With salacious testimony finished, legal arguments to begin over Fani Willis' future in Trump case

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis testifies during a hearing on the Georgia election interference case, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, in Atlanta. The hearing is to determine whether Willis should be removed from the case because of a relationship with Nathan Wade, special prosecutor she hired in the election interference case against former President Donald Trump. (Alyssa Pointer/Pool Photo via AP)

After several days of extraordinary testimony, the judge in the Georgia election interference case against former President Donald Trump is set to hear arguments Friday over whether Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis should be removed from the prosecution over a romantic relationship.

Lawyers for Trump and other defendants in the election case argue Willis’ romance with a special prosecutor she hired creates a conflict of interest. They say Willis paid outside lawyer Nathan 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. The pair said they didn’t begin dating until the spring of 2022, after Wade was hired, and that they split travel expenses.

Since the relationship was revealed in early January, the subject dominating the court’s time and the public’s attention has not been the crimes prosecutors allege Trump and his allies committed while trying to overturn the election, but rather the intimate details of Willis and Wade’s relationship.

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.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee heard details of Willis and Wade’s personal lives and conflicting accounts of when they started dating, but it remains unclear whether he will find the relationship caused a conflict of interest that merits removing the prosecutors from the case.

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.

Georgia State University law professor Anthony Michael Kreis, who has followed the case closely, said a lot will depend on which standard McAfee uses: an actual conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict.

“The standard I think that’s applicable is an actual conflict of interest where the evidence produced shows that Fani Willis profited off the investigation and the charging decisions that she brought against the 2020 election interference defendants,” he said.

Because Willis and Wade said the relationship ended before they sought an indictment in the election interference case, it’s hard to argue the due process rights of Trump and his co-defendants were violated, Kreis said. But if McAfee applies an “appearance of conflict” standard, that could mean trouble for Willis and Wade “because the shadow has been cast over the whole thing,” he said.

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.

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 2020 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.

Lawyers for Roman, Trump and some of the other defendants in the election case repeatedly tried during last month’s hearing to prove the prosecutors were not being truthful about when their relationship began.

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.”

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.