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Fani Willis takes the witness stand to fight an effort to disqualify her from Trump’s election case

Feb 14, 2024, 9:06 PM

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis testifies during a hearing on the Georgia election inte...

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)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(Alyssa Pointer/Pool Photo via AP)

ATLANTA (AP) — Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis took the witness stand Thursday to defend herself from efforts to remove her from Donald Trump’s 2020 election interference case, angrily pushing back against what she described as “lies” about her romantic relationship with a special prosecutor.

In an extraordinary moment in a hearing that could lead to her disqualification from the case, a fiery Willis agreed to testify after a previous witness said the relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade began earlier than they had claimed. Willis and Wade both testified that they began dating in 2022, after he was hired as special prosecutor.

Willis’ attorneys had originally fought to keep her off the witness stand, but Willis said she was eager to set the record straight, saying “it’s highly offensive when someone lies on you.”

“Do you think I’m on trial? These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020. I’m not on trial no matter how hard you try to put me on trial,” Willis said under questioning by defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant, who is seeking to have Willis and her office removed from the case.

Robin Yeartie, a former friend and co-worker of Willis, testified earlier Thursday that Willis’ relationship with Wade began before he was hired as special prosecutor in November 2021. During personal and uncomfortable testimony that spanned hours, Wade also admitted to having sex with Willis during his separation from his estranged wife.

That admission and Yeartie’s testimony together threaten to undermine the prosecutors’ credibility and upend the case against Trump and others who are charged with conspiring to overturn the 2020 presidential election results in Georgia.

Trump and his co-defendants have argued that the relationship presents a conflict of interest that should force Willis off the case. Wade sought to downplay the matter, casting himself and Willis as “private people.”

“There is nothing secret or salacious about having a private life,” he said. “Nothing.”

Wade said the relationship ended last summer, but that he remains good friends with Willis. He added that they were “probably closer than ever because of these attacks.”

But the hours of probing questions for Wade underscored the extent to which the prosecutors who pledged to hold Trump accountable are themselves now under a public microscope, with revelations about their personal lives diverting attention away from Trump’s own conduct and threatening to derail one of the four prosecutions he confronts as he vies to reclaim the White House.

If Willis were disqualified, a council that supports prosecuting attorneys in Georgia would find a new attorney to take over who could either proceed with the charges against Trump and 14 others or drop the case altogether.

Merchant alleges that Willis personally profited from the case, paying Wade more than $650,000 for his work and then benefiting when Wade used his earnings to pay for vacations the pair took together.

Wade, who took the stand after the judge refused to quash a subpoena for his testimony, testified that he and Willis traveled together to Belize, Aruba and California and took cruises together, but said Willis paid him back in cash for some travel expenses that he had charged to his credit card.

“She was very emphatic and adamant about this independent, strong woman thing so she demanded that she paid her own way,” Wade said.

Wade was pressed by defense attorneys to answer uncomfortable questions about his relationship with Willis, prompting objections from the district attorney’s office. The hearing began with lengthy sparring between lawyers over who must answer questions. It is expected to stretch into Friday.

Willis’ removal would be a stunning development. Even if a new lawyer went forward with the case, it would very likely not go to trial before November, when Trump is expected to be the Republican nominee for president. At a separate hearing in New York on Thursday, a judge ruled that Trump’s hush-money criminal case will go ahead as scheduled with jury selection starting on March 25.

In a court filing earlier this month, Willis’ office insisted that she has no financial or personal conflict of interest and that there are no grounds to dismiss the case or to remove her from the prosecution. Her filing called the allegations “salacious” and said they were designed to generate headlines.

Since the allegations of an inappropriate relationship surfaced, Trump has used them to try to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Willis’ case against him. Other Republicans have cited them in calling for investigations into Willis, a Democrat who’s up for reelection this year.

Roman’s lawyer, Merchant, subpoenaed Willis, Wade, seven other employees of the district attorney’s office and others, including Wade’s former business partner, Terrence Bradley. Bradley took the witness stand earlier Thursday but refused to answer questions from Merchant, citing attorney-client privilege.

McAfee said during a hearing Monday that Willis could be disqualified “if evidence is produced demonstrating an actual conflict or the appearance of one.”

He said the issues he wants to explore at the hearing are “whether a relationship existed, whether that relationship was romantic or nonromantic in nature, when it formed and whether it continues.” Those questions are only relevant, he said, “in combination with the question of the existence and extent of any personal benefit conveyed as a result of the relationship.”

____ Richer reported from Boston. Associated Press writer Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami contributed to this report.

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Fani Willis takes the witness stand to fight an effort to disqualify her from Trump’s election case