Judge rules Fani Willis can either step down or Nathan Wade can step aside in Trump case

ATLANTA — The judge overseeing the Georgia election interference case has ruled that Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis can step away from the case or special prosecutor Nathan Wade can step aside.

On Friday afternoon, Wade announced that he would step down from the case.

In the ruling, Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee said, “The prosecution of this case cannot proceed until the State selects 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. See O.C.G.A. § 15-18-5. 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.”

Lawyers for former President Donald Trump and other defendants alleged Willis paid special prosecutor Nathan Wade large sums for his work and then improperly benefited when he paid for vacations for the two of them.

Willis and Wade’s relationship first came to light in a motion filed by an attorney for Trump co-defendant Michael Roman that sought to have the indictment dismissed and to bar Willis and Wade and their offices from continuing to prosecute the case.

“The established record now highlights a significant appearance of impropriety that infects the current structure of the prosecution team - an appearance that must be removed through the State’s selection of one of two options. The defendants’ motions are therefore granted in part,” the ruling said. “The appearance standard recognizes that even when no actual conflict exists, a perceived conflict in the reasonable eyes of the public threatens confidence in the legal system itself. When this danger goes uncorrected, it undermines the legitimacy and moral force of our already weakest branch of government.”

After the ruling, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens released a statement, saying he was glad the case was moving forward.

“Now, DA Willis and her team can get back to the matter at hand—prosecuting Donald Trump and those involved in a concerted effort to steal an election. These people need to know that they cannot come to our state and overturn the will of the people, and voters in Atlanta and Georgia deserve to see justice served.”

Throughout the last few months, Willis and Wade have acknowledged the relationship, which they said ended last summer, but they have argued it does not create any sort of conflict and has no bearing on the case. The pair said they didn’t begin dating until the spring of 2022, after Wade was hired, and that they split travel expenses.

“With seemingly full access to Wade’s Primary credit card statements, the defendants did not produce evidence of any further documentable expenses or gifts, nor were any revealed through testimony,” the ruling said. “After considering all the circumstances, the court finds that the evidence did not establish the District Attorney’s receipt of material financial benefit as a result of her decision to hire and engage in a romantic relationship with Wade.”


Since the relationship was revealed in early January, the subject dominating the court’s time and the public’s attention has not been the crimes prosecutors allege Trump and his allies committed while trying to overturn the election, but rather the intimate details of Willis and Wade’s relationship.

The hearings have at times wandered into surreal territory: Atlanta’s mayor watching from the gallery as a former Georgia governor testified, Willis’ father talking about keeping stashes of cash around the house and details of romantic getaways.

McAfee heard details of Willis and Wade’s personal lives and conflicting accounts of when they started dating. In his ruling, McAfee said while there was not sufficient evidence to show Willis benefited from the relationship, he did question her judgment.

“This finding is by no means an indication that the court condones this tremendous lapse in judgment or the unprofessional manner of the district attorney’s testimony during the evidentiary hearing,” the ruling said.

Channel 2 Action News has received a statement from Trump’s Georgia attorney, Steve Sadow, saying:

“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. We will use all legal options available as we continue to fight to end this case, which should never have been brought in the first place.”

Ashleigh Merchant, who first made the accusations surrounding Willis and Wade’s relationship, said despite the case not being thrown out, McAfee’s ruling was “vindication.”

“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 client’s right to a fair trial. 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.

“While we do not agree that the courts suggested cure is adequate in response to the egregious conduct by the district attorney, we look forward to the district attorney’s response to the demands by the court. We will continue to fight for our client.”

Attorney Chris Anulewicz, who represents defendant Robert Cheeley, also sent us a statement, saying:

“The Court correctly found that an appearance of impropriety and a pall exists over this case requiring the recusal of either the District Attorney or Mr. Wade. We believe the finding of impropriety requires the disqualification of the entire prosecution team and are assessing next steps.”

In an exclusive interview with Channel 2 investigative reporter Mark Winne, McAfee spoke about the gravity of making this ruling.

“The message I want to convey is no ruling of mine is ever going to be based on politics. I’m going to be following the law the best I understand it,” McAfee said.

So far, there has been no word from the DA’s office over what they have decided about how to move forward following Friday’s ruling.

If Willis and her office were disqualified, a nonpartisan council supporting prosecuting attorneys in Georgia would have been tasked with finding a new attorney to take over. That person could either proceed with some or all of the charges against Trump and others, or drop the case altogether.

Even if a new lawyer moved forward on the path charted by Willis, the inevitable delay would seem likely to lessen the probability of the case getting to trial before November’s presidential election when Trump is expected to be the Republican nominee.

A Fulton County grand jury indicted Trump and 18 others in August on charges related to efforts to keep the Republican incumbent in power even though he lost the 2020 election to Democrat Joe Biden. Four people have pleaded guilty after reaching deals with prosecutors, while Trump and 14 others have pleaded not guilty.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.