Trump Joins Motion to Disqualify Prosecutor in Georgia Election Case
Lawyers for former President Donald J. Trump on Thursday joined an effort to disqualify Fani T. Willis from leading the election interference case against Mr. Trump in Georgia, on the grounds that she created a conflict of interest by hiring her romantic partner to help prosecute the case.
Mr. Trump’s lawyers also raised a new argument for ousting Ms. Willis, the Fulton County district attorney: that she violated state bar rules when she claimed in a recent speech that racism was behind the effort to remove her.
The relationship claim surfaced on Jan. 8 in a filing from Michael Roman, one of Mr. Trump’s co-defendants in the Georgia case. Six days later, Ms. Willis, who is Black, gave a speech at a church in Atlanta in which she suggested that her critics were “playing the race card” by criticizing her hiring of the special prosecutor, Nathan J. Wade, who is also Black.
Ms. Willis has neither confirmed nor denied a relationship with Mr. Wade, though she has been ordered to provide a written response to Mr. Roman’s motion by next week.
The filing on Thursday from Mr. Trump’s lawyers called Ms. Willis’s comments “a glaring, flagrant and calculated effort to foment racial bias into this case by publicly denouncing the defendants for somehow daring to question her decision to hire a Black man.”
Ms. Willis’s statement, the lawyers wrote, violated a section of the state bar’s rules of conduct for Georgia prosecutors that instructs them to “refrain from making extrajudicial comments that have a substantial likelihood of heightening public condemnation of the accused.”
The statement could prejudice “prospective jurors in Fulton County,” the lawyers wrote in their filing.
(Mr. Trump has in the past accused Ms. Willis of being a “racist” prosecutor, and has said the same of other Black prosecutors trying cases against him.)
The lawyers asked the judge overseeing the Georgia case, Scott McAfee of Fulton County Superior Court, to dismiss the indictment and disqualify Ms. Willis. Any special prosecutors hired for the case should also be disqualified, they said, as well as Ms. Willis’s entire office.
Anthony Michael Kreis, a law professor at Georgia State University, said that the Trump lawyers’ new argument was unlikely to succeed, given the “vague” language that Ms. Willis used in her speech, which did not mention the defendants. “It’s a motion for the court of public opinion, not Judge McAfee,” he said.
Thursday’s filing is the latest effort to capitalize on the accusations in Mr. Roman’s motion seeking to disqualify Ms. Willis. In that Jan. 8 motion, Mr. Roman argued that Mr. Wade was unqualified for the job and claimed that he used some of his salary from the district attorney’s office to take Ms. Willis on vacations.
The motion also argues that both Mr. Wade and Ms. Willis “have acquired a personal interest and stake in Mr. Roman’s conviction, thus depriving Mr. Roman of his right to a fundamentally fair trial.”
Last week, a divorce lawyer for Mr. Wade’s estranged wife produced credit card transactions showing that Mr. Wade bought airline tickets for himself and Ms. Willis in the last two years for trips to Miami and San Francisco.
The conflict-of-interest accusations have cast a shadow over the Georgia case, though they do not change its underlying facts. Last August, a grand jury brought racketeering indictments against Mr. Trump and 18 others over their roles in a plot to overturn the state’s 2020 election results.
Four of the defendants have already pleaded guilty. Georgia is now one of a half-dozen swing states that either have charged or are investigating fake electors who were deployed in an attempt to keep Mr. Trump in power.
Several potential problems have emerged for Ms. Willis in the wake of the accusations. The most immediate is that Judge McAfee will have to rule on Mr. Roman’s motion to disqualify her. The judge has scheduled a hearing for Feb. 15. Mr. Roman’s motion also seeks to dismiss the seven charges against him, including a racketeering charge.
While disqualification might seem like an extreme measure, there is already precedent within the Trump case itself. In July 2022, Judge McAfee’s predecessor, Robert C.I. McBurney, disqualified Ms. Willis and her entire office from developing a criminal case against Burt Jones, now Georgia’s lieutenant governor, because Ms. Willis had headlined a fund-raiser for a political opponent of Mr. Jones.
Other threats to Ms. Willis loom. Republican lawmakers have created a commission to oversee, and potentially discipline, district attorneys in Georgia. That commission is expected to be up and running later this year, and is almost certain to investigate Ms. Willis’s conduct.
Separately, Fulton County is looking into whether Ms. Willis ran afoul of an ordinance prohibiting county officials from receiving anything of value from people doing business with the county. In a letter to Ms. Willis last week, a county commissioner demanded documents in an effort to determine whether county funds paid to Mr. Wade “were converted to your personal gain in the form of subsidized travel or other gifts.”
Legal experts disagree on whether a relationship between the two prosecutors would be sufficient grounds for Judge McAfee to throw them off the case.
But a number of them believe that the motion is already a win for Mr. Trump and the other defendants, noting that future jurors in the election case are very likely hearing about the allegations. That could potentially influence their thinking about the prosecution.
“This is certainly a huge political boon for the defense, and it’s certainly going to be used as a cudgel against the entire prosecutorial enterprise and investigative process,” Mr. Kreis, the Georgia State law professor, said.
Ms. Willis has not addressed the allegation of a romantic relationship with Mr. Wade, who is in the middle of a contentious divorce. During her speech on Jan. 14, in which she repeatedly referred to herself as “flawed,” she noted that critics “only attack one” of the three special prosecutors whom she hired for the Georgia case — Mr. Wade.
“God, isn’t it them who’s playing the race card when they only question one?” she said.
Days after the speech, Ms. Willis sought to quash a subpoena seeking her testimony in Mr. Wade’s divorce case. Her filing claimed that Mr. Wade’s estranged wife, Joycelyn Wade, had “conspired” with “interested parties” in the Trump case to “annoy, embarrass and oppress” her.
Mr. Wade has been ordered to appear next Wednesday at a hearing on the divorce. Ms. Wade’s lawyer, Andrea Dyer Hastings, has said that she plans to question him on the stand.
Court filings from Ms. Wade this week show that her lawyer is hoping to introduce a flurry of documents into the divorce case, presumably in an effort to further prove a relationship between Mr. Wade and Ms. Willis. The documents include credit card statements and bank records, as well as documents from Airbnb and Vacation Express, a seller of vacation packages in the Caribbean and Mexico.
Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican who is a close ally of Mr. Trump, filed a complaint against Mr. Wade with the state ethics commission on Thursday, calling him Ms. Willis’s “secret boyfriend,” and calling the case against Mr. Trump a “self-serving gambit.”