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Judge says either DA Fani Willis or prosecutor Nathan Wade must step aside in Georgia election case

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(ATLANTA) — The judge overseeing the Georgia election interference case against former President Donald Trump and his co-defendants has declined to outright disqualify Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, but ruled that either she or prosecutor Nathan Wade must step aside from the case.

In a 23-page ruling, Judge Scott McAfee wrote that while “dismissal of the indictment is not the appropriate remedy,” he concluded that “the established record now highlights a significant appearance of impropriety that infects the current structure of the prosecution team.”

McAfee ordered that the conflict described by the defendants presents “an appearance that must be removed through the State’s selection of one of two options.”

“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.

“Alternatively, SADA 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.”

The highly anticipated ruling follows a contentious, monthslong disqualification effort spearheaded by Trump and his co-defendants over allegations of misconduct against Willis, which she has fiercely denied.

Trump co-defendant Michael Roman and several other defendants first sought Willis’ disqualification from the election case over allegations that she benefited financially from her romantic relationship with prosecutor Nathan Wade, who she hired for the case, through vacations they took that were often booked on his credit card.

Willis and Wade admitted to the relationship, but said it “does not amount to a disqualifying conflict of interest” and that the relationship “has never involved direct or indirect financial benefit to District Attorney Willis.” The DA testified that she often paid Wade back in cash for trips they took.

Fulton County Judge Scott McAfee held several days of hearings to probe the allegations, during which both Willis and Wade took the stand to deliver emotional testimony.

“You’re confused. You think I’m on trial,” Willis said to Ashleigh Merchant, the defense attorney questioning her. “These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020.”

“I’m not on trial, no matter how hard you try to put me on trial,” Willis said.

Outside of allegations of financial misconduct, a debate later emerged over the exact timeline of their romantic relationship. Trump’s attorney said both Willis and Wade were “not truthful” when they testified that the relationship began in 2022, after Wade was hired in 2021, urging the judge to disqualify them based on that testimony alone.

“Now, do you have to find that Wade and Willis lied? No,” said Trump’s attorney, Steve Sadow, during his closing argument in the evidentiary hearing. “What you need to be able to find is that that is a concern, a legitimate concern, based on the evidence in this case about their truthfulness.”

“A legitimate concern about the truthfulness, which equates to an appearance of impropriety,” Sadow said.

Multiple defendants have alleged the relationship began before Wade was hired, including a former employee in the DA’s office, Robin Yeartie.

Trump also accused Willis of committing forensic misconduct by “testifying falsely,” and through statements she made at a church responding to the allegations. During those live-streamed remarks, Willis suggested the allegations were motivated by race.

Willis’ office dismissed the defendants’ overall disqualification efforts as “absurd” and said there was “absolutely no evidence that [Willis] received any financial gain or benefit.” They insisted that in order to disqualify her, the law requires the judge to find evidence of a conflict of interest or forensic misconduct.

“No prosecutor in this state has ever been disqualified on the appearance of a conflict,” a filing from her office after the hearings stated.

The defendants had argued differently, saying Willis could be dismissed based solely on the appearance of a conflict of interest.

“While the State claims that no prosecutor has ever been disqualified in Georgia for forensic misconduct, no prosecutor in Georgia, elected or otherwise, has engaged in misconduct like Willis and Wade have here,” Sadow said in a filing.

“I want to make clear to the court that the law in Georgia suggests and is very clear that we can demonstrate an appearance of a conflict of interest and that is sufficient,” said defense attorney John Merchant, who represents Roman.

Trump and 18 others pleaded not guilty last August to all charges in a sweeping racketeering indictment for alleged efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in the state of Georgia.

Defendants Kenneth Chesebro, Sidney Powell, Jenna Ellis and Scott Hall subsequently took plea deals in exchange for agreeing to testify against other defendants.

The former president has dismissed the district attorney’s investigation as being politically motivated.

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