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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Sam Levine and Hugo Lowell

Fani Willis: what is the Georgia Trump prosecutor’s hearing about?

woman's face coming out of dark background
The Fulton county district attorney, Fani Willis, in Atlanta on 19 April 2023. Photograph: Brynn Anderson/AP

The case brought against Donald Trump in Georgia is a powerful, sprawling indictment that charges the former US president and his top allies with violating the state’s racketeering statute over their efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

In January, the case was roiled by an explosive complaint filed by Trump’s co-defendant Michael Roman, who alleged that a secret personal relationship between the Fulton county district attorney, Fani Willis, and her deputy Nathan Wade, amounted to a conflict of interest that warranted their disqualification.

The latest twist in the weeks-long saga came earlier this month, when Willis acknowledged in a court filing that she had a relationship with Wade, but that it began after he had been retained to work on the Trump case.

Here’s what you need to know.

What’s happening on Thursday?

Judge Scott McAfee is holding an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Willis should be disqualified from the case. While legal experts generally agree that her conduct does not merit disqualification, the hearing could still be hugely damaging for her credibility in the public eye by diving into details about her relationship with Wade.

Wade’s former law partner is expected to be among the witnesses who testify at the hearing, which could stretch into Friday.

Roman has sought to have Wade and Willis testify at the hearing, and McAfee has said he will decide whether to force them to take the stand after hearing testimony from other witnesses.

Wade and Willis say their relationship began only after she hired him to work on the Trump case in 2021. Roman’s lawyer has indicated she plans to produce evidence showing that’s not true.

What happened with Willis and Wade?

Willis and Wade, a special prosecutor working on the case against Trump and 14 other defendants, confirmed for the first time on 2 February they had a romantic relationship. Previously, evidence had emerged in Wade’s divorce proceedings that he had used some of the more than $650,000 he earned from his work for Willis to pay for vacations for the two of them. Bank records showed Wade had paid for tickets for the pair to go to California in 2023 and Miami in 2022.

What do the Trump team argue?

Trump’s allies and lawyers allege that the relationship between the district attorney and one of her top prosecutors on the team is an improper one that affects the investigation. That is important as the Georgia case was seen as a powerful blow to the former US president, with a strong chance of finding him guilty for his actions in 2020. Because the case is in Georgia state court, it is also immune from Trump’s interference should he win the 2024 election.

What could that mean for the case?

There is little doubt that Trump’s lawyers will now seek to exploit this situation and use it to undermine the credibility of the case and delay the proceedings. But experts have generally been skeptical that the relationship will result in disqualification or getting the case removed.

Even if nothing were to happen legally because of the scandal, it offers huge political ammunition to Trump to argue that the case is flawed and motivated by politics and personal ambition. In an election year, that could be crucial.

What does Willis say?

Willis wrote in the Friday filing that she had no personal or financial conflict of interest that “constitutes a legal basis for disqualification” and urged McAfee to dismiss the request to disqualify her without a hearing.

She noted that Roman had failed to offer any evidence that the relationship affected any decisions of the case. The mere existence of a relationship, she wrote, was not grounds for disqualification. She noted that some of the defense lawyers in the case were married or had personal relationships.

She also noted that neither she nor Wade benefited financially from the prosecution. The two do not have a joint bank account or other shared expenses. And when they travel together for personal reasons, they split the costs and bear their own expenses, her office wrote.

“While the allegations raised in the various motions are salacious and garnered the media attention they were designed to obtain, none provide this Court with any basis upon which to order the relief they seek,” she wrote.

What happens next?

McAfee is expected to decide based on the evidence presented then whether Willis should be disqualified, either because he finds there is an actual conflict of interest, or because he finds an appearance of impropriety, a lower standard that has been previously used in some cases.

If McAfee decides to reject Roman’s motion to disqualify Willis, Roman could challenge his ruling at the Georgia state court of appeals, a move that would almost certainly delay the case by weeks or months, setting back the start of a potential trial. A trial date has not been set for Trump and his co-defendants.

If McAfee decides to grant Roman’s motion and relieves Willis and her office from prosecuting the case, it would be handed to the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia, which would then appoint a replacement prosecutor.

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