Salacious Willis Hearing Gives Trump the Ammunition He Seeks

Salacious Willis Hearing Gives Trump the Ammunition He Seeks

Six months ago, Fani Willis posed one of the greatest threats to Donald Trump. The Fulton County District Attorney indicted Trump in August in a sprawling criminal case alleging he conspired to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results. Now, she may have handed the former President a startling campaign gift.

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That much was clear during a hearing on Thursday over Willis’s romance with Nathan Wade, the special prosecutor she hired to oversee the election interference case. Lawyers for Trump’s co-defendants allege she financially benefited from his appointment; Wade has earned $650,000 for his role, some of which he spent on vacations with Willis. A friend and former colleague of Willis testified that her relationship with Wade began before she hired him, contradicting both of their previous statements. 

Defense attorneys are seeking to disqualify Willis and her entire office from the case. If they succeed, it would upend the Georgia prosecutions against Trump and his associates. But even if Judge Scott McAfee allows Willis to stay on the high-stakes case, Thursday’s salacious proceedings, which delved into intimate details of Willis’s and Wade’s personal lives and finances, have already given Trump fresh ammunition to try to delegitimize all of the criminal charges against him.

Over the course of the daylong hearing, lawyers for Trump and his allies turned the tables on their adversary. As cable news programs ran the hearing live, the focus was no longer on Trump’s efforts to block the transfer of power. It was on how much cash Willis keeps in her house, the dissolution of Wade’s marriage, and the exact month in which the two lawyers stopped being physically intimate.

The spectacle immediately became grist for Trump to discredit the case that legal scholars have called one of the most damning against him. “IT’S A GAME CHANGER,” Trump posted on his social media platform Truth Social, along with multiple clips from the hearing.

Read More: Trump’s First Criminal Trial Set to Begin on March 25 in New York

The former President has already turned his unprecedented legal peril into political advantage. Last year, as Trump accumulated 91 criminal charges in four separate jurisdictions, he soared in the polls and raised millions in donations. With each indictment, he framed his prosecutions as a politically motivated attack on his supporters. But that was an easier sell in the primary. As Trump transitions to the general election, he will try to make that argument with moderate voters and not just the GOP faithful. Willis’s removal over a conflict-of-interest ruling could amount to something of an in-kind campaign contribution.

In her spirited testimony from the witness stand, Willis insisted she committed no wrongdoing and accused the defense attorneys of lying about her past. “I’m not on trial no matter how hard you try to put me on trial,” she told one of the lawyers grilling her.  

If the Georgia judge were to disqualify Willis and her office from the case, the path ahead becomes unclear. A state council headed by a Republican would be tasked with finding another prosecutor to take up the case. That would be a cumbersome and politically-complicated process, with no guarantees that the prosecution would move forward. Few prosecutors’ offices in Georgia have the capacity to try a complex racketeering case with 15 defendants including a former President and White House chief of staff. It would also be hard to hire private counsel. Georgia would only be able to pay private lawyers $70 an hour, according to the New York Times. 

The Willis case was always unlikely to make it to trial before election. But it also didn’t need a speedy resolution, former prosecutors say, because there’s little threat of Trump ending the case if he returns to the White House. Presidents are unable to exert any authority over state prosecutors. It’s a different story for the federal prosecutions against Trump on election subversion and mishandling classified documents: Trump could try to pardon himself or direct his attorney general to quash the cases altogether. 

But Willis’s removal would be a boon to Trump, who has crafted a presidential campaign around his confrontation with the American judicial system and his theme of comeuppance. It would surprise no one if Trump uses Willis’s censure to not only try to exculpate himself but wage war on the institutions of government. 

Most of the polls currently have Trump neck and neck against President Joe Biden, with Trump leading in some key battleground states. One of Trump’s biggest vulnerabilities, the surveys show, is his legal trouble. A Bloomberg News/Morning Consult poll found that 53% of voters in swing states would not vote for Trump if convicted of a crime. If that happens before the election, it’s likely to take place in Manhattan, where Trump faces felony charges for falsifying business records to conceal hush money payments to a porn star during the 2016 election. A New York judge on Thursday set the trial date for March 25.

The other case that could go to trial before November is Special Counsel Jack Smith’s prosecution against Trump for trying to overturn Biden’s election victory.. Smith’s indictment was much narrower than the Georgia one, pursuing only four charges against Trump. Legal experts have said that Smith likely estimated that was the quickest way he could the case trial before the election. 

That left room for Willis to pursue a more expansive case targeting not only Trump but his band of co-conspirators including Rudy Guiliani, Mark Meadows, and John Eastman. In some ways, former prosecutors say, the two cases complemented each other well. But now, Willis’s momentous legal swing at Trump risks becoming his political gain. 

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