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Fani Willis' relationship ‘could result’ in disqualification from Trump case, judge says

(The Hill) — The judge overseeing former President Trump’s Georgia criminal case set the stage Monday for a high-stakes battle later this week over whether Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis (D) should be disqualified for her relationship with a top prosecutor in the case. 

At a Monday proceeding, Judge Scott McAfee vowed to move ahead with an evidentiary hearing on Thursday, where he will weigh accusations by Trump and some of his co-defendants that the relationship constitutes a conflict of interest. 

“I think it’s possible that the facts alleged by the defendant could result in disqualification,” the judge said. “I think an evidentiary hearing must occur to establish the record on those core allegations.” 

With the prospect of testimony from Willis and other prosecutors — and even Willis’s father — the hearing is set to be a blockbuster moment in the case. McAfee will sort out weeks of barbs between the parties, with each side asserting the other is still making false representations about Willis’s relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade. 

The judge insisted he would keep the hearing “focused,” suggesting he would not hesitate to step in if defense counsel sought “harassment or undue embarrassment” for the prosecutors. 

“I think the issues at point here are whether a relationship existed, whether that relationship was romantic or non-romantic in nature, when it formed and whether it continues,” McAfee said. “And that’s only relevant because it’s in combination with the question of the existence and extent of any personal benefit conveyed as a result of that relationship.” 

The efforts seeking Willis’s disqualification began after Mike Roman, a Trump 2020 campaign operative who is charged alongside Trump, first brought the relationship to light last month. Trump and other co-defendants later joined the efforts. 

On Monday, McAfee said he would defer decisions on whether Roman can subpoena Willis, Wade and other district attorney’s staff to testify until the Thursday hearing.  

The district attorney’s office is hoping to avoid testifying. Willis and Wade have acknowledged a “personal relationship” but insist the relationship poses no professional conflict and that they were only friends when Wade was first hired to investigate Trump. 

At Monday’s proceeding, Roman attorney Ashleigh Merchant continued to contest those claims. Merchant told the judge Monday that Wade’s former law partner, Terrence Bradley, would testify that Willis and Wade’s personal relationship began prior to his hiring as a special prosecutor in the Trump case.  

Merchant also claimed that Wade previously said in divorce filings, under oath, that he had no outside relationship during his marriage — a direct contradiction to the affidavit he filed earlier this month acknowledging his relationship with Willis.  

“We’ve got two declarations in two different courts, both sworn, both filed with the court, that say something completely different,” Merchant said, claiming that Wade later altered the affidavit in his divorce case to assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. 

Fulton County prosecutors hit back, accusing the defense of making unfounded claims meant to draw negative media attention, asserting that Merchant’s claims that Willis and Wade cohabitated were false. Not one prosecutor with the district attorney’s office appeared in person for the Monday hearing – a notable contrast to their usual procedure.  

“The defense was not bringing new facts. The defense was not bringing you law. The defense was bringing you gossip,” special prosecutor Anna Cross told the judge. 

“And the state cannot, and the court should not, condone that practice.” 

McAfee did, however, on Monday quash a subpoena for Wade’s bank accounts and warned that his experience as a prosecutor would not be relevant to Thursday’s hearing.  

Trump and some of his co-defendants have criticized Wade for having a lack of experience handling complex criminal cases involving racketeering charges, also noting how he received hundreds of thousands of dollars for his work. 

“In my mind, as long as a lawyer has a heartbeat and a bar card,” McAfee said, then that lawyer’s appointment is a matter “within the district attorney’s discretion.” 

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