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Looking into the fallout surrounding Fani Willis

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

After months of speculation and days of at times dramatic testimony, the judge overseeing the Georgia election interference case against Donald Trump has ruled that Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis could stay on the case, but only if lead prosecutor Nathan Wade stepped aside. And this afternoon, Wade did just that, resigning from the position in a letter to the district attorney. Willis was accused of having an improper relationship with Wade, who she hired as an outside counsel to lead the prosecution of the former president. Willis and Wade both admitted to a relationship but denied any wrongdoing.

Now, none of this has anything to do with the 10 counts facing Trump for allegedly attempting to overturn Georgia's 2020 election results, but it does damage the credibility of Willis and the case. Joining us to discuss this is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, as well as WABE political reporter Sam Gringlas. Welcome.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Thanks, Scott.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Hello.

DETROW: So Carrie, let's start with you. Can you explain the judge's ruling and what stood out to you?

JOHNSON: This was a decision from Judge Scott McAfee. He said that lawyers for former President Trump did not meet the burden of proving an actual conflict of interest in this case. But the judge said there's a significant appearance problem here that threatens confidence in the legal system. This is all, of course, about Willis' personal relationship with Wade, which they say ended a while ago. But the judge said that even though that relationship ended, people might wonder, as this case moves along, whether there is some ongoing financial relationship between the two or even whether the romantic relationship has resumed. And as long as Wade remains on the case, that perception is going to persist.

DETROW: So Carrie, on one hand, Willis gets to stay. On the other hand, this ruling was pretty harsh and detailed when it came to characterizing her conduct.

JOHNSON: Scott, there's so much harsh and critical language here. The judge said this was a tremendous lapse in judgment by Willis, that her testimony before him on these matters was unprofessional, that she had made bad choices repeatedly. And he even called into question whether Willis and Wade testified honestly before him about the timing of their relationship. The judge wrote, an odor of mendacity remains about that - really rough stuff. And then he went on to say one of the points Trump's lawyers had made was a speech - about a speech that Willis gave around Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The judge said that was probably improper, too, and he might consider at some later point a gag order.

DETROW: How does losing Wade affect the case? How easy is it to replace a lead prosecutor and keep moving forward?

JOHNSON: My sense is that the bulk of his work was done during the grand jury process, which extended for a long time. Fani Willis and the DA's office have enlisted other experts to handle a lot of the trial matters and to advise on that underlying RICO racketeering statute that's at issue against many of these defendants. So the bulk of Wade's work may already have been done.

DETROW: So Sam, you are not only covering this legal proceeding, you are covering an election in the incredibly important state of Georgia. How has the public reacted to all of this drama surrounding Willis and surrounding the case?

GRINGLAS: So this story has dominated headlines for weeks at this point. And these conversations have been embarrassing and fraught. I mean, they're focusing on sex, divorce, race, gender, money. Add to that a reprimand from the judge, as Carrie mentioned, for a tremendous lapse in judgment. And I've been wondering if all of this could shape how potential jurors see this election case when it gets to trial. I put that question to professor Kreis (ph).

KREIS: People have a very short memory. We are looking at a very late 2024, perhaps even early 2025 trial. There's a lot of daylight between now and the beginning of the trial here in Fulton County.

GRINGLAS: Still, there could be political ramifications for Willis. She is facing reelection this year and has challengers from the left and the right. And while I would be surprised if she doesn't win that election, there will still be a chance for voters to weigh in directly.

DETROW: One of the interesting dynamics all along, though, Sam, was that early on and for a long time as Willis pursued this case, high-profile conservatives in Georgia like Governor Kemp had really sidestepped directly attacking her in a way that Republicans across the country had been doing. And that changed as soon as these allegations came forward and as soon as this case became about her personal life and her personal decisions. How do you think this is playing out going forward for Willis specifically? I mean, among other things, the state Senate has already started a committee to look into what happened here and to look into Willis.

GRINGLAS: Yeah. I mean, Republicans still have a number of avenues to continue investigating and pursuing DA Willis. There's that Senate committee with subpoena power that you mentioned. State Republicans have also just begun to implement a new oversight board with the power to remove elected DAs for misconduct. Republicans in Congress in Washington, D.C., are also trying to investigate the DA. And, of course, these allegations will continue to be fodder for Trump as he runs for reelection. I mean, just last week, Trump was in Georgia mocking Willis and Wade during a rally in north Georgia.

DETROW: And, Carrie, this comes just a few days after the judge dropped six counts against Trump and his co-defendants in this case. Is this case weaker now? Is that a fair thing to say?

JOHNSON: I don't think it necessarily is weaker. The judge left open the possibility that prosecutors could go back, do more work and refile those charges. But, of course, that would contribute to the delay in any trial in this case. The fact remains that the government has former President Trump on tape with Georgia's secretary of state demanding more votes and a number of other bits of evidence, including some cooperation from Trump's one-time lawyer, Jenna Ellis, and others.

DETROW: Carrie, I feel like I'm, like, preemptively hiding behind my computer screen before I ask you this next question. But what does this do to the timeline of this case? My favorite question to ask you.

JOHNSON: Well, the timing becomes the substance after a while when you're talking about a former president and the presumptive Republican nominee to return to the White House. And so Trump's attorney today said he respected Judge McAfee's decision in Georgia, but he left open the possibility they might appeal. And I think certainly between that and the dismissal of some other charges this week, we should expect additional delays in this case. It was already a really sprawling case against, you know, over a dozen defendants. And this thing is not going to trial anytime soon for sure.

DETROW: So Sam, again, you're in Georgia, one of the six or seven states that's going to decide whether or not Donald Trump goes back to the White House. Do you have any sense of how important it is for voters to get resolution in these criminal trials before they go to the polls?

GRINGLAS: So Scott, after Trump was indicted in Fulton County last summer, I spent an afternoon at the farmers market in Alpharetta. It's this wealthy suburb in Fulton County that used to be pretty Republican but has been more fickle in the age of Trump. And while I heard a lot of the partisan divide you might expect on this topic, I also heard from so many people who even doubted back then that there would be a resolution before the 2024 election.

I think it's also important to remember that reporters and the politically active who are really tuned into this story are tuned in in a way that I think most voters aren't yet. That, of course, could change if Trump is on trial as the election heats up later this summer. But, you know, in all the elections I've covered here so far, what happened in 2020 is still very much animating how people are thinking about their vote, whether it's people who still tout false conspiracy claims or people who fear their vote might not count at all should Trump make another attempt to subvert the results here.

DETROW: All right. That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, as well as WABE's Sam Gringlas. Thanks to both of you.

JOHNSON: Happy to do it.

GRINGLAS: Thanks, guys. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
Sam Gringlas
Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.