Fani Willis Can Remain in Charge of Trump Prosecution in Georgia

Fani WillisNatrice Miller/TNS/ZUMA

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis can continue to oversee the Georgia criminal prosecution of Donald Trump, so long as the special prosecutor she hired for the case, Nathan Wade, steps aside, a Georgia judge ruled Friday. If the defendants had succeeded in removing Willis, her disqualification could have seriously delayed or even derailed the case against Trump and his alleged co-conspirators, which stems from their efforts to overturn the state’s 2020 presidential election.
The effort to remove Willis, and by extension her entire office, began with a January filing by lawyers for defendant Michael Roman, a former Trump campaign aide who alleged that Willis had a conflict of interest arising from an her romantic involvement with Wade, who she hired to prosecute the case. Roman alleged that Willis benefited financially from the arrangement by going on vacations that Wade paid for with legal fees from Willis’ office. The defendants suggested that the previously undisclosed relationship might have given the prosecutors an improper financial incentive to pursue the sprawling RICO case in as time-consuming and complicated a manner as possible. At a hearing in February, Willis acknowledged the affair but denied the allegations of financial impropriety, saying that she and Wade had split the cost of their trips and that she had reimbursed him in cash for various expenses. “A man is not a plan,” Willis said, in one of the hearing’s most memorable lines. 
One of the most contested questions concerned the timeline of Willis and Wade’s relationship. Lawyers for a number of the defendants tried to prove that the prosecutors’ romantic entanglement began before Willis hired Wade, which the defense said boosted their argument that the DA was engaged in self-dealing. Willis and Wade both testified that the affair began in 2022, after Wade’s hiring.
Judge Scott McAfee rejected the bulk of the defenses’ arguments, ruling Friday that the allegations and evidence they presented against Willis were “legally insufficient to support a finding of an actual conflict of interest.” But, McAfee continued, the defendants had successfully established an “appearance of impropriety” that required either Willis—along with the entire Fulton DA’s office—or Wade to withdraw from the case. The prosecution will almost certainly choose the latter option.

The defendants also alleged that Willis had made a series of improper public comments about the case, notably during a speech at Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and to journalists Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman, for their recently published book. McAfee ruled that Willis’ out-of-court statements didn’t justify removing her from the case. He did, however, state that some of the DA’s public remarks were “legally improper,” and he threatened to enter a future order “preventing the State from mentioning the case in any public forum to prevent prejudicial pretrial publicity.” 
Both the DA and the defendants will have an opportunity to appeal McAfee’s ruling, which could further drag out the timeline for a trial. 
Though the defense has thus far failed to remove Willis, it did create an embarrassing and damaging side-show for the Georgia prosecutor. She is likely to face continued investigations in Georgia over these matters, and the episode may be grounds for the defendants and conservative media to raise doubts about her ethics and motives. Moreover, the defense lawyers succeeded in shifting the nation’s attention from Trump’s attempt to steal an election to the relationship between Willis and Wade.
Willis had spent three years building her case against Trump. It began shortly after Trump’s infamous phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in January 2021, in which Trump demanded that Raffensperger find the votes Trump needed to eek out a win in the state. A special grand jury heard testimony for six months before recommending indictments. Willis then brought the case to a different grand jury that, last August, handed up a massive racketeering indictment against Trump and 18 co-defendants. Four have since pleaded guilty. 
On Wednesday, McAfee threw out several charges in the indictment—including one related to the Raffensperger call—ruling that they lacked specificity about which constitutional requirements Trump and several other co-defendants had allegedly pressured Georgia officials to violate. Willis has the option of seeking an new indictment on those counts, though that, too, would likely cause significant delay. She may decline to do so, since most of the original indictment remains intact.