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In Georgia, Trump's latest indictment deepens a GOP divide

Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks at an event hosted by conservative radio host Erick Erickson on Aug. 18 in Atlanta. Kemp has pushed back against GOP proposals to oust Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.
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Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks at an event hosted by conservative radio host Erick Erickson on Aug. 18 in Atlanta. Kemp has pushed back against GOP proposals to oust Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.

ATLANTA — When prosecutors filed a sweeping racketeering indictment against former President Donald Trump and others for efforts to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia, it didn't take long for Republicans to denounce the charges and demand action.

Within a few days, a push to have Georgia lawmakers call a special legislative session emerged from the pro-Trump right, seeking to strip funding from Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis' office, open an impeachment inquiry and find other ways to reprimand Willis, a Democrat.

The efforts appear to be going nowhere, but they've amplified a divide within Georgia Republicans.

The push for a special session came from freshman state Sen. Colton Moore, hailing from northwest Georgia, who published a letter demanding his colleagues join him in seeking the session and quickly made the rounds in conservative media circles.

"I mean, this is disgusting," Moore said on The Charlie Kirk Show. "We have a district attorney using taxpayer money, using her government authority to persecute her political opponent to the tune of the death penalty."

To be clear, Willis is not seeking to execute Trump or anyone else for their efforts to overturn Georgia's 2020 election, but Moore and other Trump supporters have used some extreme rhetoric in their quest to punish the prosecutor.

In other interviews, Moore said his constituents would be "fighting in the streets" if action was not taken against the district attorney, hypothesizing a "civil war" unless a special session was to happen. He compared the indictments to Nazism, posted phone numbers of his colleagues who have not signed on to the plan, and has vowed to continue his call daily until the legislature reconvenes in January.

On the pro-Trump right, Moore's effort is gaining steam, thanks in part to a cosign from the former president himself.

"Highly respected Georgia state Sen. Colton Moore deserves thanks and congratulations of everyone for having the courage and conviction to fight the radical left lunatics who are so badly hurting the great state of Georgia and, frankly, the USA itself," Trump said in a video on his Truth Social website.

Why the call to oust Willis is likely to go nowhere

But in Georgia's state Capitol, the effort to undermine Willis has hit several roadblocks.

The first one: math. Calling a special session would require three-fifths of Georgia's lawmakers in each chamber, which means convincing Democrats to join.

It also means having way more support than the three GOP lawmakers who are publicly backing it. Georgia House Speaker Jon Burns penned a letter to fellow Republicans in that chamber outlining potential legal and logistical problems with the call to go after Willis via a special session, including the side effect of stripping funding from an office that prosecutes "serious offenses like murder, rape, armed robbery, gang prosecution, battery, etc." Most of Moore's GOP colleagues in the Senate signed onto a letter that rejected his special session plan as a "publicity and fundraising campaign."

Popular second-term Gov. Brian Kemp is also among the GOP figures who've pushed back on the idea as impossible and politically irresponsible.

In a press conference last month, Kemp downplayed calls from the party's right flank to use the power of the state to discipline Willis, and cautioned his fellow Republicans against going down a similar path to what happened before a pair of losses in January 2021 U.S. Senate runoffs.

"Many of you will recall that in the final weeks of 2020, I clearly and repeatedly said that I would not be calling a special session of the General Assembly to overturn the 2020 election results because such an action would have been unconstitutional," he said. "It was that simple. Fast forward today, nearly three years later, memories are fading fast."

Kemp has emerged as one of the few Republicans who has both stood up to Trump's false claims after the last presidential election and suffered little consequence for it, giving him a larger platform to warn that a focus on the past could cost the GOP in the future.

Other Republican lawmakers want to use a new prosecutor oversight panel to investigate Willis once it takes effect in October, though the panel is unlikely to open up a case against Willis or remove her from her post, and Kemp is skeptical of using that measure even though he said he believes the charges against Trump and his allies are political in nature.

"Up to this point, I have not seen any evidence that DA Willis' actions, or lack thereof, warrant action by the Prosecuting Attorneys Oversight Commission," he said. "Regardless, in my mind, a special session of the General Assembly to end-run around this law is not feasible and may ultimately prove to be unconstitutional."

The fight over how to respond to Willis and the racketeering indictment illustrates the fault lines within the Republican Party over what to do about Trump.

In Georgia and other key states, state and local Republican Party committees are being taken over by Trump loyalists who believe false claims of election fraud and are willing to attack anyone and everyone who disagrees, even very conservative elected officials who might not align with Trump 100%.

Take this comment at a rally for Moore's ill-fated push for a special session. It's from Brian Pritchard, a vice chairman of the Georgia GOP, about the state's governor, secretary of state and attorney general: "I get a lot of grief, and they say, 'You never say anything negative about a Democrat!' I do, I never fail to mention Brian Kemp, Brad Raffensperger and Chris Carr!"

All three of them are conservative Republicans — and all three survived pro-Trump primary challengers in the 2022 midterms, winning then and in November's general election in blowout fashion.

The disconnect between Trump and other popular GOP leaders will continue to be on display in Georgia heading into next year, thanks in part to the looming trial in the racketeering case and the 2024 presidential campaign calendar. Polls show Trump is still the runaway favorite to be the party's presidential nominee, even as voters in key states — and from both parties — have rejected his vision in recent elections.

Copyright 2023 Georgia Public Broadcasting

Stephen Fowler is the Producer/Back-Up Host for All Things Considered and a creative storyteller hailing from McDonough, Georgia. He graduated from Emory University with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. The program combined the best parts of journalism, marketing, digital media and music into a thesis on the rise of the internet rapper via the intersectionality of social media and hip-hop. He served as the first-ever Executive Digital Editor of The Emory Wheel, where he helped lead the paper into a modern digital era.