OPINION: Fani Willis, what are you thinking?

Atlanta District Attorney Fani Willis answers questions for the press after the indictment of former president Donald Trump and 18 others at Fulton County Courthouse on Monday, Aug. 14, 2023, in Atlanta. (Michael Blackshire/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Atlanta District Attorney Fani Willis answers questions for the press after the indictment of former president Donald Trump and 18 others at Fulton County Courthouse on Monday, Aug. 14, 2023, in Atlanta. (Michael Blackshire/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

When Judge Robert McBurney admonished Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis in 2022 for hosting a fundraiser for a political opponent of Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, McBurney declared it a “what-were-you-thinking moment.”

“The optics are horrific,” the judge said, before slicing the Jones piece of the case off of Willis’ grand jury investigation because of the potential conflict of interest.

Now two years later, the optics for Willis are even worse, after a court filing accused her of having a romantic relationship with Nathan Wade, the special prosecutor she hired in the Fulton County case against former President Donald Trump.

The filing included loads of details and unsavory bits. Along with the accusation of a relationship, which came with no concrete proof, the filing also said Wade’s firm has been paid more than $600,000 by the county so far and that he and Willis have taken lavish trips together, possibly funded by those taxpayer dollars.

The Wall Street Journal also reported that Wade has never tried a felony criminal case in Georgia. And yet he’s been selected by the district attorney he was possibly involved with, for what could be the trial of the century. And Politico reported that Wade met at length with the January 6th committee with details that were not previously known.

This could be an extreme case of he-said, she-said, except Willis has said … nothing. Not a press conference. Not a back-channel denial. Not a staff email, like the one she sent to her office after Trump grossly accused her of being romantically involved with a defendant in a gang trial. That rumor was “derogatory and false,” she said then.

This week, Willis’ office said only that she would respond in court filings. But the silence outside of that has left Republicans pushing to investigate her, and Democrats reeling, worried that the case against Trump, which they believe is rock-solid, will be slowed or undermined.

Willis is also up for reelection in 2024, with filing opening for potential challengers in March.

No one in the Capitol may have a better view of Democratic and Republican feelings on the issue than state Rep. Michelle Au, a Democrat from a battleground district in Johns Creek.

Au’s predecessor in the state Senate was David Shafer, the former Georgia GOP chair indicted in the Trump case as the head of Trump’s alternate elector scheme in Georgia. Au’s successor is state Sen. Shawn Still, who has also been indicted in the Trump case for his role as a Trump elector in 2020. And Au’s most famous constituent in the 50-50 district is Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who infamously took the call from Trump to “find 11,780 votes” that launched Willis’ Fulton County probe.

Au stressed that while no evidence has been produced to prove the allegations against Willis, public opinion is racing ahead anyway without input from the DA.

“I fear it is going to feed into factors that we know already exist, in terms of people casting aspersions and casting doubt on the work of the DA, as well as on the rightness of this investigation at all, whether it’s warranted or not,” Au said. She’s also concerned Republicans will double down on investigations of DAs all over the state.

Another Democratic official, who did not want to speak on the record, is more worried than that.

“This could totally derail the Trump case if it’s true,” the official said.

Many Republicans aren’t waiting to see if it’s true. Trump’s closest allies in the state, including U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and state Sen. Colton Moore, launched into I-told-you-so declarations days ago. Greene has asked Attorney General Chris Carr to launch a criminal investigation into Willis. Moore, who was ousted from the GOP Senate caucus this summer for attacking Republican colleagues over Willis, has filed legislation to pre-pardon (no, that’s not a real thing) the 19 defendants from Willis’ racketeering case against them.

Greene and Moore are not much for Willis to lose sleep over. But more harrowing for the DA are cautious statements of concern from the Republicans with real power, including House Speaker Jon Burns.

Burns went out on a limb over the summer when he defended Willis from attacks from Moore and others.

“Targeting one specific DA in this manner certainly flaunts the idea of separation of powers, if not outright violates it,” Burns wrote in a letter to members at the time.

But asked this week if Willis should be investigated by the new GOP-appointed panel overseeing local district attorneys, Burn said, “That’s not for me to approve … but if (the commission) decides to make that decision, that’s fine with me.”

Speaking of that oversight commission, the Republican who authored the bill creating it, state Rep. Houston Gaines, said throughout the last year that the effort to rein in “rogue” DAs around the state, many of whom are women of color, was never meant to target Willis.

But after the allegations surfaced against Willis this week, Gaines said they are a reason for the commission to start its work as soon as possible.

“Fani Willis should be investigated immediately. And if these allegations are true, she should resign or be removed from office.”

Some Democrats in the Capitol said Thursday that the controversy swirling around Willis now should not distract from what Trump did in 2020 to overturn the election that Joe Biden won in Georgia. That’s where the focus should remain, state Rep. Sam Park said.

But Au said later that “should” and “will” are two different things in politics and public opinion.

“Obviously, in an ideal world, one would hope that the legal arguments would stand just as strong,” she said. “However, we know that doesn’t happen in real life.”

The silence from Willis this week leaves us with nothing but unanswered questions.

Are the allegations true? Is it as reckless as it seems? What about the potentially serious conflicts the filing raises? And most especially, Fani Willis, what are you thinking?