OPINION: Losing the forest for the trees in the Fulton County Trump case

The personal relationship between Fulton County DA Fani Willis, left, and special prosecutor Nathan Wade, right, has come under scrutiny during the Georgia election interference case. (Brynn Anderson & Alyssa Pointer/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The personal relationship between Fulton County DA Fani Willis, left, and special prosecutor Nathan Wade, right, has come under scrutiny during the Georgia election interference case. (Brynn Anderson & Alyssa Pointer/AP)

You know a court case has jumped into the public consciousness when people with no connection to it start making casual conversation about details of court filings, like the question a fellow Little League parent asked me after a batting practice last week.

“Did you hear the guy’s cell phone was in Hapeville more than 50 times?” the parent asked as we waited for practice to wrap up.

“The guy” in question was Nathan Wade, the special prosecutor in the Fulton County election interference case against former President Donald Trump. And his cell phone was allegedly tracked to the same area in Hapeville as the home where Wade’s boss and former flame, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, lived at the time.

For reasons once known only to Wade and Willis, but now known to millions after a televised evidentiary hearing last week, Willis and Wade struck up a romance at some point during, or possibly before, they took on the former president and his 18 co-defendants in the most closely watched case in state history.

About six months after Willis brought the sprawling racketeering case against them, attorneys for a lesser-known defendant, Michael Roman, filed a motion seeking to disqualify Willis and her entire team for what lawyers alleged was Willis’ conflict of interest in the Trump case. The DA was profiting off of the prosecution, the accusation went, because Wade had wined and dined her during their romance with money the DA’s office paid Wade’s firm to work on the Trump case.

I was among the many who was shocked that Willis would engage in an affair with a member of her team on the very case that was bringing her so much scrutiny. And if there had been a conflict or financial benefit to the DA, I thought that could be disqualifying. But after three separate public hearings and a parade of witnesses that included Willis’ own father, defense attorneys have not yet proved either a conflict in the case or the wild financial benefit to Willis they alleged.

Nor did they offer evidence that Wade and Willis lived together, as one court filing suggested, nor that they had a romantic encounter on the first night they met several years ago, which was also alleged.

Now cell phone records from Wade’s phone have been presented to the court to show that Wade may have been near Willis’ condo dozens of times in 2021, the year before they said their romantic relationship began. And on Tuesday, Wade’s former law partner was grilled in court about a garage door opener that Wade may or may not have had in his possession at that time, which may have belonged to Willis. But the “star witness” for the defense said he has no idea when the two started dating.

The underlying accusation in all of this is that Wade and Willis lied about the length of their relationship, the same relationship, mind you, that defense attorneys have failed to show is either a conflict of interest for the prosecution or a source of financial enrichment for either Willis or Wade.

The real question now is why any of this is relevant? And more than that, why are defense attorneys, including those for Trump, spending so much time trying to discredit Willis and her team and so little time trying to prove their clients’ innocence of the charges against them?

The questions we should return to are about the defendants in the case, not the prosecutors. Did Trump and his co-defendants try to illegally overturn the 2020 election in Georgia as they’ve been indicted for? And if so, what’s to prevent them from trying to overturn the election results again if we’re no closer to the truth when the presidential election happens in November?

Four defendants in the case have already pled guilty to charges against them and apologized to the people of Georgia for their role in the 2020 elections.

In a separate case, Fox News agreed to pay $787 million to Dominion Voting Systems for promoting lies about its voting machines in multiple states after the 2020 elections, including Georgia.

A different court ordered Rudy Giuliani to pay $148 million in damages for defaming Fulton County election workers Ruby Freeman and Shae Moss with repeated lies about them in the weeks and months after the 2020 election in Georgia.

And even as all of that was happening, Trump not only launched his campaign for reelection, but did so insisting he won the last election and using the court cases against him to argue that he is the real victim of election interference here.

Fani Willis opened the door to questions about her judgment with her own conduct. But it is crucial not to lose sight of what is in the public interest, versus what is simply of interest to the public.

As salacious as the details of the Willis affair are, defense attorneys haven’t shown they’re anything more than a distraction from the cases against their clients.

If Willis is replaced by another DA, rest assured Trump’s team will come for them, too.

Focusing on the conduct of the 2020 elections instead of the once-secret affair between two prosecutors is not nearly as juicy of a topic for the parents at Little League practice, but it’s the right thing to do. And the Braves season is just around the corner. We can talk about that instead.