The clerk of the Fulton County, Georgia, court system acknowledged Tuesday accidentally releasing what appeared to be a list of criminal charges against Donald Trump before he was actually indicted, and sought to deflect blame amid mounting criticism from Republicans who have seized on the blunder to characterize the case as rigged.
After refusing to explain what happened for more than a day after Reuters posted the document the media outlet said was published on the court’s website, clerk Che Alexander’s office said she was doing a “trial run” of the court’s filing system on Monday “in anticipation of issues that arise with entering a potentially large indictment.”
Alexander’s office said that led to the docketing of “what appeared to be an indictment, but which was, in fact, only a fictitious docket sheet.” Reuters found the docket and reported on it Monday afternoon, hours before the grand jury returned the indictment charging Trump and 18 allies over efforts to subvert the 2020 election results.
The docket sheet published by Reuters included a list of 13 counts against Trump, including Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, solicitation of violation of oath by public officer and false statements and writings. They were the exact same counts the former president was charged with in the indictment handed down late Monday. The erroneous document also included a case number, though it differed from the one on the actual indictment.
The statement comes on the heels of confusing comments from the clerk and her office that have fueled speculation about the document Trump and his allies have pounced on to claim that the charges against him were already decided before grand jurors took a vote. It has given Trump and his legal team an opening to try to undermine the credibility of prosecutors and the clerk’s office at the very outset of the high-stakes case.
The clerk’s office said shortly after Reuters posted the document online that the clerk had “learned” of what it called a “fictitious document that has been circulated online.” When pressed about it later Monday, Alexander said she didn’t know “what else to say,” adding: “I haven’t seen an indictment, right? So I don’t have anything.” Alexander also didn’t publicly rule out that it could have been the result of a hack when asked Monday.
In the latest statement, however, Alexander’s office said that the clerk immediately took down the document “upon learning of the mishap.”
“The Office understands the confusion that this matter caused and the sensitivity of all court filings. We remain committed to operating with an extreme level of efficiency, accuracy and transparency,” the clerk’s office said.
The confusion over the document thrust the newly sworn in Fulton County courts clerk into the spotlight as reporters descended onto the Atlanta courthouse to get a glimpse at the witnesses called in to testify before the grand jury hearing District Attorney Fani Willis’ sprawling case. Hours later, cameras followed as Alexander handed a stack of indictments — which included the 2020 election case — to Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney.
After the document was posted but before the grand jury handed up the indictment, a spokesperson for Willis said it wasn’t accurate that charges had been filed but declined to comment further.
Willis was asked about the document during a news conference Monday evening. She said she couldn’t say anything about the matter but explained that the grand jury met and deliberated and returned the indictment around 8 p.m.
“I am not an expert on clerk’s duties or even administrative duties. I wouldn’t know how to work that system, and so I’m not going to speculate,” she said, cutting off any further inquiries on the topic, curtly saying, “Next question.”
It’s the fourth criminal case against the Republican former president, who has characterized all the cases against him as a bid to hurt his 2024 bid to reclaim the White House.
Trump legal team has already suggested it would claim prosecutorial misconduct, saying shortly after the document was posted that “this was not a simple administrative mistake,” but is “emblematic of the pervasive and glaring constitutional violations which have plagued this case from its very inception.”
“The events that have unfolded today have been shocking and absurd, starting with the leak of a presumed and premature indictment before the witnesses had testified or the grand jurors had deliberated and ending with the District Attorney being unable to offer any explanation,” lawyers Drew Findling, Jennifer Little and Marissa Goldberg said in a statement after the indictment was released. “In light of this major fumble, the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office clearly decided to force through and rush this 98-page indictment.”
Trump himself also seized on the issue to raise money for his 2024 presidential campaign, writing in an email before the indictment came down: “The Grand Jury testimony has not even FINISHED – but it’s clear the District Attorney has already decided how this case will end.”
Legal experts had said the filing was likely a list of potential charges prosecutors were presenting to the grand jury ahead of Monday’s vote.
Prosecutors draft indictments and present them to the grand jury, which meets in secret and ultimately decides whether to hand charges down. Grand juries — made up of people randomly drawn from the community, like juries that decide trials — are designed to safeguard against politically motivated prosecutions, but they’ve long been criticized by some as little more than a rubber stamp for prosecutors.
“The grand jury doesn’t sit around and write indictments, it’s presented to them,” said Clark Cunningham, a Georgia State University law professor. “Presumably before this morning, they had drafted an indictment — there’s nothing wrong with that.”
And experts said that while Trump may use the premature posting in an effort to undermine the integrity of Willis’ investigation on the campaign trail, it’s unlikely to ultimately have an impact in the courtroom.
“Unfortunately errors happen in today’s world with things being done online,” said Stanley Twardy, Jr., a former U.S. attorney for Connecticut. “I don’t think this is something that is going to create issues.”
Alexander was sworn in as the courts clerk less than two months ago to replace Tina Robinson, who retired in June after 16 years in the role. Alexander appears to have previously campaigned for Willis in her bid for a judgeship in 2018. Her Instagram page includes multiple photos of Willis and her campaign posters, including one with a caption that said Willis “has truly been an inspiration to me and countless others” and included #realfriends.
Richer reported from Boston. Associated Press writers Kate Brumback, Jeff Martin and Jeff Amy in Atlanta contributed to this report.