Opinion: Trump case in Fulton is litmus test for integrity of democracy

We have arrived at a critical juncture in the intricate tangle of legal battles and political maneuvers surrounding the election interference case against Donald Trump and his co-conspirators in Fulton County. The attempt to disqualify District Attorney Fani Willis has failed — exposing the defendants’ broader strategy of distraction and delay. The next chapter of this saga offers an undeniable truth: it’s time for this case to move forward to trial.

After exhaustive legal briefing and hearings, Judge McAfee’s decision was clear. The relationship between DA Willis and Special Prosecutor Nathan Wade does not meet the legal threshold to disqualify Willis from her prosecutorial duties. His decision came after a rigorous examination of facts and evidence, underscoring the resilience of our legal system in the face of the Trump team’s attempts to undermine it.

Richard W. Painter

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

The defense strategy relies on diversion over substance. The allegations against DA Willis were a smokescreen — an obvious attempt to obfuscate the core issues at stake and delay facing a jury for one of the most serious criminal conspiracies alleged in American history. That was apparent from the defense team’s behavior during the hearings. They threw every accusation they could think of at the DA. Judge McAfee correctly decided they failed to make the case Willis had a legally disqualifying conflict of interest.

Norman Eisen

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

Judge McAfee’s ruling to allow the case to proceed with Willis overseeing the prosecution, contingent on Wade’s resignation — a condition swiftly met — signals potential for a return to the substance of this case: the pursuit of justice for Trump and his allies’ scheme to steal the 2020 election.

Today, McAfee accepted team Trump’s request for an immediate appeal of the decision not to disqualify Willis, with the caveat that pretrial proceedings can continue, allowing the case to continue forward. This was the responsible decision – it allows the case to proceed and ensures other judges will consider the validity of his ruling not to disqualify the DA. The Georgia Court of Appeals should deny to take up Trump’s appeal, but if they do, they should follow Judge McAfee’s lead and ensure that pre-trial proceedings can continue undelayed.

It’s imperative to recognize the gravity of what’s at stake here and to reject the legally baseless attempt to delay further. The allegations of attempted election overthrow transcend the individuals involved and go to the foundations of American democracy and the rule of law. The conduct charged aimed at the heart of our electoral process, the voters’ choices, upon which rests the legitimacy of our democratic institutions.

We all heard the recorded call of Trump pressuring Georgia Secretary of State Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes” that did not exist. That is more than evidence in this case; it’s a stark reminder of the fragility of our democracy and the importance of vigilance in seeking timely accountability for those that seek to undermine it.

Because there were no legal grounds for Willis’ disqualification and none of Trump’s delay tactics can change that tape or the mountain evidence of alleged election interference, this case must move forward to trial so a jury of Trump’s peers can adjudicate the criminally charged scheme to invalidate Georgians’ votes and steal the 2020 election.

Repudiating continued delay here has importance far beyond the state, because the tactics employed by Trump and his allies are not unique to this case but part of a pattern of behavior that seeks to undermine our legal and democratic processes. By his constant stalling, attacking public servants and deflection and distraction, Trump leads a concerted effort to erode trust in the institutions designed to hold power to account.

Judge McAfee’s decision to reject Willis’ disqualification and open a path for the case to proceed to trial is a beacon of accountability. That follows from the principle that our laws must be applied equally to everyone, a tenet that lies at the core of American values.

As a RICO expert and a district attorney committed to her electorate, DA Willis has both the opportunity and the obligation to pursue this case with vigor. The guilty pleas already obtained from four individuals involved in the alleged election overturn scheme underscore the strength of the case at hand and the imperative of justice.

As we stand on the precipice of one of the most important trials in American history, the time for distraction and procrastination is over. The pursuit of truth and accountability must take center stage. The path forward is clear: a speedy trial scheduled for 2024 that reveals the truth for all Americans to see and signals to the public that our laws apply equally to everyone, even former presidents.

The case against Donald Trump and his co-conspirators in Fulton County represents more than a legal proceeding: it’s a litmus test for the integrity of our democracy and the resilience of our justice system.

Richard Painter is a law professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and the former chief White House ethics lawyer for former president George W. Bush’s administration.

Ambassador Norman Eisen (ret.) served as special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee majority during the first impeachment and trial of President Trump. From 2009 to 2011, Eisen worked in the White House as special counsel and special assistant to the president for ethics and government reform.