Could Fani Willis’s Faltering Prosecution of Donald Trump Disqualify Her From Her Case and Cost Her Re-Election?

The district attorney’s case against the 45th president looks to be on the rocks — as the prosecutor campaigns to keep her job.

AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks during an Associated Press interview on Tuesday, December 12, 2023, at Atlanta. AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File

The prosecution, by District Attorney Fani Willis, of President Trump and 18 others on racketeering and other felony charges once had all the makings of an election year triumph at the Democratic stronghold of Fulton County, which comprises Atlanta’s downtown — where crime, though down, is a major issue. 

Now, though, with her Democratic Party primary just a week away, the increasingly thorny case could act as an albatross. In Ms. Willis’s own party, Christian Wise Smith is mounting a challenge from the left, after losing to Ms. Willis in 2020. Also running in a separate primary is a Republican, Courtney Kramer.

All the while Ms. Willis must persuade the Georgia Court of Appeals to uphold Judge Scott McAfee — also up for election — allowing her to stay on the case. Mr. Trump, who like Ms. Willis and Judge McAfee is also running for office, argues that Ms. Willis’s romantic relationship with her special prosecutor, Nathan Wade, and public comments accusing her defendants of racism are sufficient bases for disqualification.

Ms. Willis hired Mr. Wade to try one of the most anticipated cases in American history even though he had never prosecuted a felony. Billing records disclose that Ms. Willis’s office paid Mr. Wade more than $650,000, even as the two traveled together to destinations like Aruba, Belize, and Napa Valley. She maintains that their romance blossomed only after she’d hired Mr. Wade and that she reimbursed Mr. Wade for some of the expenses with cash she kept at home. Testifying under oath, her father described that as “a Black thing.”

Judge McAfee ruled that Ms. Willis’s behavior amounted to a “significant appearance of impropriety” and that her rhetoric regarding the case was “legally improper.” He also detected an “odor of mendacity” around her claims of the romance’s timeline. Cellular phone data indicates a voluminous correspondence that predates Mr. Wade’s hiring.  

Ms. Willis’s rhetoric surrounding the case — she accused, at Big Bethel AME Church, her defendants of “playing the race card” and of criticizing Mr. Wade because he is a “Black man,” among other aspersions — could display a willingness to win votes at the expense of drawing judicial ire. Mr. Trump has accused her of “forensic misconduct,” meaning efforts to poison the jury pool with her racially charged rhetoric. 

That jury pool will be drawn from Fulton County. The last Census discloses that it is a majority-minority district, with more than 60 percent of voters identifying as non-white. In the last presidential election, President Biden won 73 percent of the vote at Fulton County, suggesting a jury that could be hostile to Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump narrowly lost Georgia in 2020, and Ms. Willis’s charges relate to his effort to overturn those results. Much of Joe Biden’s victory is attributed to high Black voter turnout in places like Fulton County, which offset his overwhelming support in the Atlanta suburbs in counties represented by the likes of Representative Majorie Taylor Greene.       

Ms. Willis’s opponent, Mr. Wise Smith, whose website describes him as “living proof that an individual can change his or her path and create a positive future for themselves and their families,” spent time as a prosecutor. In announcing his run, he took to X to declare: “Voters deserve a choice. I’m running to be that option to change the face of the justice system in Fulton County.” 

The challenger’s path, though, appears arduous. A poll conducted last month and reported by an Atlanta news station, WAGA, found that Ms. Willis is outpacing him by a margin of 79 percent to 9 percent among likely Democratic voters. Mr. Wise Smith took to CNN to opine that “it is unfortunate that Ms. Willis’s personal life has become so public,” and speaks of wanting Atlanta to be a model for criminal justice, just as it is for “movies and hip hop.”

Mr. Wise Smith, though, also told CNN that the case against Mr. Trump “is in grave jeopardy right now. I’m not dropping it if it’s there when I get there, but we are going to look at the best way to go forward with it.” He admits, “Some folks were worried that me jumping in the race, you know, might mean we lose that case.” 

When Mr. Trump was arraigned last August, he announced that Ms. Willis is “overseeing one of the greatest murder and violent crime DISASTERS in American History.” Data supplied by the Atlanta Police Department, though, disclose that violent crime — comprising homicides, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults — decreased 9 percent between 2021 and 2022, the district attorney’s first year in office.  

Ms. Kramer, a lawyer now in private practice who worked as a legal consultant for Mr. Trump’s litigation team, writes on X, “It is time to restore integrity & accountability back into Fulton to ensure that no elected official, lawyer, or District Attorney is above the Rule of Law. Let’s do this.” She adds the hashtag “#FireFani.”

Ms. Willis, at a recent campaign event, declared, “Ain’t no one above the law,” and said she does not care ”how rich you are, how powerful you think you are, who your daddy is, what your political party might be, how much money you think you got and how evil your supporters are.” She understands herself to have done “God’s work” in her position, even if she loses this spring or fall.  

Ms. Kramer, Ms. Willis, and Mr. Wise Smith did not return requests for comment by press time. 


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