Nathan Wade resigns after judge says Fani Willis and her office can stay on Trump Georgia 2020 election case if he steps aside

Fulton County prosecutor resigns from Trump case after judge's ultimatum

Atlanta — Nathan Wade, a special prosecutor working with the Fulton County District Attorney's Office, resigned his post after a judge ruled Friday that District Attorney Fani Willis and her office may remain on the 2020 election case involving former President Donald Trump and his allies if Wade stepped aside.

Wade's resignation as special prosecutor came hours after Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee laid out two options that would allow for the continued prosecution of the racketeering case against Trump and his co-defendants stemming from an alleged scheme to overturn the results of the 2020 election in Georgia. 

"The district attorney may choose to step aside, along with the whole of her office, and refer the prosecution to the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council for reassignment," McAfee wrote in his 23-page decision. "Alternatively, [special assistant district attorney] Wade can withdraw, allowing the district attorney, the defendants, and the public to move forward without his presence or remuneration distracting from and potentially compromising the merits of this case."

Wade said in a letter to Willis, with whom he had a romantic relationship with while serving as special prosecutor, that he was stepping down "in the interest of democracy, in dedication to the American public, and to move this case forward as quickly as possible." The district attorney accepted his resignation and in her own letter to Wade, praised him for his "professionalism and dignity."

Willis lauded Wade's "patriotism, courage and dedication to justice" in the face of threats against himself and his family, "as well as unjustified attacks in the media and in court on your reputation as a lawyer."

McAfee's decision was in response to a request to disqualify Willis and Wade by Michael Roman, a longtime GOP operative and one of Trump's co-defendants, who said there was a romantic relationship between the pair and that Willis had improperly benefited from that relationship. Although Willis acknowledged she and Wade were romantically involved, she fiercely disputed the claims that the relationship began before she hired him in November 2021. The allegations set off days of fiery testimony which included Willis taking the stand in her own defense. 

Though McAfee's decision allowed Willis and her office to continue prosecuting the case — albeit if Wade withdrew from the team — he chided Willis for what he said is a "tremendous lapse in judgment" and criticized the "unprofessional manner" of her testimony during an evidentiary hearing last month.

Still, he said Georgia law "does not permit the finding of an actual conflict for simply making bad choices — even repeatedly — and it is the trial court's duty to confine itself to the relevant issues and applicable law properly brought before it." McAfee said other sources of authority, such as the State Bar of Georgia, the state Legislature, or Fulton County voters, "may offer feedback on any unanswered questions that linger."

Trump attorney's response

Steve Sadow, Trump's attorney, pledged in a statement to use "all legal options available" to dismiss the case.

"While respecting the court's decision, we believe that the court did not afford appropriate significance to the prosecutorial misconduct of Willis and Wade, including the financial benefits, testifying untruthfully about when their personal relationship began, as well as Willis' extrajudicial MLK 'church speech,' where she played the race card and falsely accused the defendants and their counsel of racism," he said in response to McAfee's decision.

Roman's attorney, Ashleigh Merchant, said she doesn't believe that the remedy suggested by McAfee is "adequate" in response to Willis' conduct, but added that she looks forward to the district attorney's response to his demands.

"While we believe the court should have disqualified Willis' office entirely, this opinion is a vindication that everything put forth by the defense was true, accurate and relevant to the issues surrounding our clients right to a fair trial," Merchant said in a statement. "The judge clearly agreed with the defense that the actions of Willis are a result of her poor judgment and that there is a risk to the future of this case if she doesn't quickly work to cure her conflict."

McAfee ruling rebukes Willis: "An odor of mendacity remains"

The judge found that evidence presented during earlier proceedings showed that "the district attorney's prosecution is encumbered by an appearance of impropriety," and said that even if Willis' relationship with Wade began after his hiring in November 2021, she continued to supervise and pay him while maintaining a romantic relationship.

Willis, the judge said, also allowed the "regular exchange of money between them" without any means of verifying that they split the costs of getaways they took together. 

"This lack of a confirmed financial split creates the possibility and appearance that the district attorney benefited — albeit non-materially — from a contract whose award lay solely within her purview and policing," McAfee wrote. 

He said that if the case were allowed to move forward unchanged, concerns of wrongdoing raised by Trump and his co-defendants would persist. 

McAfee also rebuked Wade for what he said was a "patently unpersuasive explanation for the inaccurate interrogatories" the special prosecutor submitted in divorce proceedings, which the judge said indicated a willingness to "wrongly conceal" his relationship with Willis.

"An outsider could reasonably think that the district attorney is not exercising her independent professional judgment totally free of any compromising influences. As long as Wade remains on the case, this unnecessary perception will persist," McAfee wrote.

The judge found that while he was not able to "conclusively establish" when Wade and Willis' relationship turned romantic, "an odor of mendacity remains." Defense lawyers argued their relationship predated Wade's hiring, and the timeline emerged as a key issue during evidentiary hearings last month.

"Reasonable questions about whether the District Attorney and her hand-selected lead SADA testified untruthfully about the timing of their relationship further underpin the finding of an appearance of impropriety and the need to make proportional efforts to cure it," McAfee wrote.

McAfee finds Trump, co-defendants did not prove conflict of interest

Still, the judge concluded that Trump and his co-defendants fell short of meeting the burden of proving Willis had an actual conflict of interest in the case through her relationship with Wade. He also denied Trump's request to disqualify the district attorney from the prosecution because of "forensic misconduct," based on a speech Willis gave at Atlanta's oldest Black church after her relationship with Wade was brought into public view.

While McAfee said the effect of Willis' speech was to "cast racial aspersions at" Roman's decision to request she be removed, he could not find that her remarks crossed a line to deny Trump and his co-defendants a fair trial or require her disqualification. 

Still, the judge said her speech was "legally improper" and "creates dangerous waters for the District Attorney to wade further into. McAfee suggested it may be time for a gag order preventing prosecutors from speaking publicly about the case.

The bid to disqualify Willis and Wade

McAfee's order came just after he tossed out six counts included in the indictment returned in August, including three against Trump. He left the remainder of the charges intact and said Georgia prosecutors can seek a new indictment supplementing the six counts.

The effort to remove Willis and her office from the prosecution arose in January, when Roman filed a motion that claimed the district attorney had a personal relationship with Wade and financially benefited from it.

Roman's attorneys alleged Willis and Wade became romantically involved before his hiring as a special prosecutor to work on the case involving Trump and said the pair took numerous trips together, which Wade paid for using income he received for his work in Fulton County. The defense attorneys argued the relationship created an impermissible conflict of interest and urged McAfee to disqualify Willis and her office from prosecuting the case, and dismiss the charges altogether.

Willis and Wade acknowledged in a court filing last month that they had a romantic relationship, but said it began in early 2022, months after Wade's appointment.

Roman's bid to kick Willis off the case was swiftly joined by Trump and seven others, and the allegations kicked off a series of extraordinary evidentiary hearings that featured testimony from both Willis and Wade.

During her roughly two hours on the witness stand, Willis forcefully defended herself from accusations she acted improperly and instead accused defense attorneys of intruding into her personal life and deflecting from the charges against their clients.

"You're confused. You think I'm on trial. These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020," Willis told Merchant, Roman's lawyer, during her Feb. 15 testimony. "I'm not on trial, no matter how hard you try to put me on trial."

The district attorney also provided intimate details about her relationship with Wade — which she said ended last August — and their travels and financial dealings.

The timeline of Willis and Wade's relationship emerged as a key focus of the proceedings, as a former longtime friend of the district attorney's testified that the two prosecutors began dating before Wade received his first contract to work on Trump's case. 

Terrence Bradley, Wade's former law partner and divorce attorney who was billed as a "star witness," took the witness stand on three separate occasions and was asked repeatedly about a text message he sent Merchant claiming Willis and Wade's personal relationship began pre-dated Wade's hiring. But Bradley said he was "speculating" about the timing and testified that he had no direct knowledge of when the relationship began.

Willis and Wade, meanwhile, repeatedly stated that while they met for the first time at a judicial conference in 2019, their interactions did not become romantic until early 2022. During the months they dated, the couple took two cruises and visited Aruba, Belize and Napa, California.

Defense attorneys zeroed in on their getaways to argue that Willis had received financial benefits from the relationship, since they said Wade paid for trips, hotel rooms and travel expenses using money he received through his contracts to be special prosecutor in the Trump case.

"If this court allows this kind of behavior to go on and allows D.A.s across the state by its order to engage in these kinds of activities, the entire public confidence in the system will be shot, and the integrity of the system will be undermined," John Merchant, one of Roman's attorneys, said during closing arguments in a March 1 hearing.

But both Willis and Wade stated that they had split the costs associated with their travels, and both also said Willis often reimbursed Wade in cash. Willis testified that her father encouraged her to keep cash on hand to cover several months of expenses, so she often had it available.

The district attorney's father, John Clifford Floyd III, confirmed during his own testimony that he gave his daughter that financial advice and also answered questions about her romantic relationships. Also appearing during the evidentiary hearings was former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, who was Willis' first choice for special prosecutor but declined the offer to work on the case.

Adam Abbate, who works in Willis' office, argued earlier this month that there has been "absolutely no evidence that the district attorney has benefited at all" or would benefit in the future from the prosecution of the case against Trump.

Daniel Klaidman contributed to this report.


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