public servant, and the public is thus owed complete candor. But that's not what she gave us.


Georgia’s Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis on Monday issued a letter that was certainly unusual. It was couched as a notice to her colleagues in local law enforcement to be prepared for safety issues that could arise from charging decisions she said would come this summer in her 2020 election interference probe.

What are we to make of this letter? 

Well, for starters, Willis is highly unlikely to issue this letter if she’s not fully intending to charge Donald Trump, as opposed to not bringing charges against him or bringing charges only against lower-level figures. It is reminiscent of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s issuing a strong letter to GOP Rep. Jim Jordan before indicting Trump — one that was simply too muscular if you were not gearing up for an eventual indictment of the former president. Otherwise, why not write something shorter and sweeter that kicks the can down the road, if you are not anticipating a fight over an upcoming indictment? 

For a deeper dive into Donald Trump’s ongoing legal battles, check out “Prosecuting Donald Trump,” an MSNBC original podcast hosted by veteran prosecutors Andrew Weissmann and Mary McCord. Listen wherever you get your podcasts.

One thing Willis’ letter was not was what it professed to be: simply a call to law enforcement to be prepared for any violence. There would be no reason to issue a letter like this publicly. If you think of the way Bragg dealt with this same issue, he had discussions behind the scenes. Willis easily could have followed that path, and need not have issued a public letter, nor a letter so many months ahead of time.

Instead, the letter seemed geared to deal with expectations created by Willis herself when in January she told the judge overseeing the special grand jury convened to investigate the Georgia election that a decision on charges was “imminent.” She walked back that statement a few weeks later to say she used that word in a different sense than a reporter might take it. Her letter on Monday was to my mind yet another effort to further walk back the expectations she created by her unfortunate choice of words.

A public prosecutor is there as a public servant, and the public is thus owed complete candor.

To be clear, I am a proponent of prosecutors speaking more than they generally have been comfortable doing in the past. We have seen Bragg and even Attorney General Merrick Garland speak about their efforts so that the field is not dominated solely by Trump and his allies. As they have shown, this can be done without crossing the line. A useful lodestar is Archibald Cox, the Watergate prosecutor who held an important press conference to explain to the American public why he was seeking the White House tapes and not willing to accept the Nixon “compromise.” He did not rely solely on a turgid legal brief and spoke to the public directly. 

But the Willis letter raises a separate and important issue: If you do choose to speak, it is important to avoid all spin. To educate the public and gain their trust, complete candor with no effort to massage the facts must be the coin of the realm. After all, a public prosecutor is there as a public servant, and the public is thus owed complete candor. 

A DA should not purport to issue a letter couched as a concern about safety if that is not what it is really about. A DA should not tout a settlement about a subpoena as a victory when it was actually a loss as a result of an adverse district court decision. And the attorney general should not suggest that the Justice Department has been investigating all aspects of the Jan. 6, 2021, events from Day One, when it was slow to look at higher-ups until the House Jan. 6 committee hearings.

If a public prosecutor is not prepared to do this, better not to speak at all.