Attorney who sought to remove Willis from Trump case: I had no choice but to act

In an interview, Ashleigh Merchant said she had duty to client

Metro Atlanta defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant dropped the legal equivalent of a bomb in early January when she accused Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis of being in an “improper, clandestine personal relationship” with her top prosecutor on the election interference case.

Merchant’s court motion, which alleged Willis had a financial conflict of interest, all but sidelined the case against former President Donald Trump and 14 others for more than two months. While Fulton Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee ultimately decided that Willis could stay on the case, his ruling prompted the resignation of special prosecutor Nathan Wade and featured damning conclusions about the DA’s judgment and unsettling questions about her veracity.

Merchant’s driving role in the disqualification saga has also led to a deluge of criticism from both Fulton prosecutors and Willis supporters. Some have labeled her a racist and a liar, others a tool of Trump and the GOP. Some critics accused her of engaging in sleazy tactics to distract from the importance of the underlying case.

But in an interview with Breakdown, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s award-winning podcast, Merchant insisted that neither Trump nor her client, the GOP operative Michael Roman, had any role in her research that led to the motion. And she shed light on her motivations behind the disqualification effort.

“I didn’t feel like I had a lot of choice,” Merchant said. “What if I don’t file it and my client gets convicted and he goes to prison? First of all, I have to be okay with that... But second of all, I have to be on the witness stand one day in a habeas (corpus hearing) explaining why I had this document that had legal merit and I didn’t file it.”

Merchant said that being fearful about her professional reputation, relationships or personal attacks was “not a good enough answer” when it came to her constitutional duty of fighting for her client.

Listen to the full interview on Breakdown. Here are some highlights:

On her thoughts as she filed her January 8 motion to disqualify Willis:

“I knew that I had to file something by January 8th (the deadline for pre-trial motions). In a perfect world, I probably would have waited longer and gotten more information, but one of the things about criminal defense is we have subpoena power, but only when we have a court date. So I’m trying to get all this evidence and information by talking to witnesses who did not necessarily want to help me because they thought helping me would help President Trump, and they didn’t want to do that. And so a lot of the witnesses were like, ‘I don’t wanna help your side. I’ll testify if I’m subpoenaed, but I don’t wanna talk to you voluntarily.’ So I knew I needed that subpoena power. I knew I needed that evidentiary hearing in order to actually get on the record that evidence. A lot of businesses, they’ll give us documents, but they’re only gonna give them once we have a subpoena. So having that evidentiary hearing was really important.

“It was really difficult to file it. I sat in the same chair I’m sitting in now the day of the deadline and my paralegal was sitting in the chair right across from me and kept saying, ‘are you ready to file? Are you ready to file?’ And I was like, not yet, not yet, not yet. It’s a lot to file and it’s a lot to have out there and to hit the send button.”

On finding out about Willis and Wade’s relationship:

“I was friends with both of them. I mean, when I first walked in to negotiate (Roman’s) bond back in September, I hugged both of them. And it was not a fake hug. I can tell you, mostly it was disappointment. Disappointed that this happened, shocked that it happened, surprised. This is one of the cases where you would be extra cautious. And so it surprised me. I didn’t really understand the need for it either because Ms. Willis has some great lawyers on this case. She’s got great lawyers that work for her. She has the ability to hire great lawyers. There’s a lot of really good prosecutors in this state. And I didn’t really understand why this was something that was needed. Why do you need to bring someone in from the outside to manage this case, particularly someone who didn’t have any of the relevant experience? And that just sort of supported my belief that there was something improper about this.

“ ... Plus, when you look at the bills, the bills were quite frankly shocking. I don’t usually bill time, but when I have billed time, it’s always for a government entity, and we always have to bill in either six or 10 minute increments. And most of the time, if I bill for drafting, I have to attach what I drafted to prove that. We had a ton of time things that said draft, but we haven’t seen a single document that Nathan Wade drafted.”

(The DA’s office acknowledged the romantic relationship between Willis and Wade, which it said began in spring 2022 and ended around summer 2023. It said there was nothing improper about the relationship and that it began after Wade had started working on the case.

Wade had been paid more than $728,000 for his work on the prosecution, according to county documents. He received $250 an hour for his work, and his monthly income from the case was capped under the terms of his contract. Many of his invoices included large time blocks, including eight and even 24-hour increments, and were vague about what exactly Wade had worked on. Wade said he later tweaked his reporting to add more detail.)

On pushback from the DA’s office, both in court filings and at last month’s evidentiary hearing:

“I don’t think I’ve ever been called a liar so many times in my life. And it’s frustrating because I had spent so much time trying to corroborate everything. Particularly the fact that nobody knew (about the relationship), I filed it and then they admitted to 99% of it. So I’m being called a liar when 99% of it is not even in dispute. Literally, there’s only one tiny little bit that’s in dispute as to —and I didn’t even think that mattered that much, the part that was in dispute. When the relationship started and whether or not they had co-habitated, those seem to be the overwhelming lies, quote unquote, that I told.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis testifies during a hearing in the case of the State of Georgia v. Donald John Trump at the Fulton County Courthouse on Feb. 15, 2024, in Atlanta. (Alyssa Pointer/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

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“And a lot of that just comes down to what do you call cohabitation? To me, it’s if you share a bed. But I think that a lot of the liar phrases that I was called focused on that term.... And then when did the relationship start? I didn’t know that was gonna be such a point of contention. I alleged when I believe the relationship started based on what the two witnesses that told me. That was not something that I thought we were gonna go to the mat on.

“ ... I think that the attacks about lack of candor have been the worst because the one thing I have is my reputation.... I’ve always said this, I pride myself when I go into court, I wanna know the case file better than anybody, and if I don’t know a fact, I’m gonna tell you I don’t know it.... And so for people to say that I was making stuff up, or lying or not having candor with the court, that was difficult because it’s not about me and it’s not about my candor and it shouldn’t be, but it sort of shifted to that very, very quickly.”

(Willis and her allies had accused Merchant of lying about Willis and Wade cohabitating together, when the DA’s intimate relationship with Wade began, Willis’ daughter’s college attendance and whether Bradley could impeach Willis and her employees, among other issues.)

On Terrence Bradley’s testimony, which ended up largely being a bust for the defense:

“That was really disappointing because when we are prepping witnesses to take the stand, we just tell them to tell the truth. I wish I had known early on that he was claiming some of this was privilege. That would have definitely guided my investigation differently. I had never heard that, that any of the source of this information was privileged until he hired a lawyer and until Mr. Wade called his friend and mentioned — that was the first time I heard the term privilege out of Mr. Bradley’s mouth.... So that took me aback, but then immediately I realized, okay, that’s sort of the angle that they’re going to go after to try to keep him from testifying. And it was really one of those situations where it’s like, what all can they possibly do to try to keep people from testifying? I mean, you saw every single motion, every single subpoena had a motion to quash.

Witness and attorney Terrence Bradley testifies during a hearing in the case of the State of Georgia v. Donald John Trump at the Fulton County Courthouse on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024, in Atlanta. (Brynn Anderson/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

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“ ... It’s hard when someone tells you to your face something and then they say something different in court because you know one time it wasn’t the truth. It was either not the truth what you were telling me when you weren’t on the stand and the world was watching or it’s not the truth now that you’re testifying.... I believe because of all the contextual details he gave me early on when he wasn’t under pressure that he was being truthful then. So having him say those things on the stand definitely was upsetting. I just wanted the truth to come out, really.”

Hear more from Merchant’s interview on the latest episode of Breakdown Season 10: The Trump Indictment.