'Lies': Fani Willis fights push to remove her from Donald Trump Georgia case

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Editor's note: This file summarizes the news from the Fani Willis hearing on Thursday, Feb. 15. For the latest news on the hearing, please visit our live updates file for Friday, Feb. 16.

ATLANTA − Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is fighting for her professional reputation and the biggest case of her career as former President Donald Trump and several codefendants try to get her, the special prosecutor she's having an affair with, and the entire DA's office thrown off Trump's sprawling Georgia election racketeering case.

In a day of drama that featured Willis running to the courtroom and declaring that witnesses were lying, the fireworks included talk of a rented cabin, trips to Aruba and a Norwegian cruise. In another state, Donald Trump ranted that the whole show was rigged, even as a New York judge set a trial for a different criminal case for March.

The hearing marks the first time a judge is examining if allegations surrounding the relationship between Willis and Nathan Wade, the private attorney she hired to oversee the case, are enough to disqualify one or both of them – and potentially even to dismiss the Georgia election case altogether after three years of investigation and prosecution.

Willis says in court filings that her relationship with Wade began after she brought him on to helm the Trump prosecution, and it has no bearing on the criminal case. But an attorney for Trump codefendant Michael Roman says the defense has witnesses who can prove that their relationship began well before Willis hired Wade to oversee the prosecution.

Willis fought to quash the hearing − she called it "a ticket to the circus" − but Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee on Monday scheduled two days of testimony "because I think it's possible that the facts alleged by the defendant could result in disqualification."

Defense lawyers led by Ashleigh Merchant are trying to remove Willis and Wade from the case based on her allegedly profiting from Fulton County payments to Wade through their relationship.

Here is what is unfolding in today's courtroom action:

Attorney Fani Willis stands in the courtroom during a hearing in the case of State of Georgia v. Donald John Trump at the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., February 15, 2024.
Attorney Fani Willis stands in the courtroom during a hearing in the case of State of Georgia v. Donald John Trump at the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., February 15, 2024.

More: Fani Willis admits to relationship with prosecutor. What does that mean for the Trump case?

''You don't have to yell at me to make me understand'

The clashes between Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and defense lawyers repeated throughout hours of testimony.

Steve Sadow, one of Donald Trump’s lawyers, tried to lead through a series of questions about the condo where Willis lived during from about February 2021 to January 2022.

The time frame is significant because defense lawyers are trying to disqualify Willis and prosecutor Nathan Wade from the case because of a romantic relationship that began in spring 2022. Willis acknowledged that Wade visited the condo occasionally, but not other prosecutors.

“He certainly has come and picked me up,” Willis said. “I don’t remember him being in that condo a lot.”

But as Sadow probed about who else stayed at the condo and she quibbled about the working, his voice rose.

“You don’t have to yell at me to make me understand,” Willis said.

Sadow’s voice rose again during disputes about his questions about her relationship with Wade.

“Please do not yell at me,” Willis said.

--Bart Jansen

DA Willis routinely keeps thousands of dollars in cash on hand

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis said she learned from her father to keep cash on hand, either at home for expenses or in a pocket book to be able to bail out of a bad date.

Willis said she routinely has at least a few thousand dollars and as much as $15,000 at home. She said she repaid prosecutor Nathan Wade for trips together to Belize, California and Aruba from that supply.

“If you tell me it’s a G, you’ll get $1,000 back,” Willis said.

Willis advises all women to bring at least $200 in a pocket on dates so they can leave if necessary.

“When you go on a date, you should have cash in your pocket,” she said.

While she couldn’t pinpoint the source of each dollar of her savings, Willis strongly denied getting the money anywhere other than her own paychecks.

“I’m sure the source of it is the work, sweat and tears of me,” Willis said.

--Bart Jansen

‘I’m not on trial’: Willis

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis remained combative throughout her testimony in a hearing where defense lawyers are trying to disqualify her from prosecuting former President Donald Trump and 14 co-defendants.

When defense lawyer Ashleigh Merchant asked about her office refusing to provide her travel records, Willis said she herself denied the release because it was personal information.

“You’ve been intrusive in people’s personal lives. You’re confused. You think I’m on trial. These people are on trial for trying to steal and election in 2020,” Willi said, gesturing to the defense table. “I’m not on trial no matter how hard you try to put me on trial.”

--Bart Jansen

‘That’s a lie’: Willis denies relationship with Wade began before 2022

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis opened her testimony clashing with defense lawyer Ashleigh Merchant, accusing the legal opponent of lying about her in trying to remove her from the election interference case against Donald Trump and 14 remaining co-defendants.

Willis said accusations that she began the relationship with a special prosecutor, Nathan Wade, in 2019 soon after meeting him at a judicial conference. Willis told Merchant that it was offensive to insinuate that Willis would sleep with a new acquaintance on the same day.

“That’s a lie,” Willis said. “It’s highly offensive when someone lies on you.”

Another witness, Robin Bryant-Yeartie, who knew Willis since college and worked in the district attorney’s office, testified that Willis began dating Wade in 2019. Willis strongly denied that, agreeing with Wade that the relationship began in 2022.

“It’s highly offensive when someone lies on you,” Willis said.

Willis said Yeartie is no longer her friend.

“I think she betrayed our friendship,” Willis said.

--Bart Jansen

A television drama? Georgia DA Fani Willis agrees to testify in election interference hearing

Like a scene in a television drama, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis dropped her refusal to testify in a hearing about her relationship with prosecutor Nathan Wade and dramatically entered the courtroom to testify as members of the audience gasped.

“I’m ready to go,” Willis said.

Defense lawyers Ashleigh Merchant and Craig Gillen had been arguing that her testimony was crucial to corroborate Wades affidavit and testimony that Willis reimbursed thousands of dollars in travels costs with him in cash. In addition, another witness said the relationship began in 2019, rather than in 2022, as Wade testified.

“There are deep concerns that that affidavit is false and that Ms. Willis knew it was false,” Gillen said. “It cries out for her testimony.”

Prosecutors initially sought to block her testimony. But Willis showed up to oblige.

--Bart Jansen

Trump: Willis hearing is a 'game changer'

After his New York hush money hearing ended, Trump began weighing in on the Willis hearing by posting clips of television coverage and adding sardonic comments.

"IT'S A GAME CHANGER," Trump said in one Truth Social post.

In another post, Trump said it is "game over" for the Georgia election case, but that is far from clear at this point.

The hearing affects Willis more than the case against Trump.

--David Jackson

Judge scolds co-defendant for outburst during Georgia hearing

Fulton County Superior Judge Scott McAfee scolded one of the co-defendants in the election interference case, Georgia Republican Party Chairman David Shafer, after a minor outburst during a hearing Thursday.

A lawyer for another defendant, Ashleigh Merchant, was in the midst of asking prosecutor Nathan Wade about spending on travel with District Attorney Fani Willis. Wade testified that Willis shared the expenses by reimbursing him with cash, but that he didn’t have any records of it.

“It was cash,” Wade said. “She didn’t give me any checks.”

At that point, Shafer made a noticeable outburst.

“Mr. Shafer, you’ll step out if you do that again,” McAfee said.

--Bart Jansen

Never went to an ATM together

Special Prosecutor Nathan Wade said that while Fani Willis paid him many thousands of dollars in cash as reimbursement for the trips they took together that he put on his credit card, he kept no records of ATM deposits or anything else to corroborate that.

Defense lawyer Craig Gillen pressed Wade on that repeatedly as part of a line of questioning aimed at determining whether Wade used county money he received as special prosecutor for the trips and that Willis derived some financial benefit from it.

After Willis reimbursed him in several cases, including one trip that he put $2,794 on his credit card for, “did you scamper down to the ATM with Ms. Willis” to deposit the money, creating a record of the payment, Gillen asked.

Wade responded that he never went with Willis to an ATM together.

“You don’t have a single solitary deposit slip to document depositing … these thousands of dollars,” the money?” Gillen asked.

“Not a one,” Wade responded.

“Do you have a place in your house that you stack up all this cash Mis Willis paid you?” Gillen asked.

No, Wade responded. Over more than 15 minutes of questioning, Wade said he has no away of documenting any of the case Willis purportedly gave him. And he said that in a discussion of the controversy with Willis, he didn’t ask her if she had a way of documenting that she reimbursed him for trips to Aruba and elsewhere.

--Josh Meyer

Harsh questions continue into Wade’s relationship with Willis

Fulton County special prosecutor Nathan Wade, left, and executive district attorney Daysha Young confer in Superior Court of Fulton County before Judge Scott McAfee in Courtroom 5A in the case of State of Georgia v. Donald John Trump, Case Number: 23SC188947, on Dec. 1, 2023.
Fulton County special prosecutor Nathan Wade, left, and executive district attorney Daysha Young confer in Superior Court of Fulton County before Judge Scott McAfee in Courtroom 5A in the case of State of Georgia v. Donald John Trump, Case Number: 23SC188947, on Dec. 1, 2023.

Another defense lawyer hammered prosecutor Nathan Wade over his sexual relationship with District Attorney Fani Willis, despite providing sworn statements in his divorce that he hadn’t entertained women.

Wade replied “none” in a statement May 30, 2023, to written questions in his divorce about whether he had a romantic relationship or entertained women.

Craig Gillen, a lawyer for co-defendant David Shafer, asked whether Wade had had sex with Willis by then. He also asked whether he had entertained

“I’m not here to jump into some salacious bedroom situation,” Gillen said.

Wade replied to the series of questions: “Yes.”

But Wade continued to argue that his marriage was irretrievably broken in 2015, which was why he answered the written questions with the term “none.”

“Your answer to this interrogatory is false, is it not, sir?” Gillen asked.

“No, it is not false,” Wade said.

Fulton County Superior Judge Scott McAfee halted the line of questions at that point.

“You’ve made your point,” McAfee said.

--Bart Jansen

Aruba and a Norwegian cruise: 'I book a lot of cabins'

During his testimony, Nathan Wade would often parse questions. He testified that he didn’t have credit card receipts, just monthly statements. He would stay overnight with Willis but never cohabitated with her.

When questioned about specific travel expenses, such as a $3,835 charge to Aruba or $1,276 for a Royal Caribbean cruise or a $3,387 Norwegian cruise, Wade often challenged the details. He traveled on the first part of the Caribbean cruise with his mother after her retirement, then flew to Aruba with Willis. The Norwegian cruise included his sisters and their husbands.

In each case, Wade said Willis reimbursed him for her share. Although he booked a Belize vacation in March 2023, Willis reimbursed him for the entire trip for his birthday, Wade said.

But Wade disputed that a $1,481 charge for a Tennessee cabin in August 2023 involved Willis.

“I book lots of cabins,” Wade said.

-- Bart Jansen

‘We’re private people’: Wade on relationship with Willis

Nathan Wade, a special prosecutor hired in the Georgia election interference case against Donald Trump, said he and District Attorney Fani Willis weren’t trying to conceal their romantic relationship but were private people.

Defense lawyers are asking Fulton County Superior Judge Scott McAfee to disqualify Wade and Willis from the case by arguing that she benefited from government payments to Wade through their relationship. But Willis and Wade contend the relationship began about March 2022 – after he was hired in November 2021 – and that she has not profited from it.

“I’ve never purchased a gift for Ms. Willis,” Wade testified Thursday, and they shared expenses when traveling together.

The couple would take day trips to Tennessee to avoid the spotlight in Fulton County, he said. Foreign trips were “a task,” he said, because Willis is widely recognized.

Wade said he and Willis weren’t trying to conceal the relationship but he didn’t discuss it with others.

“We’re private people,” Wade said. “Our relationship wasn’t a secret. It was private.”

--Bart Jansen

Trump talks conspiracies over New York hush money case

As court let out for lunch in Atlanta, Trump posted an angry rant on his social media site, Truth Social, falsely claiming that the Biden administration had seized the reins of his New York hush money trial.

"Just left the Courthouse in Manhattan. Biden’s DOJ people have taken control of the case," he wrote. "There was NO CRIME, and almost all legal scholars are saying that."

Trump faces 34 felony counts in New York for allegedly falsifying business records to cover up hundreds of thousands of dollars in hush money payments he made to buy the silence of adult film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal ahead of the 2016 election. The trial will begin on March 25, Justice Juan Merchan ruled on Thursday.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, the former president's last serious challenger for the 2024 Republican nomination, said the former president’s legal problems will make him a weak general election candidate against President Joe Biden.

“Donald Trump is in court today,” Haley said on X. “There will be a verdict on another case tomorrow. And he has a trial starting March 25...All of this chaos will only lead to more losses for Republicans up and down the ticket.”

-- Dan Morrison and David Jackson

'I have no receipts'

Nathan Wade noted that he also submitted documents in his divorce case twice in 2021 and updated in May 2023 stating he had no receipts – “none” – for spending on travel, hotels and restaurants with women. Wade explained that he has statements from his credit card company, but not receipts.

“I have the statements,” Wade said. “I have no receipts.”

Wade testified that he and Willis shared travel expenses on trips to Belize, California and Aruba. Wade said he would often book the flights and hotels, and she would reimburse him for her share in cash, he said.

“She’s a very independent woman so she’s going to insist she carries her own weight,” Wade said of Willis. “She is going to pay her own way.”

Defense lawyers led by Ashleigh Merchant are trying to remove Willis and Wade from the case based on her allegedly profiting from Fulton County payments to Wade through their relationship.

--Bart Jansen

'I was free to have a relationship': Nathan Wade

Prosecutor Nathan Wade clarified sworn statements about his relationship with District Attorney Fani Willis and how they split travel expenses during an extraordinary hearing over whether a judge will remove Willis from the case against former President Donald Trump and 14 remaining co-defendants.

Wade acknowledged a romantic relationship with Willis began about March 2022, despite denying extramarital affairs in a earlier document. Wade explained on the witness stand Thursday that he considered his marriage “irretrievably broken'' in 2015.

“I was free to have a relationship,” Wade said.

-- Bart Jansen

'I have to jog my memory'

Ashleigh Merchant, an attorney for one of Donald Trump's co-defendants, used her courtroom time to march through a long series of questions about how Nathan Wade paid for all their trip and how Fani Willis paid him back.

Wade, who squirmed a bit on the witness stand, said it was because she was a high-profile figure and wanted to keep a low profile -- except one expense which she paid herself.

"I have to jog my memory,'' Wade said, when asked about all the trips they took together.

-- Josh Meyer

Claims of attorney-client privilege derail testimony from Wade defense lawyer

Terrence Bradley, a lawyer who represented prosecutor Nathan Wade in his divorce, refused to testify at all about any potential relationship between Wade and District Attorney Fani Willis because of attorney-client privilege.

“I have a law license and I don’t want to lose it,” said Bradley, who acknowledged representing Wade starting in 2018 – before the relationship between Wade and Willis began in 2019.

But defense lawyers – including Ashleigh Merchant for Mike Roman and Steve Sadow for Donald Trump – argued that attorney client privilege applies only to legal advice and not to observations about the relationship.

“His observations are not privileged,” Merchant said.

Sadow said attorney client privilege governs communications, not what Bradley may have seen or heard.

“There is no such law that protects such confidences,” Sadow said. “There is no bar rule to that effect.”

To avoid the impasse, Merchant agreed to drop Bradley for the time being and instead begin questioning Robin Bryant-Yeartie, a longtime Willis associate who previously worked at the district attorney’s office.

--Josh Meyer and Bart Jansen

Willis lawyer asks for sanctions against defense lawyer

The hearing before Fulton County Superior Judge Scott McAfee started with a bang, with prosecutors asking for sanctions against defense lawyers and a defense lawyer arguing she could prove misconduct through her witnesses.

Adam Abbate, a lawyer for District Attorney Fani Willis, opened the hearing by arguing that defense lawyer Ashleigh Merchant had made misrepresentations in her allegations about Willis’ relationship with another prosecutor, Nathan Wade.

Abbate accused Merchant of seeking nothing more than “harassment and spectacle” and asked for sanctions for her lack of candor. “Those are misrepresentations that are not true,” Abbate said.

But Merchant, who represents Mike Roman, a former White House aide to Donald Trump and a co-defendant in the case, said she could prove her allegations through witnesses.

Merchant said one witness, Robin Bryant-Yeartie, a longtime Willis associate who previously worked at the district attorney’s office, was terrified of testifying but agreed to appear.

“I have a huge good-faith basis for everything I put in every single motion,” Merchant said.

--Josh Meyer and Bart Jansen

Away from the Georgia action, Trump complains of a 'rigged city'

Donald Trump was focusing his attention Thursday on the courtroom drama in New York, where a judge earlier had ruled that a criminal case involving hush money paid on his behalf would go to trial on March 25.

"Instead of being in South Carolina and other states campaigning, I'm stuck here," Trump told reporters outside the courthouse.

Trump added: "I'll be here during the day and campaigning during the night."

Trump must attend the hush money trial.

During a rant to reporters, Trump accused New York officials of trying to derail his campaign, and complained about the high crime rate in the city.

"It's a rigged state," Trump said, using the same phrase he has applied to elections that went against him. "It's a rigged city."

-David Jackson

'There is no crime'

In addition to the Georgia hearing, Donald Trump was attending a hearing in New York in his hush money case, which he attacked as politically motivated.

“Heading to yet another Courthouse in Manhattan on a case that would have never been brought if I wasn’t running for Pres.,” Trump said on Truth Social as he traveled to the courthouse.

Claiming “there is no crime,” or case, Trump added: “They want it before Election - Could have been brought 3 years ago. They waited until Election Period.”

-- David Jackson

More: Why the Fani Willis hearing could decide the fate of Trump's Georgia election case

Where is Donald Trump today?

Donald Trump has another court hearing today, in New York, and he is focusing his efforts on that.

A New York judge will meet Thursday with Trump for what could become the first criminal trial against the former president, on charges he falsified business records to pay women hush money.

Trump has pleaded not guilty in that case. He is in New York this morning for that hearing, which will determine whether a trial will move forward in March.

-- Bart Jansen

Related: Donald Trump's hush money criminal trial will start March 25, New York judge says

What is Donald Trump charged with?

The former president and a network of allies are accused in a sweeping 41-count indictment of operating a criminal enterprise to overturn the 2020 election. Prosecutors listed 161 separate events that allegedly show Trump's intention to steal the Georgia election after he was defeated by Democrat Joe Biden by a slim 11,779 votes.

These include an infamous January 2021 phone call in which Trump asked Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to "find" enough votes to eclipse Biden's total. “I just want to find 11,780 votes," Trump said, according to a recording of the call.

Eighteen codefendants were charged alongside Trump, including former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. Four codefendants, including firebrand attorney Sidney Powell and Trump campaign lawyer Jenna Ellis, have pleaded guilty and agreed to assist the prosecution.

-- Dan Morrison

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - AUGUST 14: Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during a news conference at the Fulton County Government building on August 14, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. A grand jury today handed up an indictment naming former President Donald Trump and his Republican allies over an alleged attempt to overturn the 2020 election results in the state.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 776019169 ORIG FILE ID: 1615613099

When does the Fani Willis hearing start on Thursday?

Judge Scott McAfee had originally set Thursday's hearing for 2 p.m., but he moved the start time back to 9:30 a.m., acknowledging the amount of testimony and evidence that could be presented to the court.

The evidentiary hearings in McAfee's courtroom are scheduled to continue on Friday. The judge isn't expected to immediately rule on Trump codefendant Michael Roman's request to disqualify DA Fani Willis.

It's unclear when McAfee will issue his decision.

-- Dan Morrison

FILE - Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, right, talks with a member of her team during proceedings to seat a special purpose grand jury in Fulton County, Georgia, on May 2, 2022, to look into the actions of former President Donald Trump and his supporters who tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The hearing took place in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Ben Gray, File) ORG XMIT: WX103

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fani Willis hearing adds drama to Trump case in Georgia