D.A. Denies Improper Relationship With Special Trump Prosecutor

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A case charging former President Donald J. Trump and his allies with trying to subvert the 2020 election results in Georgia took a detour on Thursday into the details of the prosecutors’ romantic and financial lives — their sleeping arrangements, vacations and private bank accounts — in an unusual and highly contentious hearing.

Lawyers for Mr. Trump and his co-defendants have argued that the Fulton County district attorney, Fani T. Willis, and the special prosecutor she hired to manage the case, Nathan J. Wade, should be disqualified from the case because their romantic and financial entanglements had created a conflict of interest. Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade forcefully rejected those accusations in testimony on Thursday, with Ms. Willis accusing the defense lawyers of spreading “lies.”

“You think I’m on trial,” Ms. Willis told Ashleigh Merchant, a lawyer for Michael Roman, a former Trump campaign official who is a co-defendant in the case. “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.”

The hearing, in Fulton County Superior Court, was a remarkable turn of events, as the prosecutors who have accused Mr. Trump of trying to invalidate election results were grilled by the defense lawyers about the trips they took together, their breakup and who paid for their meals and hotels.

Ms. Willis took the stand after her former friend, Robin Bryant-Yeartie, testified that Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade began a romantic relationship in 2019, before Ms. Willis hired him in November 2021. She said that it continued until she and Ms. Willis last spoke in 2022, just before they had a falling out.

The timeline that Ms. Bryant-Yeartie outlined could be pivotal for the defense’s efforts to derail the case against Mr. Trump and his co-defendants. If the defense can establish that Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade began a romance before he was hired, it would help the argument that they should be disqualified from the case for a conflict of interest.

The defense is arguing Ms. Willis had hired Mr. Wade because they would both benefit financially. Mr. Wade has been paid more than $650,000 since being hired, and defense lawyers say he charged thousands of dollars to his credit cards for vacations with Ms. Willis. She says she reimbursed him in cash for the trips.

Ms. Bryant-Yeartie said she had “no doubt” about the timing of the romantic relationship and had seen “hugging, kissing,” and “just affection” between Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade as early as 2019.

But Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade both testified that their romance began in early 2022, after Ms. Willis had hired him as a special prosecutor, and well after they had first met, at a judicial conference in 2019. Both said that their relationship ended in the summer of 2023, around the same time Mr. Trump and his co-defendants were indicted.

As her testimony started, Ms. Willis said she found it “extremely offensive” that Ms. Merchant had insinuated in court filings that she had slept with Mr. Wade after they met in 2019, calling it one of several inaccuracies in the defense’s motion to disqualify her. “It’s highly offensive when someone lies on you,” she said.

Ms. Willis said she had responded with “choice words” after reading the defense filings. “Mr. Wade is a Southern gentleman — me not so much,” Ms. Willis said.

Her temper sometimes flared while under aggressive questioning about her personal life. When Ms. Merchant suggested that Ms. Willis had lived with Mr. Wade for a time, Ms. Willis shouted “It’s a lie,” prompting the judge, Scott McAfee, to order a short break in the proceedings.

But she also peppered her testimony with folksy observations about relationships. Explaining the timing of her breakup with Mr. Wade, she said men think a relationship ends when sexual relations do, but women don’t consider a relationship to be over until the final “tough conversation.”

She also said that she and Mr. Wade had often fought over her desire to pay her own way. It was wise, she said, for women to keep large sums of cash at home for emergencies and added that she always carried $200 on a date in case it went badly.

“I don’t need anything from a man,” Ms. Willis said. “A man is not a plan — a man is a companion.”

The hearing will continue on Friday with further testimony. Judge McAfee, who is overseeing the Trump case, is holding the hearing to determine if there is evidence of a conflict of interest. He has said that even “the appearance of” a conflict could lead to disqualification. Mr. Trump and other defendants are also seeking to have the cases against them dismissed, although that seems unlikely to happen.

In another Trump case on Thursday, a New York judge rejected Mr. Trump’s bid to throw out criminal charges against him in Manhattan stemming from a hush-money payment to an adult film star. That judge set a trial date of March 25.

Mr. Trump’s allies have tried to exploit the questions surrounding the Georgia prosecutors’ conduct. On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee, led by one of Mr. Trump’s staunchest allies, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, seized on a claim by the defense lawyers that the prosecutors had spent money at a tattoo parlor in Belize.

“What tattoo did Nathan Wade get with Fani Willis while on their vacation to Belize?” the committee wrote on the X platform. “Were your tax dollars used?”

If Mr. Wade and Ms. Willis are disqualified, it could upend or at least delay the case, one of four Mr. Trump is facing as he tries to secure the Republican presidential nomination and is making the charges against him a central element of his campaign.

Another Georgia prosecutor would have to be assigned to handle the sprawling and politically explosive case in the event of disqualification. That prosecutor could continue the case, make changes — such as adding or dropping charges or defendants — or even drop the case altogether.

The allegations of an improper relationship between the prosecutors have no direct bearing on the merits of the case against Mr. Trump and 18 other defendants, who were indicted in August on charges of racketeering and other crimes in connection with a plot to subvert the presidential election results in Georgia and other swing states. Four of the defendants have already pleaded guilty.

To bolster their argument that Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade had a financial interest in the prosecution, lawyers for Mr. Trump and other defendants point to the $650,000 he has been paid and the expensive trips they took. Defense lawyers argue that the money paid to Mr. Wade created an incentive for Ms. Willis to prolong the case.

Ms. Willis, who acknowledged a romantic relationship with Mr. Wade in a filing last week, has said that the costs of their personal travel had been “divided roughly evenly” between her and Mr. Wade, so it did not create a conflict.

Mr. Wade said that Ms. Willis had typically reimbursed him in cash for their travel, so there were no receipts. He called Ms. Willis an “independent strong woman” who insisted that she was “going to pay her own way.” On a trip to California, he said, “everything we did when we got into Napa, she paid for.”

Craig Gillen, a lawyer for David Shafer, the former head of the Georgia Republican Party, who is among the defendants in the case, repeatedly pressed Mr. Wade on his assertion that Ms. Willis had reimbursed him in cash for their trips. He asked Mr. Wade if he had records of cash deposits to his bank account. Mr. Wade said he did not.

Ms. Merchant went through Mr. Wade’s credit card records, questioning him on expenses for trips to Belize, Aruba, the Napa Valley in California and Tennessee.

For her part, Ms. Willis said she had paid Mr. Wade back for tickets and other travel expenses from cash that she kept in her home. It is her practice, she said, to keep enough cash on hand to cover six months of expenses, a rule her father had taught her. She added that she had never given Mr. Wade more than $2,500 at a time to reimburse him for their trips together.

“I don’t need anybody to foot my bills,” Ms. Willis said. “The only man who’s ever foot my bills completely is my daddy.”

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