A defiant Fani Willis rebukes misconduct allegations in Trump election case

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In a surprise turn, a defiant Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis took the stand Thursday in her misconduct hearing after a former friend disputed the timeline of her relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade.

The friend had described “hugging, kissing, just affection” as early as November 2021 between Willis and Wade, the lead prosecutor in the Georgia election interference case, appearing to contradict claims by the two made in an earlier affidavit.

Follow live updates on the Fani Willis hearing

Robin Yeartie, who first met Willis in college and worked in the district attorney's office until 2022, testified as Willis and Wade face misconduct allegations that could lead to Willis’ disqualification from the case against former President Donald Trump. In her testimony, Willis sought to distance herself from Yeartie by saying that they had known each other for decades but that "she betrayed our friendship."

Willis acknowledged this month that she had a personal relationship with Wade but denied that it was improper. Nearly an hour into her testimony, Willis grew frustrated when she was faced with the claim that her office had objected to turning over records, suggesting the probe of her and Wade was a sideshow from the case at hand.

"You’re confused,” Willis said. "You think I’m on trial. These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020."

She added: "I’m not on trial, no matter how hard you try to put me on trial.”

Willis drew a caution from the judge overseeing the case, who warned that if she continued to interrupt questions, he would "have no choice but to strike your testimony.”

In his sworn statement, Wade said he had “no personal relationship” with Willis before the case or when he started as one of the prosecutors in 2022. Wade said Thursday that the relationship began in “early 2022 ... around March.” Willis also said Thursday that their relationship began in early 2022.

“Our relationship was not a secret," Wade said on the stand. "It was just private.” He later revealed that they are no longer in a romantic relationship but said they are "very good friends." "Probably closer than ever because of these attacks,” he added.

Willis confirmed that she met Wade at a conference in 2019 but denied what she claimed was an implication that the two had a romantic encounter beginning then. “The lie, that’s one of your lies,” Willis retorted to Ashleigh Merchant, an attorney for one of Trump’s co-defendants, Michael Roman. She said she did not listen to Wade’s testimony but confirmed that she had paid him in cash for trips they took together.

Asked whether she goes to the ATM, Willis said no but that her father told her to keep six months of money in cash at home. The most she ever gave Wade is $2,500, Willis said.

"It was never that serious," she told the court. "We're not talking about $20,000 in cash."

Willis also said it was a "lie" that she had asked to take over the lease on Yeartie's apartment, explaining that she faced threats because of her work prosecuting gang members and was urged by her family to move. She described an informal agreement in which she rented Yeartie's apartment from her.

Willis said the threats against her have "gotten so extreme" that she can no longer live at home.

Willis also conceded that Wade may have visited her more than 10 times at Yeartie’s apartment, where she was staying, before her office hired Wade to lead the prosecution against Trump.

Yeartie told Merchant she did not recall when Willis disclosed the relationship to her. She said she and Willis are no longer friends after Yeartie left the DA's office in 2022 after having been given the choice to resign or be fired.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis (John Bazemore / AP file)
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis (John Bazemore / AP file)

Yeartie also said she was unaware of any trips Willis and Wade took together. A dispute over who paid for the trips is at the center of the allegations against Willis.

Wade took the stand after Yeartie and was asked about payment statements filed during his divorce proceedings that include trips taken by Willis and Wade. Asked about a trip to Belize that appears on bank records provided by his wife's divorce attorney, Wade testified that Willis reimbursed him in cash. He said Willis attracts a lot of attention while traveling and, therefore, tries to limit her transactions, suggesting that he paid “for safety reasons.”

When Merchant asked why Willis paid for a trip together, given those concerns, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee permitted Wade not to answer.

Attorneys earlier scrambled to determine who among the witnesses was present and prepared to testify in the highly anticipated hearing, which is focused on whether Willis financially benefited from her relationship with Wade and when it began. Trump and some of his co-defendants have claimed that their relationship is grounds to oust the prosecutors or dismiss the charges against them.

But quickly, lawyers for the defendants encountered difficulties when a key witness, Terrence Bradley, Wade’s former law partner who briefly represented him in his divorce, said he was advised by the bar that he could not reveal anything he saw or learned. A lawyer for one of Trump's co-defendants had claimed that Bradley could provide crucial context about the timeline of their relationship.

“Bradley has non-privileged, personal knowledge that the romantic relationship between Wade and Willis began prior to Willis being sworn as the district attorney for Fulton County, Georgia in January 2021,” the filing said. Merchant has subpoenaed other members of Willis’ team who Bradley alleged were aware of the relationship, which Anna Cross, a lawyer for the DA’s office, has denied.

There to support Willis in the courtroom Thursday was former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who has said she is “proud to stand by” Willis, and a prominent clergy member, the bishop of Georgia’s African Methodist Episcopal churches. Willis was not present when the hearing began.

Willis charged Trump and 18 co-defendants in August with conspiring to overturn the 2020 presidential election in Georgia. Four defendants have pleaded guilty, while Trump, who faces 13, has pleaded not guilty.

Trump did not attend Thursday's hearing in Georgia. Instead, he appeared in court in New York for a separate case involving hush money payments that is set to go to trial in late March.

Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the New York case, tied to hush money payments made to adult film star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential campaign. He has pleaded not guilty.

Trump faces cascading legal obligations as his criminal and civil cases advance — with court appearances often colliding with the demands of his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com