The Fani Willis fight: How it played out

A romance, a legal gamble and the prosecution of an ex-president

District Attorney Fani Willis stepped onto the stage at a ballroom in the Ritz-Carlton with a swagger that made it seem like she had not a care in the world.

It was just days before a Fulton County judge was slated to announce whether he would remove her from the biggest case her office had ever pursued — one that charged the former president of the United States with trying to overthrow the 2020 election. The legal and political quandary was the result of Willis’ romance with a subordinate, which had exploded into a full-blown scandal that threatened to derail the case.

Willis told the hundreds of attendees — most of them Black women — that she had no hesitation about seeking another term.

“Let me tell you how much I don’t regret it: Wednesday I went and re-upped” for re-election, she told the crowd at an International Women’s Day Atlanta luncheon on March 10. “I want four more years.”

Many in the purple-filled ballroom erupted in cheers of “four more years.”

The night before, at a campaign rally about 70 miles away in Rome, Ga., Trump — one of 15 remaining defendants in the case — had described the prosecution as a political “witch hunt,” one that Willis has used to enrich herself.

Backed by American flags, Trump surveyed a crowd of thousands of fans wearing MAGA hats and shirts. They booed Willis and laughed as Trump mocked her.

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

Opponents and supporters of the Fulton County election interference case have long looked at the prosecution through a partisan lens. Perhaps nowhere was that split-screen more apparent than the back-to-back events held in two Georgia cities last weekend.

They were a prelude to a decision that, like the case itself, was the equivalent of a Rorschach test. To some, Judge Scott McAfee’s ruling that defense attorneys had failed to prove district attorney’s romantic relationship constituted a conflict of interest was, a vindication of Willis and her work. To others, it was the latest sign of prosecutorial malfeasance.

Here’s a look at some key moments.

July 1, 2022 Atlanta - District Attorney Fani Willis (center) confers with lead prosecutors, Donald Wakeford (left) and Nathan Wade, during a motion hearing at Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta on Friday, July 1, 2022. (Hyosub Shin/

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

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Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

A budding partnership

Willis met Wade at a judicial conference in October 2019, when they were both municipal court judges. A mutual friend introduced them. They made small talk and exchanged business cards.

As a fellow jurist of color in a white-dominated field, Wade became a trusted ally. When Willis was elected DA in 2020, Wade served on her transition team, sitting in as Willis re-interviewed every employee in the office to see if they should stay on board.

Willis had a long to-do list when she took over as DA after defeating her former boss, Paul Howard. That list grew longer when, on one of her first days in office, a recording leaked of Trump’s now infamous call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger urging him to “find” the votes needed to overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s narrow win in Georgia.

It wasn’t long before Willis launched an investigation.

About 10 months later, on Nov. 1, 2021, Willis hired Wade to oversee the expanding election interference probe. But he wasn’t her first choice.

Six days earlier, she had offered the job to former Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat and successful trial lawyer, but he declined.

“I told DA Willis I lived with bodyguards for four years, and I didn’t like it, and I wasn’t going to live with bodyguards for the rest of my life,” he would say later.

She then asked Gabe Banks, a former federal prosecutor from Atlanta. He also turned her down.

Wade said he took some convincing. But he ultimately agreed.

The day after he accepted the job, he filed for divorce from his wife of 23 years, Joycelyn, citing irreconcilable differences.

When a special grand jury was assembled to help prosecutors compile evidence and testimony, Wade was at the helm. Special grand jurors — who had spent months behind closed doors with Wade and others on the DA’s team — told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that they found the special prosecutor likable, fair and good at his job.

After the special grand jury disbanded in January 2023, months passed with no word of what was happening in the case.

But on Aug. 14, around midnight, Willis and her team walked single file into a meeting room in a nondescript government building across from the courthouse. Dozens of reporters were awaiting their arrival and their announcement that Trump and 18 others had been indicted.

Willis, in all black and large strands of pearls, stepped up to the microphone, surrounded by nearly a dozen members of her prosecution team. Standing to her left was Wade, in a three-piece gray pinstripe suit and a burgundy tie.

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 /


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What almost no one knew that night was that Wade and Willis had been in a romantic relationship. In the prior year-and-a-half, they had traveled together to the Caribbean and Napa Valley. She had taken him to Belize to celebrate his 50th birthday after his battle with cancer.

Whether they were still romantically involved as they stood together at the podium is unclear. Willis would later say later that she and Wade had a “tough conversation” in mid-August and split up.

A romance uncovered

Ashleigh Merchant had been a defense attorney on the election interference case for less than two weeks when she got a phone call from Terrence Bradley, a fellow Cobb County attorney she’d known for years.

Merchant had signed on to represent Michael Roman, a former Trump campaign official charged with seven felonies for his role in appointing pro-Trump presidential electors in Georgia four years ago.

Bradley and Wade had dissolved their law partnership days earlier.

In the phone call and in a meeting a few days later, Bradley shared some tantalizing information: Willis and her special prosecutor had been romantically involved.

Bradley had represented Wade in his ongoing divorce and did not like the way he had treated his wife, Merchant told a state Senate panel recently.

“He didn’t like what was happening in the divorce proceeding” she said.

Merchant, who is known as a dogged investigator, filed open records requests and subpoenas seeking proof. In the months that followed, she gathered financial records that showed Wade had spent thousands of dollars on plane tickets and hotels on trips he appeared to take with DA.

She began to develop a legal theory: Willis had paid her boyfriend hundreds of thousands of dollars for working on the election case, then reaped benefits when Wade paid thousands of dollars for trips they took together using money he’d earned from the case. That gave Willis a financial interest in prosecuting the case, she believed.

On Bradley’s advice, Merchant tracked down Robin Yeartie, a former friend and employee of Willis. Yeartie later testified that Willis and Wade were romantically involved when she hired him and she saw them hugging and kissing in late 2019.

Merchant kept in touch with Bradley. On Jan. 5 she texted him: “Do you think it started before she hired him?”

“Absolutely,” Bradley responded.

As Merchant prepared to file her motion to disqualify Willis, she ran it by Bradley.

“Anything else? Anything that isn’t accurate?” she asked

“Looks good,” Bradley responded.

On Jan. 8, the day she filed the motion, Merchant expressed apprehension. In coming weeks, her motion would upend the high-profile case and become national news.

“I am nervous,” she texted Bradley. “This is huge.”

“You are huge. You will be fine,” Bradley reassured her. “You are one of the best lawyers I know. Go be great.”

DA of Fulton County Fanni Willis speaks during a worship service at the Big Bethel AME Church, where she was invited to say The Message on Sunday, January 14, 2024. 
Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

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Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Lashing out at critics

Merchant was right, her motion was huge.

But as the allegations became fodder for cable news and social media, the DA’s office remained silent, saying it would reply in a court motion.

Nearly a week had passed when Willis stepped onto the pulpit at Atlanta’s oldest Black house of worship.

Willis’ appearance at Big Bethel AME Church in downtown Atlanta at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend service had been announced before Merchant dropped her bombshell and many believed the DA would cancel. But there Willis was, her face swelling with emotion as she gazed down at her prepared speech and the organist sounded a few notes.

“I hope y’all will be patient with me,” she told the crowd. “The bishop told me I am welcome to be myself.”

The atmosphere was tense on that chilly January morning. Members of Willis’ security detail, sporting suits and earpieces, spread out across the church as journalists were led to an upstairs viewing gallery. As Willis began to speak, shouts of praise and support echoed through the pews, rising from the crowd of mostly elderly parishioners.

“I hope for y’all this week I don’t look like what I’ve been through,” she said, acknowledging the news of the week with a joke. “I want y’all to know I pulled out my most lavish $29.99 dress from Ross,” a jab at Merchant for accusing her of taking “lavish” vacations with Wade.

Those remarks kicked off a raw, deeply emotional and occasionally funny speech that would be dissected incessantly by supporters and critics alike.

Willis didn’t respond to many of Merchant’s allegations directly, but she spoke about being flawed and imperfect, hard-headed but lonely in her high-profile job. She detailed the death threats she’d received and at moments seemed to be on the verge of crying. Willis described a swatting incident that had occurred at her home weeks earlier when the police received a call that a woman had been shot there, a woman Willis briefly believed might have been her daughter.

The DA never referred to Wade by name but hit back at critics who focused on him and not the other two special prosecutors she hired for the case, who are white.

“Oh Lord, they going to be mad when I call ‘em out on this nonsense,” Willis said. “First thing they say, oh, she gonna play the race card now. But no God, isn’t it them who’s playing the race card when they only question one?”

Blowback from what became known as the church speech continued for weeks.

While some of Willis’ supporters cheered her on for taking her opponents to task, several defendants used it as a reason for joining Merchant’s push to disqualify her.

Steve Sadow and Jennifer Little, Trump’s Atlanta attorneys, said the remarks represented a “glaring, flagrant, and calculated effort to foment racial bias into this case” on behalf of future jurors.

“Can you think of anything more that would heighten public condemnation of the defendants than alleging that defense counsel and the defendants were making their motion based on race and religion?” Sadow asked McAfee at a hearing. “That’s as bad as it gets in Fulton County.”

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 Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, in Atlanta. Judge Scott McAfee is hearing testimony as to whether Willis and Special Prosecutor Nathan Wade should be disqualified from the case for allegedly lying about a personal relationship. (Alyssa Pointer/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

Willis takes the stand

On Feb. 2, three and a half weeks after the accusations first surfaced, the DA’s office responded. Its court filing acknowledged the two prosecutors had been in a “personal relationship” but said it began in 2022 — after Willis hired Wade. It also said that the pair had roughly split the costs of their travel together.

Willis had finally told her version of events. But she fought a subpoena that would have required her to testify in Wade’s divorce. And she battled just as hard against a separate summons in the election case.

She fought right up until she changed her mind on February 15, when she ran up two flights of stairs to McAfee’s courtroom and took the stand during an evidentiary hearing.

It was a startling moment. One of her top prosecutors, Anna Cross, was arguing there was no need to call Willis to testify. Wade had just spent about three hours on the stand, answering deeply personal and often uncomfortable questions about their relationship, the trips and his pay.

“I don’t believe, given the testimony of Mr. Wade, and the extent of the questioning of him, that there is any reason at this point to go into the district attorney herself,” Cross told McAfee.

But with the timing and flourish of a stage actor appearing for her cue, Willis walked through the public entrance of McAfee’s courtroom in a hot pink dress. Looking a bit winded, with her hand on her hip, the DA approached the prosecution table as defense attorney Craig Gillen argued she should testify.

“And I’m going to, your honor,” Willis piped up.

For more than two hours, she jousted with Merchant and other defense attorneys — often with fiery, combative language. She accused them of lying about her and Wade – she used the word “lie” or variations of it at least 16 times.

“Let’s be clear, because you’ve lied,” Willis told Merchant at one point, waiving court filings. “You lied right here. No, no, no,no! This is the truth. It is a lie! It is a lie!”

She seemed offended at the suggestion that she needed Wade — or any man — to support her financially or otherwise.

“We would have brutal arguments about the fact that, ‘I am your equal,’” Willis said she told Wade. “I don’t need anything from a man. A man is not a plan. A man is a companion.”

Legal experts disagreed on whether Willis’ time on the stand helped or hurt her. Partisans saw what they wanted to see – her supporters cheered, her detractors jeered.

But for two hours, no one could look away.

“You think I’m on trial,” Willis told Merchant at one point. “These (defendants) are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020. I’m not on trial, no matter how hard you try to put me on trial.”

A reluctant witness

Bradley tried for weeks to avoid testifying about the Willis-Wade romance.

Though he was the original source of Merchant’s information, she told him when she drafted her motion that she had protected him “completely.” But a few weeks later, she informed him she would be subpoenaing him to testify.

Attorneys for Bradley, Wade and the DA fought the summons. They argued anything Bradley knew about the relationship was subject to attorney-client privilege because Bradley had been Wade’s divorce attorney.

Merchant argued Bradley could testify about his personal observations of the relationship and other non-protected knowledge. She told McAfee that Bradley would confirm that Willis and Wade’s relationship began before she hired him — contradicting their statements in court filings. The judge called Bradley her “star witness.”

After meeting with Bradley in private, McAfee concluded he had to testify. But when he finally took the stand Feb. 27, Bradley proved to be anything but a game-changer.

He testified that he did not know when Willis and Wade began dating. In fact, he professed to know almost nothing about their relationship — “I don’t know” and “I don’t recall” were common answers.

He looked miserable on the stand, his shoulders hunched over. He wiped sweat from his face and sometimes took long pauses before answering questions.

Frustrated defense attorneys confronted Bradley with the text messages he’d exchanged with Merchant. Sadow, Trump’s lawyer, challenged Bradley on why he responded “absolutely” when Merchant asked him in January whether the romance began before Willis hired Wade.

“That’s speculation on my part,” Bradley answered.

“Why would you speculate?” Sadow asked.

“I have no answer for that,” Bradley said.

Bradley’s credibility took another hit when Cross, the prosecutor, asked him why he and Wade ended their law partnership. Bradley said the decision sprang from a “disagreement.” But, under Cross’ questioning, he admitted he had been accused of sexual assault by an employee. (Bradley denied sexually assaulting anyone.)

In the end, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike questioned Bradley’s credibility. Prosecutors described him as a disgruntled, vengeful former law partner, while the defense lawyers said he had lied on the stand.

McAfee called the hearing to a close after two-and-a-half packed days and said he would try to rule within two weeks.

Republican presidential candidate and former president Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Forum River Center in Rome on Saturday, March 9, 2024. (Arvin Temkar /

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

A hero or a villain?

At Trump’s March 9 campaign rally the mostly white crowd listened as ex-president blasted a litany of familiar enemies — “illegal” immigrants, the “radical left,” the “fake news” media and prosecutors and judges in his various criminal cases.

Inevitably, he turned to the Georgia election case.

“They went after me. Now she’s in trouble because she’s taking money that she just gave him,” Trump said. “She said she gave it back in cash. That’s a lie. That’s a total lie.”

At the Ritz-Carlton event the next day, speaking to a much different crowd, Willis did not directly address the allegations or the Trump case. She didn’t need to.

Willis was given a hero’s welcome as well-dressed attendees lined up to take selfies with her. They cheered loudly during a video montage that showed Willis on the witness stand in McAfee’s courtroom, sparring with Merchant.

During her speech, Willis recounted a recent conversation with an old friend, who asked her whether she was OK and whether she regretted running for DA.

“I am sure I looked at him like he was crazy,” Willis told the crowd. “I said, ‘Are you kidding? I’m the best DA this county’s ever had.’”

The Decision

McAfee’s assessment was less glowing.

In an order issued Friday, he cited Willis’ “tremendous lapse in judgment” in pursuing a relationship with Wade. He criticized the “unprofessional manner” of her testimony in court.

The judge cited “reasonable questions” about whether Willis and Wade “testified untruthfully about the timing of their relationship.” And though he said her speech at Big Bethel AME Church did not deny the defendants an opportunity to a fair trial, he still found it “legally improper.”

McAfee said he might consider an order “preventing the state from mentioning the case in any public forum to prevent prejudicial pretrial publicity” — basically some type of gag order.

Such speeches, he said, create “dangerous waters for the district attorney to wade further into.”

Still, McAfee concluded the defendants had not established that the Willis-Wade relationship constituted an actual conflict of interest. And he rejected their requests to dismiss the case altogether.

But he found “the established record now highlights a significant appearance of impropriety that infects the current structure of the prosecution team.” He gave Willis a choice: Drop Wade from the case or have her entire office disqualified. She and Wade could not remain on the case together.

By Friday afternoon, Willis and Wade had made their choice. Wade resigned, and the case apparently will move forward without him.

“I am proud of the work our team has accomplished in investigating, indicting and litigating this case,” he wrote to Willis. “Seeking justice for the people of Georgia and the United States, and being part of the effort to ensure that the rule of law and democracy are preserved, has been the honor of a lifetime.”

But justice has always been in the eye of the beholder. Whatever happens next, Willis’ supporters and detractors will almost certainly see things differently.

-Staff writers Bill Rankin and Shaddi Abusaid contributed to this article.