The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Allegations against Georgia prosecutors likely damaged case against Trump

Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis at the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta. (Megan Varner for The Washington Post)
13 min

Among friends and supporters of Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis, a common argument has taken root in response to allegations that a romantic relationship between her and the lead prosecutor on the election-interference case against Donald Trump should disqualify them both.

Even if the accusations are true, these allies say, there is no Georgia law requiring either Willis or Nathan Wade to be bumped from the case. They consider the controversy a distraction fomented by one of Trump’s co-defendants with a long record as a GOP opposition researcher. The case is too important, they say. It must go on.

In some ways, however, the damage may already be done.

After nearly two weeks of salacious headlines, Willis has still not denied or directly addressed the accusations. Trump and other critics have willingly filled that vacuum and amplified the most sensational claims. Regardless of what Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, who is overseeing the case, decides to do — and regardless of whether the accusations are true — Trump has found a new line of attack on the validity of the Georgia case and Willis’s decision-making that he is unlikely to abandon.

The allegations threaten to undermine public confidence in Willis’s prosecution of Trump. On one side, they have inflamed grievances among those who believe that Trump has been unfairly targeted by partisan prosecutors and courts. On the other, those who want Trump held accountable for his effort to reverse his 2020 defeat are scrambling to protect the case.

“Any objective observer who recognizes the strong public interest in knowing one way or the other whether a jury believes Donald Trump led a conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election is going to be concerned about the impact of these allegations,” said Norm Eisen, a longtime Willis ally and advocate of the case who served as special counsel in the House of Representatives’ first impeachment of Trump.

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Eisen told reporters Saturday that while there is no legal basis to disqualify either prosecutor, Wade should voluntarily step away from the case. The controversy is not going away, Eisen said, and threatens to delay the case against the former president, which must be avoided. He pointedly did not recommend that Willis step aside — a reflection of the stakes of the case against Trump.

“There is an overwhelming amount of evidence justifying the decision to prosecute Mr. Trump and his co-conspirators, including Mr. [Mike] Roman,” Eisen said. “The evidence is strong. The case is powerful. It’s very likely to lead to conviction, and we mustn’t lose time on the calendar given the paramount public interest in bringing that strong case to a speedy conclusion.”

A spokesman for the district attorney’s office declined to comment on Eisen’s remarks. Wade has not addressed the accusations against him, and his attorney has declined to comment on them.

Roman, a Trump co-defendant, alleged in a court filing nearly two weeks ago that Willis and Wade have been in an “improper, clandestine personal relationship,” and that Willis may have broken the law by hiring Wade as a special prosecutor and then allowing him to pay for “vacations across the world” with her unrelated to their work on the case. He called for the prosecutors to be disqualified and for the charges against him to be dismissed.

On Friday, lawyers for Wade’s estranged wife filed a motion in their divorce case that included credit card statements that appeared to show Wade had purchased airline tickets for himself and Willis to Aruba and San Francisco. It is unknown whether Willis paid him back.

Eisen acknowledged that it is unknown whether Willis violated Fulton County hiring policies or gift policies in appointing Wade, but he said those matters are not relevant to the criminal case.

Eisen’s remarks represent one of the first instances of a Willis ally acknowledging the potential damage that the allegations have brought to her and the case. Although he was quick to note that many facts remain unknown, he said it seems clear that the two have had a personal relationship, and that was “not wise.”

Another unknown is what would happen to the case if McAfee disqualifies Willis’s office. It would fall to a state prosecutors advisory council to find a new prosecutor, but it’s not certain that any would volunteer.

Eisen is one of the few Willis allies who has spoken publicly on the issue. In Atlanta, where Willis’s willingness to take on a former president has made her something of a local celebrity, friends and allies, along with many Georgia Democrats, have been silent on the accusations, some privately saying they are waiting to see what Willis says first.

Several Willis allies have said privately they were disappointed with her remarks last weekend at a historically Black church in Atlanta in which she described herself as “flawed” and “imperfect” but did not directly address the allegations. She defended her decision to hire Wade, calling him a “superstar” with “impeccable credentials.”

“The reason you’re still interested in this, and the reason people are still looking at this, is because it’s a drip-drip-drip and she hasn’t responded yet,” said Andrew Weissmann, a former federal prosecutor who investigated whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

Some also criticized Willis’s claim during that speech that race is a motivating force in the controversy because she and Wade are Black.

The claims threaten to further energize Georgia Republicans, who have sought ways to disrupt the election-interference case since the August indictments, including through a newly formed state oversight commission that aims to punish “rogue” district attorneys for alleged misconduct.

More digging into Willis’s past is already underway. On Friday, Georgia GOP Chairman Josh McKoon circulated a 2020 video of Willis saying she would fire any employee who sleeps with a co-worker and promising not to date people “that work under me.”

So far, other key Georgia Republicans, including Gov. Brian Kemp and House Speaker Jon Burns, have fended off efforts by far-right lawmakers to use legislative powers to punish Willis and block the case.

“In Georgia, we will not be engaging in political theater that only inflames the emotions of the moment,” Kemp said in August about calls for a special session to impeach Willis and defund her office.

But the allegations against Willis and Wade threaten to unmoor that political protection from Kemp and other Republicans. Earlier this month, Kemp, who is expected to be a key witness against Trump, called the allegations against Willis “deeply troubling.”

“Evidence should be presented quickly in order for Judge McAfee to rule and the public to have confidence in this trial moving forward,” Kemp said.

Meanwhile, Burns said he would no longer oppose efforts to use the new state oversight board to target Willis, abandoning his earlier position. “The allegations against District Attorney Fani Willis are extremely troubling to say the least,” Burns said. “We need to let the process play out, but the public absolutely deserves transparency and the truth from the District Attorney about these serious allegations.”

Trump has seized on the allegations in campaign speeches and social media posts, referring to Willis and Wade as “the lovebirds.” On Friday, after the release of Wade’s credit card statements, the former president accused the prosecutors of targeting him “to ENRICH themselves and to live the Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous.” The scandal has dominated coverage on conservative-leaning media outlets and has prompted reporters to stake out Wade’s law office. An image of the special prosecutor, emerging from his office gripping a handgun, was published in the New York Post and later aired on Fox News.

Two Trump advisers said the former president’s team has watched the unfolding situation in Georgia with glee and say they expect Trump to continue the attack on Willis.

“It’s a gift to us,” one of the individuals said, requesting anonymity to speak about internal deliberations. The strategy, one of these people said, is to discredit the Georgia investigation and then use it to undercut and raise questions about the others. The Georgia case is one of four criminal prosecutions underway against Trump even as he marches toward the GOP nomination for president this year.

There is also a potential tangible reward to seeking to disqualify Willis and Wade: It could delay the trial, one person close to his legal team said. Inside Trump’s orbit, the Fulton County case has long been viewed as a less serious operation — but also perilous. If again elected president, Trump could select an attorney general with the power to drop the federal charges against him. He could also pardon himself if he is convicted in federal court. But he would have no pardon power if he or others are convicted in state court in Georgia.

One person close to Trump said aides are likely to lean on Kemp to apply pressure in the coming weeks. They are also privately heralding Roman, who has worked for Trump since 2016 on the campaign trail and at the White House, as a heroic figure.

Roman is one of the lowest-profile defendants in the election-interference case. Until recently, he had filed only a handful of court motions since the mid-August indictment alleging that Trump and 18 others illegally conspired to try to overturn Trump’s 2020 loss in Georgia.

That lack of activity had fueled speculation among close observers of the case that Roman might be among those targeted for a plea deal by Fulton County prosecutors, who have aggressively sought to flip some of those indicted in the case as they seek a conviction of Trump.

While Roman was among those offered a cooperation deal in early fall, he declined, according to a source close to the case who requested anonymity to discuss private negotiations.

Behind the scenes, Ashleigh Merchant, Roman’s attorney, had been chasing a tantalizing piece of courthouse gossip that she’d heard — including, she said, from staffers inside the district attorney’s office, whom she did not name — claiming that Willis and Wade were not just co-prosecutors but also romantic partners.

Merchant said in an interview that the rumor first came up in late August when she began investigating why Willis had hired Wade as a special prosecutor for the case. A longtime criminal defense attorney from Cobb County, Merchant had spent years as a Fulton County public defender, during which time she faced off against Willis in cases and knew her and many of the staff lawyers on her team well.

Merchant was also friends with Wade and had endorsed his failed campaign for a Cobb County Superior Court judgeship.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Merchant said of the rumor, adding that it seemed “sloppy” for Willis, who has a reputation of being a careful and meticulous prosecutor.

Merchant said she began filing open-records requests with the district attorney’s office seeking contracts and other documents tied not only to Wade but also the two other outside attorneys appointed to work on the case. And she said she began to talk to sources whom she declined to name — including those who allegedly claimed that it was “common knowledge” within the district attorney’s office that Willis and Wade were involved, an allegation that a spokesman for Willis has denied.

That these explosive allegations surfaced from Roman, a longtime Republican operative with a lengthy background in opposition research, has raised questions about whether Roman himself has been behind some of the digging that now threatens to upend the Georgia case. Merchant has not said how involved her client was in her investigation.

On Thursday, Willis alleged in a motion to quash a subpoena seeking to depose her in Wade’s contentious divorce case that Wade’s estranged wife, Joycelyn Mayfield Wade, was colluding with those who are seeking to disrupt the case.

Willis’s motion pointed out the close timing between the subpoena for Willis and Roman’s filing, as well as Merchant’s motion to unseal the divorce records — which all occurred within hours of one another on Jan. 8.

The motion, written by Cinque Axam, a lawyer representing Willis, accused Joycelyn Wade of “using the legal process to harass and embarrass” Willis and of “obstructing and interfering with an ongoing criminal prosecution.”

In response, Andrea Dyer Hastings, one of Joycelyn Wade’s divorce lawyers, called Willis’s claims “an affront to the integrity of her office.” Her motion included Nathan Wade’s credit card statements.

“Contrary to Ms. Willis’s belief, [Joycelyn Wade] is not utilizing the deposition to harass her but rather to seek pertinent information from her husband’s paramour regarding her relationship with Plaintiff and the extent of the Plaintiff’s financial involvement in the same,” Hastings wrote. “These answers are relevant to the equitable division of the marital estate, dissipation of marital assets and the Plaintiff’s capacity to provide spousal support.”

Meanwhile, Merchant accused Willis of attempting “to create a conspiracy where none exists.”

“We filed Mr. Roman’s motion on the day it was due, January 8th,” Merchant said. “We believe her filing in Cobb County is just another attempt to avoid having to directly answer the important questions Mr. Roman has raised. She appears to be doing everything she can to avoid having to account for inconvenient and difficult facts.”

Merchant said she is planning to subpoena several witnesses to appear at a Feb. 15 evidentiary hearing McAfee has scheduled in response to Roman’s filing. Merchant said these witnesses will corroborate her client’s claims of misconduct by Willis and Wade.

But the first drama will come Monday, when Cobb County Judge Henry Thompson will hold a hearing in the divorce case to hear arguments on whether to unseal the divorce file and also whether Willis can be compelled to sit for a deposition in the case, which is likely to be videotaped and could eventually become public.

Bailey reported from Atlanta. Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.

More on the Trump Georgia case

The latest: Four of Trump’s co-defendants have pleaded guilty in the Georgia election case. Trump previously entered a plea of not guilty. The Washington Post published details of recorded statements given to prosecutors by the co-defendants who accepted plea deals in the case, offering previously undisclosed information about the effort by Trump and his allies to reverse his defeat.

The charges: Trump was charged with 13 counts, including violating the state’s racketeering act. Read the full text of the Georgia indictment. Here’s a breakdown of the charges against Trump and a list of everyone else who was charged in the Georgia case. Trump now faces 91 total charges in four criminal cases.

The case: Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis (D) has been investigating whether Trump and his associates broke the law when they sought to overturn Trump’s 2020 election loss in Georgia. Here’s what happens next in the Georgia case.

Historic mug shot: Trump surrendered at the Fulton County Jail on charges that he illegally conspired to overturn his 2020 election loss. Authorities released his booking record — including his height and weight — and mug shot.