Fani Willis drops Nathan Wade to continue Trump prosecution

A judge wrote that Willis had a “tremendous lapse in judgment,” but didn’t disqualify her from the case.

A Black woman with long straight hair wearing a red long-sleeved dress sits at a courtroom table, with a video monitor behind her showing her testimony.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis takes the stand as a witness during a hearing in the case of Georgia v. Donald Trump at the Fulton County Courthouse on February 15, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia. Alyssa Pointer/Getty Images Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’s prosecution of Donald Trump will be allowed to move forward in Georgia — because her ex has resigned from the prosecution team.

The background: The high-stakes prosecution of Trump and several of his associates for trying to steal Georgia’s 2020 election has been sidetracked in recent months. Defendants had unearthed that Willis and attorney Nathan Wade had a romantic relationship, arguing this was an improper conflict of interest that should get Willis disqualified from the prosecution. A high-profile hearing was held last month in which Willis and Wade testified, denying any impropriety.

What’s new: Now, a ruling from Judge Scott McAfee Friday morning has rejected the attempt to disqualify Willis. Trump and his allies did not actually prove she had a conflict of interest, McAfee found.

But McAfee did have some harsh words for Willis, calling her relationship with Wade a “tremendous lapse in judgment,” her testimony last month “unprofessional,” and opining that “an odor of mendacity remains” about the situation. As a result, he said, either Wade or Willis has to leave the team. And, on Friday afternoon, Wade resigned.

What’s next: Now that Wade has stepped down, the prosecution could get moving again — with the catch that Trump and his co-defendants could appeal and try to get a higher Georgia court to disqualify Willis.

Regardless of the appeal, this was always the least likely of the four Trump prosecutions to go to trial before the election, due to its complexity. And though there is no trial date just yet, the recent drama has made it even more likely to slip into 2025.

The judge concluded no wrongdoing from Willis was proven — but he said there was an appearance of impropriety that must be addressed

All the wrangling around this topic really boiled down to two factual disputes.

1) Timing: Did Willis and Wade start dating only after she hired him for the Trump case (as they claimed under oath), or was it before (which would mean she hired her romantic partner)?

One witness, a former friend and employee of Willis’s, had testified that the relationship predated Wade’s hiring, but she offered no specifics to back up that claim. Another witness, Wade’s former attorney, had claimed in gossipy text messages to a defendant’s attorney that they were already dating when Willis hired Wade, but he would not repeat this under oath. Trump’s attorneys also put forward cellphone data which they said showed Wade was often near Willis’s house at night before he joined the case.

Judge McAfee concluded that none of this amounted to proof Wade and Willis were lying. But, he said, there were “reasonable questions” about whether the two “testified untruthfully about the timing of their relationship.”

2) Money: In trying to establish a conflict of interest, defendants presented documents showing Wade had paid for various trips that he and Willis took together. This showed, they claimed, that Willis improperly financially benefited from the prosecution — that she hired Wade, steered taxpayer money to him, and then lived large on his dime.

At the hearing, Willis testified that she and Wade roughly split expenses, and that when he paid for trips, she later reimbursed him. Asked why there were few financial records showing she reimbursed him, Willis said that she typically did so by giving him cash, saying she regularly kept large amounts of cash at her home.

Though Trump’s defenders scoffed at this claim, Judge McAfee ruled that it was “not so incredible as to be inherently unbelievable.” More importantly, the judge wrote, any financial gain from Wade does not seem to have been “a motivating factor on the part of the District Attorney to indict and prosecute this case.”

The judge’s conclusion: So regarding both the relationship’s timing and improper financial benefit, McAfee concluded that the accusations against Willis hadn’t been proven. However, his ruling continued, the standard isn’t just about what can be proven, it’s also about “the appearance of impropriety.”

“A reasonable observer unburdened by partisan blinders,” McAfee wrote, “should believe the law was impartially applied.” Any “distractions” that “detract” from that goal, he wrote, “should be proportionally addressed.” Therefore, he said, either Willis or Wade had to go — and now Wade has.

Update, March 15, 3:30 pm ET: This story, originally published March 15, has been updated with news of Wade’s resignation.


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