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Fani Willis won’t return to the witness stand as judge weighs disqualification in Trump case

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Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is set to return to the witness stand Friday, as the case that was supposed to be about efforts to overturn Georgia’s presidential election results has become embroiled in controversy.


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)(AP/Alyssa Pointer)

ATLANTA (AP) — The Fulton County district attorney’s office opted not to put Fani Willis back on the witness stand Friday, avoiding the spectacle of more deeply personal testimony from the top prosecutor as she fights an effort to derail Donald Trump’s 2020 Georgia election interference case.

While Willis will not answer more questions in court, a defense attorney who is trying to have the prosecutor removed from the case is expected to call other witnesses to try to rebut the district attorney’s testimony about her romantic relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade.

Allegations of misconduct have taken center stage in the case, which was supposed to be about efforts to overturn Georgia’s presidential election results but has become embroiled in controversy over the love lives of the prosecutors seeking to hold Trump accountable.

During fiery and sometimes combative testimony on Thursday, Willis was grilled by lawyers over the relationship defense attorneys allege presents a conflict of interest that should force Willis and her office off the case. Willis and Wade have both acknowledged they were in a relationship, but say their personal lives have no bearing on the case.

Willis forcefully pushed back against claims of impropriety, at times getting visibly upset Thursday as lawyers questioned her about everything from her finances to trips she has taken with Wade. The judge at one point had to call a break in testimony as tempers flared. Willis accused a defense attorney of trying to smear her, raising papers in front of her and shouting, “It’s a lie!”

“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 told defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant.

The probing questions for Willis and for Wade, who testified before her, underscored the extent to which the prosecutors are themselves now under a public microscope, with revelations about their personal lives diverting attention away from Trump’s own conduct. The allegations also provided an opening for Republicans to try to cast doubt on the legitimacy of one of four criminal cases Trump is facing as he vies to reclaim the White House in November.

Trump immediately jumped on the allegations in hopes of discrediting the entire case, part of a pattern throughout years of law enforcement scrutiny of deflecting attention away from his own conduct by highlighting the personal lives, unforced errors and lapses in judgment — both perceived and real — of the officials investigating him. His use of the word “lover” to refer to Wade echoed his attacks years earlier on two FBI officials who had an extramarital relationship and exchanged derogatory text messages about him during the Russia investigation.

It’s unclear when the judge might rule on whether Willis and her office should be disqualified from the case. Judge Scott McAfee said during a hearing Monday that Willis could be disqualified “if evidence is produced demonstrating an actual conflict or the appearance of one.”

Willis, who had previously tried to avoid testifying, agreed to do so Thursday after a former friend and co-worker testified that Willis and Wade’s relationship began earlier than they had claimed.

Robin Yeartie, who previously worked in the district attorney’s office, testified that she saw Willis and Wade hugging and kissing before he was hired as special prosecutor in November 2021. Wade and Willis both testified that they didn’t start dating until 2022 and that their relationship ended months ago.

During personal and uncomfortable testimony that spanned hours, Wade also admitted to having sex with Willis during his separation from his estranged wife, even though he had claimed in a divorce filing that wasn’t the case.

Wade 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.

Willis’ removal would be a stunning development in the most sprawling of the criminal cases against Trump. If she were disqualified, a council that supports prosecuting attorneys in Georgia would need to find a new attorney to take over. That successor could either proceed with the charges against Trump and 14 others or drop the case altogether. 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.

Willis and Wade’s relationship was first revealed by Merchant, an attorney for Trump co-defendant Michael Roman, a former campaign staffer and onetime White House aide. Merchant has alleged 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.

____ Richer reported from Boston. Associated Press writers Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.

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© 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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