Behind our institutions are ordinary people. Emily Kohrs is their new face.
Until last month, the special grand jury investigation in Fulton County, Ga., into whether Donald Trump and his associates meddled in the state’s 2020 election, was a black box — the latest in a series that have surrounded the former president since his first days in office. From Robert Mueller’s probe to state-level investigations into his organization’s business practices and his role in payments to the adult actress Stormy Daniels, the routine has been more or less the same. Reporters scour court filings and witness appearances for new tea leaves to read. Trump and surrogates denounce the latest witch hunt. Lawyers with blue wave emojis in their Twitter bios argue with serene confidence that this time (no, really) Trump’s luck has finally run out.
Then, on Feb. 21, The Associated Press published an interview with Emily Kohrs, the forewoman of the special grand jury in Georgia. Within hours, Kohrs had given lengthy interviews to several more outlets (including The Times) and in the process had become, as MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell put it on his show that evening, the “most famous grand juror in the history of jurisprudence.”
Chatty and amiable, Kohrs — a 30-year-old woman of elfin appearance and breezy affect, who described herself as between jobs — recounted the prosecutors’ wrangling of witnesses and the grand jury’s recommendation of numerous indictments. She offered her thoughts on figures like Lindsey Graham (“I really liked talking to him”) and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger of Georgia (“a really geeky kind of funny”). She seemed awe-struck by some witnesses (“my coolest moment was shaking Rudy Giuliani’s hand”) and marveled at the length of a Trump phone call the jury heard (“I would’ve lost my voice if I had talked for that long by myself”). She described passing the time by sketching witnesses and swearing in the state House speaker while holding a “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” ice pop from a party in the district attorney’s office. Asked by Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters about Trump’s claim that a partially released grand jury report amounted to “total exoneration,” she rolled her eyes. “Did he really say that? Oh, that’s fantastic. That’s phenomenal. I love it.”
Among the former prosecutors who pop up on cable-news sets to establish the conventional wisdom in such situations, the initial consensus was that this was probably bad for the prosecution — “a horrible idea,” as the CNN legal analyst Elie Honig put it. But there was no clear evidence that Kohrs had broken the rules governing grand juries in Georgia, which are less restrictive than in federal courts; the judge in the case gave a rare interview affirming as much.
What Kohrs did break, flagrantly, were the unwritten rules. Grand juries are supposed to be affairs of the utmost solemnity and discretion. Kohrs possessed neither. In the manner of someone who is rarely afforded privileged information, she seemed equally enamored with dishing it and withholding it. “This has been fascinating, to get this peek into the world of, like, politics and of all these different — of government and of all these different things,” she told CNN, “and have the curtain lifted just a little bit and let us peek in as regular people has been amazing.”
“I mean, this is a woman who acted like a vapid immature high school teenager,” Gregg Jarrett, a Fox News legal analyst, fumed on Sean Hannity’s show the following night, “smiling and gushing and laughing and joking about a very serious legal proceeding.” The tone of the criticism does make you wonder whether a hypothetical male equivalent, holding forth with Joe Roganesque bluster rather than “giddy babbling” (as Wonkette’s Liz Dye put it), would have attracted quite the same viciousness. Still, it’s hard not to see Kohrs as an exemplar of what might be called the Three Kids in a Trench Coat Era of American public life: a period of constant, exhausting revelation in which every once-respected process and institution is found to be made up of, well, idiots like us.
In the manner of someone who is rarely afforded privileged information, she seemed equally enamored with dishing it and withholding it.
Institutional authority, in a democracy, rests on the presumption that ordinary people who are granted extraordinary influence will be changed by it — that, as Spider-Man learned, with great power comes great responsibility. That presumption has proved remarkably durable in the United States, perhaps because it lends itself equally well to idealism and cynicism: You may think the secretary of defense is a hero or a war criminal, but either way, you affirm that running the Pentagon makes a person something bigger than he or she would be as a Subway franchise manager.
But what if that’s not actually true? This has become a persistent question over the last decade, as a confluence of politics, culture and information technology has turned the internet into a vast and inescapable showcase of human fallibility. We now have access to terabytes of hacked emails from campaign operatives and corporate executives, text messages from F.B.I. agents and White House staff members, police body-camera footage, media companies’ leaked Slack archives and social media networks that enable the reputational self-immolations of everyone from tenured academics to local school-board members.
Americans have been losing faith in public institutions for decades, but it’s possible to lose faith in them without losing a sense of their stature. What’s newer is the loss of mystique. Sometimes the revelations in all that data involve shocking crimes and abrogation of public trust. Sometimes they are subtler, showing common pettiness and poor judgment. But even at their most benign, they confront us with the very ordinariness of people, which may be the most profound revelation of all: that every marble-columned facade of public life is propped up by individuals killing half an hour before lunch watching dumb viral videos and texting “lol” to their co-workers. We’ve always known that, maybe, but not with the relentless specificity with which we know it now.
Is this demystification really so bad? Institutions, after all, reliably use mystification to escape accountability and oversight. The hypersecrecy and swashbuckling aura of the Central Intelligence Agency have always earned unwarranted deference from presidents and Congress toward what is, in reality, a largely deskbound and often error-prone bureaucracy. And reformers have long criticized the grand-jury system, arguing that the closed proceedings grant prosecutors unfair control and subtly encourage jurors to see them as partners. Trump’s attorneys have noted that Kohrs, at least once in her interviews, appears to say “we” in reference to the prosecution.
At the same time, it is difficult, in any fair viewing of Kohrs’s interviews, to see serious evidence for the claim that she went into the proceedings with a bias against Trump. And she seems to have been genuinely taken with the civic compact of jury duty: the undeniably weird alchemy of placing decisions of great important to current events in the hands of people selected precisely because of their lack of engagement with such things. “Instead of anyone else,” she told CNN, a hint of wonder in her voice, “they chose to get 16 random people.”
Of course, that’s always how it works. What’s more surprising is how easy it is, in spite of everything we know, to forget it — to catch yourself believing, or wanting to believe, that behind the curtain, someone besides us is in charge.
Source photographs: Don Farrall/Stone/Getty Images; screen grab from YouTube