Nathan Wade resigns, allowing Fulton DA Fani Willis to move ahead with Trump case

Judge blasts Willis for ‘tremendous lapse in judgment”

Special prosecutor Nathan Wade resigned from the Fulton County election interference case on Friday afternoon, hours after a judge ruled that either he or District Attorney Fani Willis had to withdraw for the prosecution of Donald Trump to move forward.

Wade tendered his resignation in a letter to Willis.

“Although the court found that ‘the defendants failed to meet their burden of proving that the district attorney acquired an actual conflict of interest,’ I am offering my resignation in the interest of democracy, in dedication to the American public and to move this case forward as quickly as possible,” Wade wrote.

Earlier in the day, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee had given Willis a stark choice: Either recuse yourself and your office from the election case or cut ties with Wade, her lead prosecutor and former lover.

Wade’s resignation allows Willis to continue pursuing the case against the presumptive Republican nominee for president and his 14 remaining co-defendants. It also resolves a disqualification motion that has upended the monumental case for the last two-plus months, turning it into a spectacle with salacious allegations of misconduct against one of the most recognizable DAs in the nation.

“Whether this case ends in convictions, acquittals or something in between, the result should be one that instills confidence in the process,” McAfee wrote. “... Any distractions that detract from these goals, if remedial under the law, should be proportionally addressed.”

‘Tremendous lapse in judgment’

In a 23-page order, McAfee said he by no means condones Willis’ “tremendous lapse in judgment” for having the relationship with Wade, who had billed more than $728,000 in legal fees that he used to help pay for cruises and vacations he took with the district attorney in 2022 and 2023.

However, the judge said the defense had “failed to meet their burden of proving that the district attorney acquired an actual conflict of interest in this case through her personal relationship and recurring travels with her lead prosecutor.” If McAfee had found otherwise, he would have had to disqualify Willis and her office from the case, a move that might have ended it altogether.

But McAfee did find that “the established record now highlights a significant appearance of impropriety that infects the current structure of the prosecution team – an appearance that must be removed through the state’s selection of one of two options.”

Wade’s withdrawal, McAfee wrote, would allow Willis, the defendants and the public “to move forward without his presence or remuneration distracting from and potentially compromising the merits of this case.”

Willis accepted Wade’s resignation, effective immediately. In a letter to Wade released Friday afternoon, she complimented him on his “professionalism and dignity you have shown over the last 865 days” in the face of threats to his safety and “unjustified attacks in the media and in court” about his professional reputation.

Others who were considered for the special prosecutor role “were understandably concerned for the safety of themselves and their families. ... You were the one who had the courage to accept the role, even though you did not seek it,” Willis wrote.

There was no immediate word on whether any of the defendants would appeal McAfee’s ruling.

Trump attorney Steve Sadow said Friday he will continue to “use all legal options available as we continue to fight to end this case, which should never have been brought in the first place.”

“While respecting the Court’s decision, we believe that the Court did not afford appropriate significance to the prosecutorial misconduct of Willis and Wade, including the financial benefits, testifying untruthfully about when their personal relationship began, as well as Willis’ extrajudicial MLK ‘church speech,’” he said.

Ashleigh Merchant, who led the disqualification push on behalf of her client, Michael Roman, said, “While we believe the court should have disqualified Willis’ office entirely, this opinion is a vindication that everything put forth by the defense was true, accurate and relevant to the issues surrounding our clients right to a fair trial.”

“The judge clearly agreed with the defense that the actions of Willis are a result of her poor judgment and that there is a risk to the future of this case if she doesn’t quickly work to cure her conflict,” she said.

Blockbuster allegations

McAfee’s decision is mostly a win for Willis, who has spent more than three years investigating the conduct of the former president and his allies. She has been given a way to maintain control of her high-profile case as she ramps up her re-election bid against two opponents, one from her left and one from her right.

But Willis’ critics are certain to continue using the allegations dredged up by Roman and others to pummel the DA on the campaign trail, in the state Legislature and even in Congress to try and undermine the case moving forward.

The allegations were first lodged in a motion filed Jan. 8 by Merchant. The motion led to several days of testimony in mid-February, during which both Wade and Willis were questioned under oath. They both denied any wrongdoing and maintained their romantic relationship began months after Willis appointed Wade as special prosecutor in November 2021 – a claim several defense attorneys called a lie.

Willis, apparently against the advice of her colleagues, abruptly took the witness stand and at one point yelled at Merchant, saying her allegations were filled with lies. McAfee, who briefly adjourned the hearing, wrote in his order that Willis behaved in an “unprofessional manner” when she testified.

The allegations had cast uncertainty on the Georgia case, one of four criminal prosecutions Trump is facing as he makes a comeback bid for the White House.

Willis and her team were hoping to begin the trial as soon as August, but that timeline appears less and less likely given the disqualification fight and delays in Trump’s three other criminal cases. An appeal of McAfee’s decision could also potentially eat up time on the calendar.

‘An odor of mendacity’

Even though Willis can move forward with the case, her credibility has been damaged. Not only did the disqualification fight raise questions about Willis’ judgment, but also left open whether Willis and Wade were fully truthful under oath, including about when their relationship started.

McAfee indicated he could not discern the absolute truth on the matter based on conflicting and unreliable testimony. Still, the judge wrote, “an odor of mendacity remains,” because there are “reasonable questions about whether the district attorney and her hand-selected (lead prosecutor) testified untruthfully about the timing of their relationship.”

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis enters a press conference at Fulton County Government Center in Atlanta on Monday, August 14, 2023, following the indictment in an election interference case against former President Donald Trump and others. (Arvin Temkar /

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

This further underpins the finding of “an appearance of impropriety and the need to make proportional efforts to cure it,” he said.

McAfee also had harsh words for Wade’s response to questionnaires — known as interrogatories — in his divorce case, which he repeated when testifying. Wade said he had no relationships with other women – even though he had had one with Willis.

“Wade’s patently unpersuasive explanation for the inaccurate interrogatories he submitted in his pending divorce indicates a willingness on his part to wrongly conceal his relationship with the district attorney,” the judge wrote.

McAfee also called Willis out for her comments during her speech at Big Bethel AME Church on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, finding they were “legally improper.” Making such public comments, he added, “creates dangerous waters for the district attorney to wade further into.”

McAfee noted in his ruling that state law “does not permit the finding of an actual conflict for simply making bad choices – even repeatedly.” Other forums, such as the Legislature, state ethics commission, the State Bar of Georgia, the Fulton County Board of Commissioners or the county’s voters, “may offer feedback on any unanswered questions that linger,” he said.

The claims have already become fodder on the campaign trail.

During a campaign rally last Saturday in northwest Georgia, Trump mocked Willis and Wade as the thousands in attendance booed and laughed at the DA.

“Corrupt Fani Willis hired her lover Nathan Wade so they could fraudulently make money together,” Trump said. “‘Let’s see, darling, who can we go after?’”

No star witness

The defense had hoped Terrence Bradley, Wade’s former law partner and one-time divorce lawyer, would be the star witness who could show that Wade’s and Willis’ romantic relationship began before Wade’s appointment. Bradley had texted Merchant, “Absolutely,” when she asked him if he thought the two were romantically involved before the appointment.

On the witness stand, Bradley testified Wade had once told him he was in a relationship with Willis, but he couldn’t remember when Wade told him that. He also testified that he was speculating when he sent that text to Merchant.

In his order, McAfee said he is unable to place any stock in Bradley’s testimony. “His inconsistencies, demeanor and generally non-responsive answers left far too brittle a foundation upon which to build any conclusions,” the judge wrote.

McAfee noted that defense witness Robin Yeartie raised doubts about Willis’ and Wade’s assertions when she testified their relationship began before Wade’s appointment. Still, the testimony from Yeartie, a one-time friend and employee of Willis’ until she was told to resign or be fired, “ultimately lacked context and detail,” McAfee wrote.

The judge also addressed Willis’ and Wade’s testimony about who paid for the four trips they took together to the Bahamas, Napa Valley, Belize and Aruba. Both testified that while Wade purchased most of the vacations with his credit card, Willis paid for one set of flights using her credit card and also repaid Wade for roughly her share of the rest in cash.

“Such a reimbursement practice may be unusual and the lack of any documentary corroboration understandably concerning,” McAfee wrote. “Yet the testimony withstood direct contradiction, was corroborated by other evidence … and was not so incredible as to be inherently unbelievable.”

Because there seems to be no way to be certain that the expenses were split evenly, it’s possible Willis may have received a net benefit of several hundred dollars, McAfee wrote. But this does not establish that Willis received a financial benefit as a result of her decision to hire and have a romantic relationship with Wade, the judge said.

Also, citing Willis’ testimony, McAfee found “that the evidence demonstrated that the financial gain flowing from her relationship with Wade was not a motivating factor on the part of the district attorney to indict and prosecute this case.”

Appearance of impropriety

Even though questions remain, McAfree said, “the court is not under an obligation to ferret out every instance of potential dishonesty from each witness or defendant ever presented in open court. Such an expectation would mean an end to the efficient disposition of criminal and civil proceedings.”

But there remains an appearance of impropriety, McAfee wrote, describing it as “a perceived conflict in the reasonable eyes of the public (that) threatens confidence in the legal system itself.”

McAfee also denied the defense’s request to dismiss the indictment in its entirety, citing state Supreme Court precedent that held such an extreme sanction should be used only sparingly.

Georgia State University Law Prof. Anthony Michael Kreis, who has largely voiced support for the DA, called McAfee’s decision “pretty much as full of a (legal) victory as Fani Willis could hope for.”

“From a public relations standpoint it’s perhaps imperfect but I don’t think it puts her in a worse-off position than she was a week ago,” he said.

Kreis said that because the judge ruled there’s no factual basis for an actual conflict of interest, that means the issue is likely off the table for an appeals court to consider, which is helpful for the DA should defense counsel appeal.

Noah Pines, a defense attorney unaffiliated with the election case, said McAfee made the “right decision” and that he had given the DA “a very generous choice.” He also was just a few hours off from his assessment of what needed to be done after the ruling was issued.

“If Nathan Wade doesn’t step aside from this case by lunchtime I’d be concerned for the thought process of the District Attorney’s office,” Pines, a former prosecutor, on Friday morning. “The real question is why he didn’t do this before.