Judge rules Fani Willis can continue to lead Georgia Trump case

A judge delivered a partial victory Friday to Fulton County Dist. Atty. Fani Willis, ruling that she would not be disqualified from leading the Georgia election interference case against the former president as her romantic relationship with her lead prosecutor did not amount to a direct conflict of interest.

But Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee said Willis’ relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade had created the appearance of a conflict of interest. And he offered an ultimatum: either she or the special prosecutor she had a relationship with must step down from the case.

Wade’s withdrawal from the sweeping racketeering trial that is one of four criminal cases against the former president, he suggested, would allow “the District Attorney, the Defendants, and the public to move forward without his presence or remuneration distracting from and potentially compromising the merits of this case.”

“This finding is by no means an indication that the Court condones this tremendous lapse in judgment or the unprofessional manner of the District Attorney’s testimony during the evidentiary hearing,” McAfee wrote. “Rather, it is the undersigned’s opinion that Georgia law does not permit the finding of an actual conflict for simply making bad choices — even repeatedly — and it is the trial court’s duty to confine itself to the relevant issues and applicable law properly brought before it.”

Trump and his co-defendants have pushed for Willis to be disqualified — a move that would have derailed the case, likely holding up the start date of a trial that could have a significant influence on the Nov. 5 presidential election. Willis had sought an August trial.

But the timeline is still uncertain. McAfee’s ruling is almost certain to be appealed.

In making his decision, McAfee had to weigh what legal standard for disqualification to apply: an actual conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest. He also had to determine the facts of the case: the nature of Willis and Wade’s relationship, what kinds of funds may have been exchanged, and when the relationship ended.

A Democrat, Willis was a newly elected Fulton County district attorney when she opened a “high priority” criminal probe in February 2021 into Trump’s efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss in Georgia to Democrat Joe Biden. After losing Georgia by nearly 12,000 votes, Trump raised baseless claims of election fraud and pressured GOP leaders in the state to help him overturn the result.

In August 2023, a Fulton County grand jury charged Trump and 18 of his allies in a sprawling 98-page indictment with racketeering and a dozen other felonies. Four of the defendants have since pleaded guilty to some of the charges.

The relationship between Willis and Wade first drew public scrutiny in January when an attorney for Mike Roman, Trump’s co-defendant and former campaign aide, filed a motion accusing Willis and Wade of engaging in an “improper, clandestine personal relationship.” They sought to block Willis and her office from prosecuting the case, alleging Willis was dating Wade when she hired him in November 2021 and improperly benefited when she accompanied him on vacations he paid for.

Willis and Wade have acknowledged they had a relationship. But they testified that it did not begin until early 2022 — months after Willis hired Wade — and that it ended last summer. They also testified that they split travel expenses.

The prosecutors have argued there was no conflict of interest — and no evidence the district attorney gained direct or indirect financial benefit from the relationship.

Last month, the two sides sparred in hearings that played out like a daytime soap opera as defense attorneys quizzed Wade on whether Willis repaid him with cash for her share of vacations and asked Willis who paid when they went out for dinner.

On the witness stand, Wade described a birthday trip to Belize as a gift from Willis. Willis detailed a Napa Valley wine tour in which she paid in cash for a pairing of Champagne, chocolate and caviar. She admitted she didn’t really like wine and preferred Grey Goose vodka.

Visibly upset as defense lawyers accused her of lying about the timeline of their relationship, Willis dismissed the defense allegations as “lies” and railed against what she saw as intrusions into her personal life.

“You’re confused. You think I’m on trial,” Willis at one point, pushing back at Roman’s defense attorney, Ashleigh Merchant. “These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020. I’m not on trial no matter how hard you try to put me on trial.”

Defense attorneys argue that allowing Willis to preside over the case threatens to undermine public confidence in an already charged and sensitive investigation. Even the appearance of a conflict of interest, they argue, is enough to remove her from the case.

That is disputed by Willis’ attorneys. They argued in a court filing that disqualification of a district attorney requires a “high standard of proof” and the defense had the burden of showing an actual conflict of interest.

Trump’s attorneys have continued to push the idea that Willis and Wade are lying about the timeline of the relationship.

The week after the prosecutors testified, defense attorneys filed an affidavit detailing cellphone records that they said indicated Willis and Wade exchanged just under 12,000 calls and text messages before Wade joined the investigation. They also presented cellphone location data that they said showed Wade visited the south Atlanta neighborhood where Willis was living at least 35 times in the 11 months before she hired him. Wade had testified that he had been there fewer than 10 times during the same period.

Anthony Michael Kreis, a law professor at Georgia State University, said the evidence unrebutted in court showed the relationship ended well in advance of any indictments being considered by the grand jury and ultimately handed down.

“That really undermines the argument that this prosecution is either selective or was somehow kind of strategically manipulated in order to enrich Fani Willis,” Kreis said.

Still, he said, the allegations of a conflict of interest — a narrative that Trump has seized on as he campaigns to reclaim the White House — threatened to taint the public’s perception of the prosecution.

“The defense’s goal here was to keep everybody’s eyes off the substance of the indictment and focus on the ethics of Fani Willis,” Kreis said. “They’ve been very successful, so one has to wonder whether this exercise itself has actually damaged the credibility of the D.A.’s office sufficiently to create this appearance of impropriety that would be enough to kick her off.”

Kreis said he expected the trial would push well into 2025. But such a delay, he said, would likely have happened anyway: “Donald Trump can’t be at multiple criminal trials at once.”

Judge McAfee delivered a partial win to Trump and his co-defendants Wednesday when he dismissed six counts — including three against the former president — related to the charge of solicitation of violation of oath by a public officer. McAfee ruled that the counts “fail to allege sufficient detail” about what part of the oath the defendants were allegedly trying to get public officials to violate.

The timeline of Trump’s other criminal cases is uncertain.

Trump’s federal trial on charges of plotting to overturn the 2020 election, originally set to begin March 4, stalled last month as the Supreme Court agreed to consider his claim to “total immunity” from prosecution for actions alleged to have taken place while in office.

On Thursday, prosecutors requested a 30-day delay of the New York hush money case involving Trump’s 2016 payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels. The trial was set to begin March 25.

Meanwhile, the judge presiding over the Florida classified document case, involving files Trump stored at his Mar-a-Lago residence and club, recently delayed the case that was scheduled for May. Prosecutors have requested a July start, but Trump’s legal team is pressing to delay until after the presidential election.

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