Trump Lawyer Urges Judge to Disqualify Fani Willis in Georgia Case

A judge in the Georgia election interference case against former President Donald J. Trump heard final arguments on Friday on a motion to disqualify the prosecutor who brought the case, Fani T. Willis, on the ground that a romantic relationship she had with a subordinate created a conflict of interest.

With a historic criminal case against a former president on the line, lawyers for Mr. Trump and his co-defendants took turns assailing Ms. Willis. John B. Merchant III, who represents the defendant Michael Roman, said that if the court finds the prosecutors’ romance did not create a conflict of interest, “public confidence in the system will be shot.”

But Adam Abbate, a prosecutor in Ms. Willis’s office, called the defense’s effort to disqualify Ms. Willis “a desperate attempt to remove a prosecutor from a case for absolutely no reason, other than harassment and embarrassment.”

Defense lawyers on Friday repeatedly asserted that the bar for disqualification should be relatively low, arguing that even the appearance of a conflict of interest should lead to Ms. Willis’s removal from the case because her actions had undermined public confidence in it. The question of whether the defense needs to show an actual conflict or just an appearance of one could prove pivotal.

“We can demonstrate an appearance of a conflict of interest, and that is sufficient,” Mr. Merchant told the judge, Scott McAfee of Fulton County Superior Court.

Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Steven H. Sadow, picked up the theme, arguing that “once you have the appearance of impropriety,” the law in Georgia is clear: “That’s enough to disqualify.”

Mr. Sadow focused on a speech Ms. Willis made in January at a Black church in Atlanta, calling her remarks a “violation of professional rules of conduct.” Her speech, at Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, came shortly after the conflict-of-interest motion was filed.

Ms. Willis, who is Black, suggested in the speech that the scrutiny of her romantic relationship with the prosecutor she hired to run the Trump case, Nathan Wade, was racist. Some of those comments she described as part of a conversation she had with God.

“It was a calculated determination by Ms. Willis to prejudice the defendants and their counsel,” Mr. Sadow said, adding, “Can you think of anything more that would heighten public condemnation of the defendant than alleging that the defense counsel and the defendants were making their motion based on race and religion?”

With Ms. Willis seated silently at the prosecution table, Mr. Abbate told Judge McAfee that appearance alone was not enough to disqualify her.

“The defense has to show an actual conflict,” Mr. Abbate said, adding that it had not done so in this case.

After Mr. Abbate sought to bolster his argument by citing a number of prior cases in which a conflict of interest had been found, Judge McAfee interjected that “a number of these cases seem to rely on appearance of impropriety.” But Mr. Abbate said that in each of the cases of disqualification that he cited, the courts found an “actual conflict” in addition to the appearance of impropriety.

The legal arguments of Mr. Trump and his allies were advanced by a lineup of veteran defense lawyers who seemed quite at ease, while Mr. Abbate had a more halting, and at times fumbling, presentation, relying more on his recitation of precedent and case law.

Regardless, Judge McAfee will be more interested in the substance of the legal questions, rather than the delivery style. He said after the arguments that he would rule within two weeks.

The hearing Friday allowed lawyers from the two sides to sum up their arguments over a salacious subplot to the election case — one that has already caused significant embarrassment and turmoil for Ms. Willis, the Fulton County district attorney. Details of her personal life have been spilled out in the Atlanta courthouse where she had hoped to put Mr. Trump and 14 co-defendants on trial as soon as this summer.

The stakes are high: If Ms. Willis is disqualified from the case, her entire office will be, too, and the case will probably be turned over to a district attorney from another jurisdiction. The new prosecutor could choose to continue the case as planned, modify the charges or drop them.

Disqualification would reduce the chances that a trial would begin before the November presidential election, in which Mr. Trump is expected to be the Republican nominee.

The relationship between Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade, an Atlanta-area lawyer she hired in November 2021 to manage the prosecution team, first came to light in January, in a motion filed by Ashleigh Merchant, a lawyer for Michael Roman, one of Mr. Trump’s co-defendants.

Ms. Merchant, who along with her husband, John Merchant, represents Mr. Roman, asserted that the romance began before Ms. Willis hired Mr. Wade. She also argued that Mr. Wade was unqualified for the high-profile job, for which he has been paid at least $650,000 so far.

Ms. Merchant claimed that Mr. Wade and Ms. Willis had engaged in “self-dealing,” because the couple went on vacations together that she said Mr. Wade had paid for.

In her filing on Jan. 8, Ms. Merchant cited Georgia case law in arguing that the situation as she laid it out met the standard for a disqualifying conflict of interest.

On Friday, Mr. Merchant told the judge that “we have here a very personal financial interest that’s been laid out in terms of money received by Ms. Willis, as a result of the scheme that she set up.”

Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade have acknowledged that they had a romantic relationship. But they have said that it began after Mr. Wade was hired, and that it ended before Mr. Trump and 18 of his allies were charged in August in a sweeping indictment that accuses them of conspiring to overturn Mr. Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election.

Ms. Willis said the couple roughly split the costs of the trips they took together, with Ms. Willis often using cash to pay back Mr. Wade for her share.

One defense lawyer, Richard A. Rice, Jr., accused the prosecutors during Friday’s hearing of living “Robin Leach’s lifestyle of the rich and famous” on their vacations.

But Mr. Abbate scoffed at that: The evidence was she stayed at a DoubleTree in Napa” he said of Ms. Willis. “I don’t know that to be a lavish hotel.”

The judge held a series of hearings on the issue in February that felt at times like a mini-trial. Mr. Wade took the stand, as did Ms. Willis, who pushed back angrily against Ms. Merchant’s questions. Ms. Willis described feeling loneliness after becoming the district attorney, the violent threats and racist messages she had received, and her frustration that the focus on her love life had distracted the nation’s attention from Mr. Trump and the 14 co-defendants who remain after four of those originally charged pleaded guilty.

At a hearing on Tuesday, the conflicting accounts of when the prosecutors’ romance began took center stage. Ms. Merchant called Terrence Bradley, a former law partner of Mr. Wade, to the stand, hoping to help prove that the relationship began before Mr. Wade was hired.

But Mr. Bradley delivered contradictory information. Entered into evidence was a text exchange he had with Ms. Merchant months earlier, in which he said that the relationship “absolutely” predated Mr. Wade’s hiring. But on the witness stand, he repeatedly said he had no knowledge of when the romance began.

The judge will have to decide which of Mr. Bradley’s accounts to believe as he weighs whether to disqualify the prosecutors.

At Friday’s hearing, Mr. Sadow said Mr. Bradley’s text messages showed that the relationship began before Mr. Wade’s hiring. But the judge seemed uncertain.

“Is it ever definitively shown how he knew this and that he actually did know it?” Judge McAfee asked.

Another witness, a former friend and employee of Ms. Willis named Robin Yeartie, also testified that the relationship predated Mr. Wade’s hiring. But under cross-examination, she said that she had left the D.A.’s office on bad terms and was no longer Ms. Willis’s friend.

Mr. Abbate on Friday dismissed both Mr. Bradley and Ms. Yeartie as people who had an ax to grind with the prosecutors.

There is already some precedent within the Trump case for disqualification. In July 2022, a judge blocked Ms. Willis from developing a case against Burt Jones, a fake Trump elector in Georgia in 2020, because Ms. Willis had hosted a fund-raiser for one of Mr. Jones’s political rivals. A year and a half after the disqualification, no replacement prosecutor has yet been named to continue investigating Mr. Jones, who is now Georgia’s lieutenant governor.

Pete Skandalakis, the executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, said in a recent interview that the current situation was different from the one involving Mr. Jones and suggested that it could move more quickly because an indictment has already been handed up.

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