Trials & Litigation

Fani Willis can remain on Trump Georgia case if special prosecutor steps aside, judge rules

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Fani Willis stands in a law library

Fulton County DA Fani Willis will be allowed to stay on the Georgia election interference case if lead prosecutor Nathan Wade is removed from it. (Photo by David Walter Banks/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

ATLANTA—The judge overseeing the Georgia election interference case against former president Donald Trump and his allies rejected an effort to disqualify Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis (D) from the case over a romantic relationship she had with the lead prosecutor she appointed.

In a 23-page ruling issued Friday, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee wrote that defendants “failed to meet their burden” in proving Willis’s relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade was a “conflict of interest” enough to merit her removal from the case. But the judge also found an appearance of “impropriety” and said either Willis and her office must fully leave the case or Wade must withdraw from the proceeding.

McAfee’s order is a significant legal victory for Willis, who maintains control of the historic criminal case against the former president and his allies that she began investigating more than three years ago. But the tawdry diversion has come at a personal and professional cost to Willis, as embarrassing details of her personal life and romantic relationships have come under scrutiny inside the same courtroom where she had hoped to put Trump and his co-defendants on trial this August.

“You think I’m on trial. These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020,” Willis declared during a fiery Feb. 15 appearance on the witness stand where she was questioned about the allegations. “I’m not on trial. No matter how hard you try to put me on trial.”

But even allies of Willis fear the case against Trump could be irreparably damaged, having undermined public confidence in the prosecution. And the tawdry claims against Willis are unlikely to go away—especially in the public realm where she has already faced political attacks from Trump and his supporters, racist criticism and threats from those opposed to her prosecution of the former president.

On Wednesday, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) signed legislation creating a state panel to investigate and potentially punish “rogue” local prosecutors. While Kemp spoke of it as an attempt to combat violent crime, Republican lawmakers have already indicated they plan to investigate Willis. A separate Georgia Senate committee already has launched its own hearings into the allegations against Willis and Wade, the lead prosecutor, issuing a subpoena for records and hearing testimony from the lawyer who first raised the claims.

McAfee’s decision comes more than two months after Mike Roman, one of the former president’s co-defendants who worked on Trump’s 2020 campaign, claimed in a court filing that Willis and Wade had been involved in an “improper, clandestine personal relationship” that has financially benefited them both.

Roman’s lawyer, Ashleigh Merchant, claimed Willis may have broken the law by hiring Wade and then allowing him to pay for “vacations across the world” with her that were unrelated to their work on the case. Roman’s filing, which offered no proof to substantiate the claims, called for the prosecutors to be disqualified and for the charges against him to be dismissed.

Willis and Wade later acknowledged a romantic relationship in court filings but denied it had tainted the proceedings. Testifying under oath during an evidentiary hearing on Roman’s disqualification motion, both insisted the relationship began months after Wade’s November 2021 hiring and ended before indictments were issued last August. Both claimed they had not deliberately concealed the relationship but had not openly discussed it either.

“Our relationship wasn’t a secret. It was just private,” Wade testified.

Wade strongly denied that Willis had financially benefited from his role on the case. In sworn testimony, both admitted they had taken several trips together but that they had equally split travel costs. Wade testified that Willis often repaid him in cash for tickets and other expenses he charged to his credit card—though he said he did not deposit the cash and had no record of those reimbursements.

“If you’ve ever spent any time with Ms. Willis, you understand that she’s a very independent, proud woman,” Wade testified. “So she’s going to insist that she carries her own weight. And it actually was a point of contention between the two of us. She is going to pay her own way.”

But Merchant accused Willis and Wade of lying. She called two witnesses to the stand to rebut their claims—including Robin Bryant-Yeartie, a former friend and co-worker of Willis, who testified that she had “no doubt” that Willis and Wade began dating in late 2019 shortly after they met at a conference.

Merchant also called Terrence Bradley, a former law partner of Wade’s, who she claimed would testify that Wade and Willis began their relationship years earlier than they claimed. Text messages presented in court suggested Bradley had been a key source as Merchant investigated rumors of a dalliance between Willis and Wade and that she’d asked him to read through her court filings on the subject for accuracy.

But on the stand, Bradley repeatedly declined to answer questions under oath about what he knew about the romantic relationship between Willis and Wade. Bradley, who previously represented Wade in his ongoing divorce, cited concerns he might violate attorney-client privilege and could be disbarred. He told the court he “had no personal knowledge” of when their relationship began—a claim he maintained even after McAfee ruled Bradley could answer some questions despite his privilege concerns.

Prosecutors later questioned the motives of Bryant-Yeartie and Bradley, portraying them as “disgruntled” former friends and co-workers who had malice toward Willis and Wade. Prosecutor Adam Abbate called their testimony vague and based on gossip, and said they offered no proof that Willis and Wade had lied.

During closing arguments, Sadow and other defense attorneys repeatedly told McAfee he didn’t need evidence that Willis and Wade’s relationship had been an “actual conflict,” arguing “the appearance” of a conflict would be enough to disqualify Willis and her office because she had undermined public trust in the case.

“It puts an irreparable stain on the case,” Harry MacDougald, an attorney for former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark, told the judge.

Meanwhile Sadow and others seized on remarks Willis made during a fiery Jan. 14 speech before a historic Black church in Atlanta—where she accused her critics of playing “the race card” by questioning her right to appoint Wade and suggested racism was at the heart of the allegations. Willis did not mention any defendant by name, though she named other critics, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).

But Sadow argued the implication was that she was attacking Trump and others and argued the speech itself was enough to disqualify Willis. “Can you think of anything more that would heighten public condemnation of the defendant than alleging that defense counsel and the defendants were making their motion based on race and religion?” Sadow told McAfee. “That’s just bad as it gets in Fulton County.”

Abbate argued the defense had not proved that any of Willis’s actions had tainted the case. “There’s absolutely no evidence that the defendants in this case, their due process rights have been harmed in absolutely any way,” Abbate said during closing arguments. “Zero evidence.”

McAfee’s ruling comes two days after he dismissed six counts in the sweeping indictment—including three against Trump—agreeing with defense attorneys that the charges did not provide “sufficient detail.” The counts related to allegations Trump and other defendants illegally sought to pressure multiple elected officials in Georgia to violate their oaths and work to overturn Trump’s 2020 loss in the state.

But McAfee gave prosecutors six months to resurrect the charges by presenting the allegations to a new grand jury or through appeal. A Willis spokesman declined to comment on what the district attorney might do.

The judge’s decision on Willis is almost certain to fuel political attacks in a year where he, Willis and Trump are all on the ballot. McAfee, who was appointed to the bench in 2022 by Kemp, last week drew two challengers as he seeks a full judicial term.

McAfee seemed to anticipate the attacks. Before he made his decision public, the judge sought to make clear that his ruling wasn’t driven by political pressure, revealing in a local radio interview last week that he had prepared a rough draft of his decision “before I ever heard a rumor that someone wanted to run for this position.”

“So the result is not going to change because of politics,” McAfee told The Shelley Wynter Show. “I am calling it as best I can and the law as I understand it.”

“No job is worth my integrity,” he added.

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