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Lawyers press judge to disqualify Fani Willis over romantic relationship that threatens Trump case

The judge heard arguments over whether Willis’ relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade created a conflict of interest that should force both of them off one of four criminal criminal cases against the former president

Attorney Adam Abbate
Attorney Adam Abbate speaks during a hearing on the Georgia election interference case, at the Fulton County Courthouse, Atlanta, Georgia, USA, March 01, 2024.Alex Slitz / POOL (EFE)

Lawyers for Donald Trump and others charged with trying to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election pressed a judge Friday to remove Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis from the prosecution over a romantic relationship that has embroiled the case in controversy.

After several days of extraordinary testimony, the judge heard arguments over whether Willis’ relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade created a conflict of interest that should force both of them off one of four criminal criminal cases against the former president.

Trump attorney Steve Sadow told Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee that an appearance of impropriety is enough to disqualify Willis and Wade, and he accused them of not being truthful on the witness stand when they said they didn’t start dating until after Wade was hired in 2021.

Another attorney, Harry MacDougald, said that the allegations have left an “irreparable stain” on the case.

“Think of the message that would be sent if they were not disqualified,” said MacDougald, who represents former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark in the election case. “If this is tolerated, we will get more of it. This office is a global laughingstock because of their conduct.”

Adam Abbate, a lawyer with the district attorney’s office, repeatedly told the judge that the defendants have failed to show any actual conflict of interest. Abbate accused the defendants’ attorneys of pushing “speculation and conjecture” and trying to harass and embarrass Willis with questions on the witness stand that have nothing to do with the issue at hand.

“We have absolutely no evidence that Ms. Willis received any financial gain or benefit” from the relationship, Abbate told the judge.

The legal arguments follow several days of hearings filled with salacious testimony over Willis and Wade’s private lives that has created a soap opera atmosphere overshadowing the underlying charges accusing the former president of working to overturn his 2020 election loss in a desperate bid to cling to power.

It remains unclear whether the judge will find the relationship caused a conflict of interest that merits removing the prosecutors from the case. But even if Willis fends off the disqualification effort, the allegations threaten to taint the public’s perception of the prosecution as Trump and others seize on the relationship to try to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the case.

Attorneys for the election case defendants say Willis paid Wade large sums for his work and then improperly benefited when he paid for vacations for the two of them.

Willis and Wade have acknowledged the relationship, which they said ended last summer, but they have argued it does not create any sort of conflict and has no bearing on the case against Trump. The pair said they didn’t begin dating until the spring of 2022, after Wade was hired, and that they split travel expenses.

The hearings have at times wandered into surreal territory: Atlanta’s mayor watching from the gallery as a former Georgia governor testified, Willis’ father talking about keeping stashes of cash around the house and details of romantic getaways.

Willis’ removal would throw the most sprawling of the four criminal cases against Trump into question as the former president seeks a return to the White House. But it wouldn’t necessarily mean the charges against him and 14 others would be dropped.

If Willis and her office are disqualified, a nonpartisan council supporting prosecuting attorneys in Georgia would be tasked with finding a new attorney to take over. That person could either proceed with some or all of the charges against Trump and others, or drop the case altogether.

Even if a new lawyer moved forward on the path charted by Willis, the inevitable delay would seem likely to lessen the probability of the case getting to trial before November’s presidential election when Trump is expected to be the Republican nominee.

At a hearing preceding testimony, McAfee noted that under the law, “disqualification can occur if evidence is produced demonstrating an actual conflict or the appearance of one.” He said he wanted testimony to explore “whether a relationship existed, whether that relationship was romantic or non-romantic in nature, when it formed and whether it continues.”

Those questions were only relevant “in combination with the question of the existence and extent of any personal benefit conveyed as a result of the relationship,” McAfee said.

A Fulton County grand jury indicted Trump and 18 others in August on charges related to efforts to keep the Republican incumbent in power even though he lost the election to Democrat Joe Biden. Four people have pleaded guilty after reaching deals with prosecutors, while Trump and 14 others have pleaded not guilty.

Willis and Wade’s relationship was first exposed in a motion filed by an attorney for Trump co-defendant Michael Roman, that sought to have the indictment dismissed and to bar Willis and Wade and their offices from continuing to prosecute the case. The motion alleges Willis and Wade were already dating when she hired him as special prosecutor for the election case in November 2021.

Robin Yeartie, Willis’ former friend and employee, testified she saw the pair hugging and kissing long before Willis hired Wade. But Wade’s former law partner and onetime divorce attorney, Terrence Bradley, expected to be a key witness for lawyers trying to disqualify Willis, was at times evasive during testimony, saying he had “no direct knowledge of when the relationship started.”

In one of hundreds of text messages Bradley exchanged with Roman’s attorney, Ashleigh Merchant, however, he told her that he “absolutely” believed the relationship began before Willis hired Wade. In other texts, which were obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday, Bradley fed information to Merchant over a period of several months to help her prove her allegations.

Trump’s attorneys filed an analysis of location data from Wade’s cellphone that they say supports the assertion Willis and Wade began dating before he was hired. An investigator’s statement says Wade’s phone was in the neighborhood south of Atlanta where Willis was living at least 35 times in the first 11 months of 2021. Wade had testified he visited Willis’ condo fewer than 10 times before his hiring.

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