Judge says he expects to rule on whether DA Fani Willis should be removed from Trump election case in two weeks

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ATLANTA — The judge presiding over the Georgia election interference case against Donald Trump and his co-defendants said Friday he hopes to rule on whether Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis should be disqualified from the case in the next two weeks — a move that if granted could upend the racketeering case against the former president.

Lawyers for the defendants in the case, including Trump, and from the DA's office presented closing arguments on the matter to Judge Scott McAfee. The lawyers for the defendants argued that Willis should be removed because of the “appearance” of a conflict of interest stemming from a romantic relationship she had with the special prosecutor she appointed to the case.

Adam Abbate, an attorney for the DA's office, countered that Willis was the target of a campaign “to impugn her reputation” that included allegations from people who had an ax to grind against her, and that the motion should be dismissed.

The judge said at the end of the over three-hour hearing that it's “been very much made clear by the argument made today there are several legal issues to sort through” and “several factual determinations I have to make.”

“I will be taking the time to make sure I give this case the full consideration it is due. I hope to have an answer for everyone within the next two weeks,” McAfee said.

The stakes are high — if Willis is removed because of the misconduct allegations, her entire office would be disqualified, as well, and a new prosecutor would have to take over the sprawling case alleging that Trump and his allies conspired to illegally overturn the election results in the state.

One of Trump’s co-defendants, former Trump White House and campaign staffer Michael Roman, filed a motion seeking Willis' disqualification and the dismissal of the criminal case. Roman, and later Trump, accused her of having an “improper” personal relationship with Nathan Wade, the lawyer she’d appointed as a special prosecutor in the case.

“We’re here today on this motion to disqualify DA Willis and her office because of her judgment, frankly,” Roman's attorney John Merchant told the judge. He contended that his client and his co-defendants didn't need to show an actual conflict of interest in the case, just the “appearance” of one.

“Why did we spend so much time on a relationship between these two people? We frankly couldn’t care less if they had a personal relationship outside of work. That is not what the issue is here. The issue is that they began this relationship in 2019,” and Willis then awarded him a contract two years later, Merchant said.

Wade, who was in the courtroom ahead of Friday's arguments, has denied that he and Willis were dating before his appointment, as has Willis. Willis entered the courtroom after the co-defendants' closings to hear the arguments from Abbate and left when he was done.

Abbate told the judge that Roman's attorneys had made “material misrepresentations” about what they would prove, noting that several witnesses they'd claim would back their allegations that Willis and Wade were romantically involved before his appointment did not do so. “We didn't hear from any of those individuals,” Abbate said.

He also contended the applicable standard to remove a DA is an actual conflict, not the appearance of one.

Harry MacDougald, an attorney for co-defendant Jeffrey Clark, told the judge that Willis had six conflicts in the case, including a “pattern of deceit and concealment of the relationship” between her and Wade. He also pointed to a filing Willis had submitted suggesting Wade's estranged wife had “conspired with interested parties in the Criminal Election Interference Case to use the civil discovery process to annoy, embarrass and oppress District Attorney Willis.”

Roman has alleged that Willis skirted the rules to appoint Wade and that she benefited financially from his appointment, which has earned his office over $600,000 to date.

Willis and Wade later acknowledged they’d been in a relationship, but they maintained it began well after he was appointed special counsel in November 2021.

Roman's motion, which has been joined by Trump and some other defendants in the case, alleges it began before. McAfee held three days of hearings on the motion over the past two weeks.

Willis and Wade testified and said they’d dated for a little over a year after he was appointed and that she didn’t profit from his work. Both said that while Wade would sometimes charge plane tickets for Willis to his credit card, she’d repay him with cash or by picking up other bills.

In his closing argument on Friday, Merchant said Willis had “reaped the benefits” of her appointment by profiting to the tune of roughly $9,200, and noted there are no records indicating she paid Wade back.

Abbate pushed back on the claim that Willis was profiting off the case or had “schemed” to put Wade in charge of the probe. He noted that Willis had asked another lawyer to take the post before she offered it to Wade, and said if she were trying to hike up Wade's fees, she could have charged all 39 people the grand jury recommended she charge in the case instead of the 19 she wound up charging.

Abbate also noted that Willis has been pushing for the case to go to trial as soon as possible.

“Why would Ms. Willis repeatedly ask this court to set a trial date as soon as possible if her motive in prosecuting this case was to continue to financially gain, as alleged, from the prosecution of this case?” Abbate said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

He also mocked the argument of one of the other lawyers that the DA had been taking “lavish” trips with Wade that he compared to the old TV show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

“She stayed at a DoubleTree in Napa. A DoubleTree. I don’t know that to be a lavish hotel,” Abbate said.

“So the allegations and assertions that Ms. Willis was living the ‘lifestyle of the rich and the famous’ is a joke, an absolute joke,” he said.

At the hearing last month, Merchant's wife and co-counsel Ashleigh Merchant questioned Robin Yeartie, a former friend of Willis’ who testified that the couple started seeing each other well before Wade was appointed special prosecutor. She then attempted to corroborate her story with testimony from Terrence Bradley, Wade’s former divorce lawyer and partner, who'd told her in a text message that the pair had “absolutely” started dating before Willis was elected DA.

At a hearing Tuesday, Bradley said Wade had told him at one point that he was dating Willis but that he couldn’t recall when the relationship started and whether it predated his appointment. Asked why he'd told Merchant it was before the appointment, he said he was “speculating.”

Trump attorney Steve Sadow asked Bradley why he would speculate about such a thing in a text message to a lawyer for a defendant in the case. “I have no answer for that,” he replied.

“Why wouldn’t you have said, ‘I don’t know’?” Sadow continued. “I don’t know,” Bradley said. “Maybe it’s because you know what the truth is,” Sadow said.

On Friday, Sadow told the judge Bradley's text messages were more believable than his testimony, and should make him skeptical of Willis and Wade's testimony. “You don’t have to make a finding of fact that they lied. All you have to do is make a finding of fact that you have genuine legitimate concerns about their credibility, about their truthfulness,” Sadow said.

Abbate described Yeartie as a “disgruntled former employee” of the DA's office who'd been forced to resign and and Bradley as a “disgruntled” former partner of Wade's who'd engaged in “vengeful” speculation in the texts with Roman's attorney. He noted that Bradley also testified that he had “no personal knowledge” about when the relationship between Wade and Willis started.

Both Trump and Roman have pleaded not guilty.

Charlie Gile reported from Atlanta. Dareh Gregorian reported from New York.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com