For over a year now, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has quietly but surely been guiding her prosecution of former President Donald Trump right towards the shoals. These past few weeks, the wind has picked up, Willis has unfurled the sails, and she now threatens to run the whole case aground. It’s already ugly down in Georgia and it’s about to get worse.
The DA’s racketeering indictment landed in August 2023 to wild fanfare. Willis hailed her case as the salvation of democracy itself. One media outlet gushed in an op-ed about the DA’s “ingenuous” prosecutorial tactics while another hyperventilated over “Fani Willis’s grand slam indictment.” Turns out, it’s easier for a prosecutor to write the check than to cash it. Anyone can draft a glitzy indictment and get a grand jury to sign off. But six months later – on the merits alone, before we even get to the roiling scandals – the DA’s case has been a dud.
To date, the DA has handed out four embarrassingly cheap, no-prison plea deals. (So much for those grand RICO charges.) Don’t fall for the cover story that these defendants got softball deals because they’re “cooperating.” As long as Sidney Powell continues to claim the 2020 election was stolen and Kenneth Chesebro maintains that Trump was within his legal rights to submit false slates of electors, then they’re defense witnesses, if anything. And, while Willis started her investigation first among the Trump-pursuing prosecutors, she charged last and now is the only one with no set trial date. If you’re counting on a Trump conviction before the 2024 election, look elsewhere.
And now we’ve got a whole mess of extracurriculars that threaten to derail the case before it ever reaches a jury. You’re probably familiar by now with the broad strokes of the recent defense allegations about Willis’s personal relationship with Nathan Wade. Willis allegedly picked Wade to lead the Trump prosecution despite his screaming lack of relevant professional experience; the DA’s office paid Wade exorbitantly; and then he paid for lavish personal recreation for himself and Willis.
Even before the burgeoning Wade scandal, Willis had displayed shoddy prosecutorial judgment. In July 2022, the DA got herself disqualified from a piece of the case because of a flagrant political conflict of interest; she subpoenaed Georgia Republican Burt Jones, who was then running for Lieutenant Governor, and then headlined a fundraiser for his Democratic electoral opponent. That same month, Willis used her subpoena of Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham to solicit online donations for her political campaign. (Subpoenas are meant to gather evidence, not political cash.) And Willis made improper extrajudicial (outside of court) comments throughout her pre-indictment media hype tour; at one point, she opined publicly that Trump had acted with criminal intent – the pivotal issue before the grand jury, which had not yet voted.
Now we’ve got the new allegations relating to Wade. There’s much yet to be determined, but the known facts raise serious questions.
First: Why did Willis hire Wade to lead the Trump case? Rather than picking any of the dozens of deeply experienced trial prosecutors within the Fulton County DA’s office, Willis instead hired Wade and two other outsiders. This happens sometimes if the prosecutor’s office doesn’t have the right people to handle the case, or needs some specific expertise. But Wade is conspicuously underqualified for this particular assignment. According to his own website, he has primarily practiced personal injury and family law. Well, his defenders note, the man was a judge and a prosecutor. With all due respect: not really, or not in any way that would prepare him for the task at hand. Wade held those titles only at the municipal level, handling petty misdemeanors or less. He has never – repeat, never – tried a single felony criminal case. Yet Willis selects him to lead the single most complex and important racketeering case in Georgia history? Something’s up.
Question two: Why has Wade been paid so much money? Like the other two outside attorneys working the Trump case, Wade earns a set hourly rate of $250. Over the past two years, the other contract lawyers have billed the DA for about $73,000 and $90,000, respectively. Now let’s do a little exercise. What dollar amount, if paid to Wade, would cause you to gasp? Got your number? Ok.
The answer: over $653,000. (Yes, the decimal point is in the right place there.) Perhaps Wade has worked more hours than his colleagues have – but seven to nine times more? Willis herself, as the top prosecutor in the county, makes about $198,000 annually – but Wade brings down over $300,000 per year? Wade once billed the DA’s office for 24 hours in a single day in November 2021. If he actually did work around the clock without pause for sleep, food, or the bathroom, my hat’s off to him. If not, then somebody’s bilking the taxpayers.
Which leads to our final question: How much of Wade’s income has been spent on Willis? We don’t know the exact nature of the relationship here; Trump and others allege it’s romantic, and neither Willis nor Wade have denied it. They allegedly traveled together, on Wade’s dime, to Napa Valley, Florida, and the Caribbean, and on both Norwegian and Royal cruise lines. Whatever the specifics of the relationship, the problem here is that Wade has used public funds paid to him by the DA’s office to pick up the tab for personal expenses for himself and Willis.
After these allegations surfaced, Willis somehow made it worse still. Prosecutors love to proclaim that “We do our talking in court” (preferably accompanied by a dramatic lowering of the sunglasses over the eyes). This is more than a catchphrase. It’s an affirmation of the core duty to protect the defendant’s liberty interests and the integrity of our criminal process. Indeed, under the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct (and pretty much every other professional code), prosecutors must “refrain from making extrajudicial comments that have a substantial likelihood of heightening public condemnation of the accused.”
Yet Willis did just that. Days after Trump’s co-defendant filed the motion relating to Wade, Willis responded not in a court filing – but in a speech from the pulpit of a historic Black church, on Martin Luther King day, with the cameras rolling. Willis told the assembled congregation (and the general public) that the defendants had raised allegations about Wade – criminal defendants are entitled to make motions, by the way – because of Wade’s race.
These public comments by the District Attorney are anathema to prosecutorial ethics and fair practice. Willis, who is enormously popular in Fulton County – she received over 71% of the Democratic primary vote in 2020, and then was unopposed in the general election – publicly calls the defense teams in her highest -profile case racist. What could outrage a potential jury pool more than that? Various judges have slapped pretrial gag orders on Trump, in his other cases, to prevent him from making inflammatory public statements outside of court that could prejudice the jury pool. Now Willis has done exactly that.
Judge Scott McAfee has set a hearing for February 15, and we’ll see the live feed from the courtroom. At a minimum, this will wind up as an embarrassing episode that raises serious questions about Willis’s professional judgment. The issue could well force the disqualification of Wade, or Willis, or both, from the Trump case. And, depending on how the judge views Willis’s church speech, the case itself could be jeopardized.
Despite her claim at the church that she’s “being treated cruelly,” the District Attorney is no victim here. Willis is not some civilian plucked out of obscurity and targeted for sport. She chose to run for office as Fulton County DA, and now she holds almost unimaginable clout; she controls tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, and she holds the awesome power to strip individuals of their personal liberty. If the District Attorney wields the power of her office to do favors for her friends, to enrich herself, and to undermine the constitutional rights of her charged defendants, then she has earned the consequences.