Trump lawyer wields cellphone data in bid to discredit Georgia DA Fani Willis in election fraud case

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Donald Trump’s lawyer submitted evidence Friday that a prosecutor in his Georgia election interference case visited Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis dozens of times before their acknowledged romantic relationship began, but it was unclear if the information would help remove the prosecutors from the case.

The filing by Trump lawyer Steve Sadow, which was based on special prosecutor Nathan Wade’s cellphone data, suggested he was in the vicinity of where Willis was staying 35 times from April through November 2021. Two of the occasions were late at night. Willis and Wade also exchanged thousands of calls and text messages that year, the filing said.

In a response filed with the court late Friday, Willis’ team said Trump’s lawyers are trying to introduce inadmissible evidence and that even if the judge were to consider it, “the phone records simply do not prove anything relevant.”

Andrew Evans, Wade's personal lawyer on the disqualification issue, was not immediately available for comment.

An effort to dismiss, or at least delay, Trump's trial

Fulton County Superior Judge Scott McAfee is considering whether to disqualify Willis and Wade from the case because of their relationship. Removing the prosecutors would potentially delay a trial until after the November election, a Trump goal in four criminal cases he faces.

McAfee set final arguments in the disqualification hearing for March 1.

Anthony Michael Kreis, a law professor at Georgia State University, told USA TODAY that the cellphone evidence is almost certainly not the smoking gun that the defense may portray it to be. Cellphone data is often faulty and leads to false convictions or accusations of crimes, Kreis said.

“The question would be does Judge McAfee want to reopen the evidentiary hearing and allow for all that?" Kreis said. "Or does he want to basically say that's enough, and say it's not admitted into evidence but weigh it accordingly."

Sadow has offered to have his cellphone expert testify at the judge's convenience.

Trump and his remaining 14 co-defendants are charged with a racketeering conspiracy to try to steal the 2020 election. Each has pleaded not guilty. Four initial co-defendants have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the prosecution.

ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 15: Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis testifies during a hearing in the case of the State of Georgia v. Donald John Trump at the Fulton County Courthouse on February 15, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. Judge Scott McAfee is hearing testimony as to whether Willis and Special Prosecutor Nathan Wade should be disqualified from the case for allegedly lying about a personal relationship. (Photo by Alyssa Pointer-Pool/Getty Images)

Willis, Wade each denied romantic relationship began before she hired him to prosecute Trump

Willis and Wade each testified under oath at a hearing last week that the romance ran from spring 2022 to summer 2023 – after she hired him Nov. 1, 2021, to work on the Trump case. The prosecutors each testified that Willis repaid Wade in cash for trips to Belize, Aruba and California.

But Trump and other defendants have argued that Willis hired her romantic partner and benefited through travel from government payments to him. A former friend and colleague of Willis’ in the district attorney’s office, Robin Yearti, who temporarily rented her condo to Willis, testified the relationship began in 2019.

Steve Sadow, attorney for former U.S. President Donald Trump, questions witness Terrence Bradley at a hearing in Atlanta over whether DA Fani Willis and Special Prosecutor Nathan Wade should be disqualified from Trump's Georgia election case for allegedly lying about a personal relationship.
Steve Sadow, attorney for former U.S. President Donald Trump, questions witness Terrence Bradley at a hearing in Atlanta over whether DA Fani Willis and Special Prosecutor Nathan Wade should be disqualified from Trump's Georgia election case for allegedly lying about a personal relationship.

Trump lawyer accuses prosecutor Wade of lying

Sadow and Merchant accused Wade at last week's hearing of lying under oath about when his relationship with Willis began, and thus committing perjury. They have submitted the cellphone data to bolster their argument and they are also seeking access to texts belonging to Wade's divorce lawyer, Terrence Bradley.

Willis and Wade have testified he visited her at the condo occasionally while they knew each other professionally but before the romantic relationship began.

Kreis said the possibility of Willis or Wade being brought up on perjury charges is virtually non-existent, because it's hard to prove someone lied knowingly and people often have trouble remembering details such as meetings.

"That's never gonna happen," Kreis said. "It's hard to bring perjury charges no matter what... I think people overestimate the ability to memorize or to recall fairly mundane things."

How did Trump's team analyze Wade's cellphone?

Sadow’s filing featured a sworn statement from private investigator Charles Mittelstadt, who studied Wade’s certified cellphone data from AT&T with a program called CellHawk. In conjunction with Sadow and Merchant, Mittelstadt served a subpoena on AT&T on Feb. 9 for the history of voice calls, texts and location data for the phone, and he received the records Feb. 15.

Mittelstadt tracked when Wade’s phone was within 2,000 to 3,000 feet of Yearti’s condo in the Hapeville neighborhood of Atlanta, where Willis was staying at the time.

“CellHawk is considered by law enforcement to be the gold standard in cell phone records analytics,” Mittelstadt said in a statement.

Ashleigh Merchant, attorney for Donald Trump co-defendant Michael Roman speaks during a hearing to determine whether District Attorney Fani Willis should be disqualified from the Georgia election interference case over her relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade. Merchant was the first to publicly raise allegations of an affair between Willis and Merchant.

What does Wade's cellphone data show?

The analysis revealed Willis and Wade exchanged 2,000 voice calls and 12,000 text messages during the first 11 months of 2021, according to Mittelstadt.

Narrowing the search to April 1 to Nov. 30, 2021, the analysis found 35 times Wade’s phone was near where Willis was staying, according to Mittelstadt.

One visit was from 10:45 p.m. on Sept. 11 to 3:28 a.m. on Sept. 12, according to Mittelstadt. The other was from 12:43 a.m. to 4:55 a.m. on Nov. 29, according to Mittelstadt.

Kreis, the Georgia State University law professor who attended both days of the evidentiary hearings, said Wade admitted being at Willis's apartment about 10 or so times before he was hired. The larger number could have resulted from a bad recollection and is unlikely to make a significant difference to the judge.

Willis and Wade had been friends and he was battling cancer, so the two could offer alternative explanations as to why he was there other than that they were having a romantic relationship, Kreis said.

If the cellphone records ultimately help prove that Wade and Willis were lying about when their affair started, Kreis said, the far more important issue for McAfee to consider in deciding whether to disqualify them will be when they ended the relationship.

Willis and Wade have said the romantic relationship ended before Trump was indicted in August 2023. The judge could be hard pressed to determine that they were intentionally keeping the case going in order to derive financial benefit from their personal and romantic relationship, Kreis said.

"It all comes down to what the judge decides to admit into evidence and how much weight he gives it," Kreis told USA TODAY.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump lawyer wields cellphone data against Fani Willis, Nathan Wade