Can former President Donald Trump use the explosive allegations of an improper romantic relationship between prosecutors to blow up his criminal racketeering case in Atlanta?
Unfortunately for Trump, the answer is: Probably not, according to legal experts who spoke with VICE News. The allegations of an office affair, if true, make the prosecution team look pretty bad, they said—but despite the hoopla, the charge seems unlikely to sink this case, in which Trump and his associates are accused of attempting to subvert the 2020 election.
“It’s sensational, it’s scandalous, and there’s no question that it achieved the goal of reducing the prosecution’s moral superiority,” said Titus Nichols, a Georgia defense attorney and former prosecutor in the Augusta District Attorney's Office. “But I just don’t see some shining victory in which the defendant walks out with all charges dismissed.”
Some experts see more cause for concern than others, however, as fresh revelations continue to roll out daily. At least one Georgia lawyer has raised the possibility that a judge could move the entire case to another prosecutor’s office, an outcome that would, at the very least, cause a big delay.
On Thursday, Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee ordered Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis to respond in writing by Feb. 2 to the allegation she had an “improper” relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade, as alleged in a Jan. 8 legal filing by the attorney for Mike Roman, a former Trump campaign aide turned codefendant. Roman’s attorney alleged that Willis and Wade took lavish trips together, which were paid for from the same bank account that received Wade’s fee from the district attorney’s office. Wade has earned over $650,000 working for Willis’ team.
Willis and Wade haven’t yet directly addressed the substance of the claims. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Feb. 15.
Wade purchased plane tickets for himself and Willis to Miami in October 2022, and to San Francisco in April 2023, according to bank statements that were filed by Wade’s wife, Jocelyn Mayfield Wade, in their divorce proceedings on Friday.
Willis broke her silence Sunday in an impassioned speech at Big Bethel AME Church, in which she called Wade a legal “superstar” and a “great friend,” and suggested he’s being singled out for criticism because he’s Black.
Willis also moved to block a subpoena for her testimony in Wade’s divorce proceedings. A motion filed by her lawyer accused Wade’s wife, Jocelyn, of attempting to interfere with the Trump prosecution. The brief said Jocelyn Wade “has conspired with interested parties in the criminal election interference case to use the civil discovery process to annoy, embarrass and oppress [Willis].”
Denial of rights
Roman is seeking to have Willis and Wade removed from the case, and have the charges dismissed against all 15 remaining codefendants, including Trump. Roman’s lawyer, Ashleigh Merchant, didn’t provide direct proof of the relationship in the original filing. But she claimed that sealed records from Wade’s divorce proceedings would buttress the allegation, and she is now trying to get those records unsealed.
While the facts of the case remain uncertain, so far, the alleged conduct doesn’t look like the kind of thing that will warrant significant interference from a judge, said Nichols.
To take action against Willis’ office, a judge would need to find that any improper and undisclosed relationship between Willis and Wade violated the defendants’ rights, Nichols said. And that doesn’t appear to be the case, he said.
“It looks bad,” Nichols said. “But even if all this is true, how does it affect the defendants’ substantive rights?”
Rebecca Roiphe, an expert on prosecutorial ethics at New York Law School and former prosecutor for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, agreed.
“I don’t think the attempt to get the prosecutor removed or the indictment dismissed is going to be successful,” Roiphe said.
“You need to have a conflict of interest,” she said. “In some cases, courts will dismiss a prosecutor for the strong appearance of impropriety. But in my reading of the cases, it has to be a kind of impropriety that would affect the case.”
A romantic relationship between Willis and Wade doesn’t create that kind of conflict of interest, because they’re on the same side, Nichols said.
Some legal experts, however, have argued the situation could be more perilous for the prosecution.
Willis spent months investigating Trump and his associates before filing a sweeping racketeering case last summer. Prior to bringing the indictment, she and Wade oversaw a months-long Special Purpose Grand Jury investigation that interviewed dozens of witnesses.
If it could be shown that Willis prolonged the investigation to justify a hefty salary for her romantic partner, then that might be a conflict of interest requiring her removal, Georgia defense attorney Andrew Fleischman wrote in an OpEd in The Daily Beast.
Nichols, however, said it would be difficult to demonstrate that Willis unduly prolonged the probe. Her sweeping racketeering indictment of Trump and his associates marks the first time a former president has ever been charged with a crime by a state prosecutor in American history. That’s exactly the kind of complicated case that shouldn’t be rushed, Nichols said.
Willis has been criticized for approving hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments for legal fees to Wade for his work on the case. But Willis has the prerogative to make staffing and salary decisions for her office, Skandalakis told the paper.
“A district attorney can use the funds allocated to the office by the county commissioners as he or she sees fit,” he said.