The romance threatening to topple the Georgia election subversion case against Trump

District Attorney Fani Willis has denied allegations that her relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade, who she hired for the probe, represents a conflict of interest

District Attorney Fani Willis testifies on Friday.
District Attorney Fani Willis testifies on Friday.ALYSSA POINTER (REUTERS)
Macarena Vidal Liy

Fani Willis, the district attorney of Fulton County, describes herself as a tough person. In August last year, she charged Donald Trump and 18 others on suspicion of setting up a mafia-like ring to alter the 2020 election results in Georgia. The indictment — one of the most complicated court cases facing the former president — was the result of two and a half years of painstaking investigation. But now it is Willis who finds herself in court. Her romantic relationship with Nathan Wade, the special prosecutor she hired to help in the Trump investigation, may see her removed from the prosecution or even lead to the case being dismissed.

Last week’s hearings in room 5A of the Fulton County court — where Judge Scott McAfee will decide whether Willis should be removed from the case of a lifetime — had all the makings of a soap opera. Witnesses spoke of love affairs, trips to exotic destinations, cruises in the Caribbean, visits to tattoo parlors in Central America and piles of cash hidden in homes. There was even the alleged betrayals of former friends. And more serious episodes of insults, harassment and death threats in one of the most politically significant court cases since, perhaps, special counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigations into President Bill Clinton a quarter-century ago.

At the center of it all is Fani Willis, the first female district attorney in the county. When asked personal questions about her private life, Willis fired back: “Mr. Wade is a Southern gentleman. Me, not so much”; “A man is not a plan. A man is a companion” and “Men end relationships at the end of physical intimacy; women end relationships when that tough conversation takes place.” In one of the most memorable moments of her testimony, she turned to criticize defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant: “You’re confused. You think I’m on trial. 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.”

The controversy broke out in January, when the lawyers of Michael Roman — who is accused along with Trump in the indictment — filed allegations that Willis and Wade had been in a romantic relationship, and argued that this created a conflict of interest. They claimed that Willis had economically benefitted from hiring her then boyfriend in November 2021. The lawyers argue that Wade used his salary as a special prosecutor — he earned $650,000 during this time — to pay for luxury vacations for the two to destinations such as the Bahamas, Aruba and Napa Valley. According to the allegations, these trips took place during the investigation against the former president.

Willis and Wade admitted in early February that they had had a “personal relationship” that ended in the summer of 2023. Both insist, however, that they became a couple only after Wade had been hired. The two also categorically reject the allegations that Willis profited from the relationship, arguing that they evenly split the expenses.

On Thursday, defense attorneys questioned Wade about how he was paid, and how Willis reimbursed him for the trips. “She was very emphatic and adamant about this independent, strong woman thing so she demanded that she paid her own way,” Wade said. According to the special prosecutor, Willis paid him for the expenses in cash.

When asked where this money came from, Willis replied: “The source of the money is always the work, sweat and tears of me [...] My dad always told me to have at least six months’ worth of money in my house.” Her father, John Floyd — a retired lawyer who was also called to testify — confirmed that keeping cash at home “is a Black thing.”

Trump’s defense lawyers also called to the stand Robin Yeartie, a former friend and colleague of Willis — the two are no longer on speaking terms —, who claimed that Willis and Wade started dating in 2019, much earlier than the two claim. Both refuted that statement.

Judge McAfee said that he will call a new hearing for the end of next week or the beginning of the following week to hear the final arguments. It’s not known when the judge will issue a verdict, but he has made it clear that he is taking the situation very seriously: when he called last week’s hearing, he warned that just the appearance of conflict of interest would be enough to disqualify Willis.

An historic trial

Whatever the judge decides, it will have a decisive impact on the future of the election subversion case in Georgia, the only one of the four facing Trump that he could not shelve if elected president. If Willis continues to lead the case, she may be in a weaker position going into what is set to be an historic trial. It may also be more difficult to select an impartial jury.

If McAfee chooses to disqualify her — and with her, her entire team — the case would be assigned to another prosecutor in Georgia. The appointment would fall to the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia. The new person in charge may decide to continue the case as it is, introduce changes — such as withdrawing charges or accusing more people— or even dismiss it.

Other voices have called on Willis to take the initiative and excuse herself from the case. Lawyer Norm Eisen, former Chief Ethics Officer in the Obama administration, recently declared in a briefing that “it’s the wise thing to do.” “The conversation about these issues has become a distraction” from the “overwhelming amount of evidence justifying the decision to prosecute Mr. Trump and his co-conspirators,” he said.

Each step in this process pushes back the start of Trump’s trial, if it is held at all. This works in Trump’s favor. In addition to exculpation, the former president is seeking to delay each of his trials until after the November elections. Willis had asked to start hearings in August.

But finding someone to replace Willis will not be easy. Only a handful of prosecutors’ offices, all of them in the vicinity of Atlanta City, have the necessary qualifications. And last week’s hearings made it clear that the job comes with many challenges: Willis has faced abuse, violent incidents and death threats since she began the investigation against Trump. She has been forced to move house, and now travels with a security escort.

One of the witnesses at last week’s hearing, former Georgia Governor Roy Barnes, spoke only about these dangers. He was called to testify to confirm that Willis had asked him to be the special prosecutor, before she asked Wade. Barnes said he turned down the offer, arguing that it would make him a target. “I lived with bodyguards for four years of my life, and I didn’t like it,” he declared on Friday. “I wasn’t going to live with bodyguards for the rest of my life.”

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