‘This is huge’ - Text messages show how move to disqualify Fani Willis developed

Ashleigh Merchant and Terrence Bradley exchanged hundreds texts

For months, Terrence Bradley guided a defense attorney as she fished for information that would help her disqualify Fani Willis from the Fulton County election interference case by proving the district attorney was dating Bradley’s onetime law partner.

Hundreds of text messages between Bradley and Ashleigh Merchant, which the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained on Wednesday, provide a window into how the high-stakes effort to oust Willis took shape.

Bradley suggested people Merchant might subpoena who could testify Willis was in a romantic relationship with special prosecutor, Nathan Wade. They gossiped about lawyers in the DA’s office. Bradley referred to Willis as “arrogant” and encouraged Merchant as she was preparing to file her blockbuster motion to disqualify the DA.

“I am nervous,” Merchant wrote on Jan. 8, the day she filed the motion. “This is huge.”

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

Merchant’s motion has, indeed, proven to be huge. For seven weeks it has derailed the prosecution of former President Donald Trump and the other 14 remaining defendants in the case, including Merchant’s client, Michael Roman. If successful, it could substantially delay or even scuttle the case.

In the text messages, Merchant pledged to protect Bradley as a source of information for her motion – only to make him a star witness whose credibility is now in doubt.

Some of the texts between Bradley and Merchant were cited in court this week. On Wednesday the complete text string — which began on Sept. 14, 2023 and ended about three weeks ago — was shared with attorneys in the case and obtained by the AJC.

The first reference to the Willis-Wade relationship in the messages comes on Sept. 19, when Merchant asked Bradley who might submit an affidavit about the Willis and Wade affair.

“No one would freely burn that bridge,” Bradley responded.

Then, on Dec. 13, Merchant texted Bradley that she had more information about the Willis-Wade relationship.

“I still can’t get anyone to go on record,” she said.

Merchant also told Bradley about a cruise and a trip to Napa Valley that Wade had paid for. Bradley said he didn’t know about those trips, but he wasn’t surprised. He said they took “many trips to Florida.”

In the weeks that followed, Bradley and Merchant discussed people she should subpoena to get information about the Willis-Wade romance, including members of her security detail and DA employees. One of them was Robin Bryant Yeartie, a former friend and employee of Willis who testified she saw Willis and Wade kissing and hugging before Willis hired Wade in November 2021.

On Jan. 5, three days before she filed her motion, Merchant asked Bradley when the Willis-Wade romance began – a key issue in the weeks to come.

“Do you think it started before she hired him?” she asked.

“Absolutely,” Bradley responded.

As Merchant prepared her motion, she ran a copy by Bradley. He suggested she include money he earned from the DA in a footnote about the money Wade’s firm had earned from the case. She made the change.

“Anything else? Anything that isn’t accurate?” Merchant asked.

“Looks good,” Bradley responded.

The next day, Merchant told Bradley she had “protected you completely” when she drafted the motion. But a few weeks later, she told him she would subpoena him to testify. She had also subpoenaed Wade’s other law partner.

“I will leave you out but think if I don’t subpoena you it would look fishy,” she wrote on Jan. 24. “What do you want me to do?”

“I’m ok with it,” Bradley responded.

Despite his apparent agreement, Bradley fought Merchant’s subpoena. In court filings and at recent hearings, he argued his knowledge of the Willis-Wade relationship was protected by attorney-client privilege because he had been Wade’s divorce lawyer for a time. After meeting with Bradley in private, Judge Scott McAfee determined his knowledge was not privileged, and Bradley testified on Tuesday.

It’s not clear his testimony did Merchant much good.

On the stand, Bradley disputed her interpretation of their text messages. He said he didn’t know when the Willis-Wade romance began and knew little else about it.

Bradley said he was only speculating when he texted with Merchant. He said he was only confirming the financial information for the footnote, not all the allegations in her motion. He couldn’t say whether he had lied to her.

Bradley’s testimony frustrated Merchant and other defense lawyers. Steve Sadow, attorney for Trump, quizzed Bradley about the texts and said Bradley did, in fact, know when the romance started.

“That’s the real, that’s the true explanation,” Sadow said. “Because you don’t want to admit it in court, correct?”

“No, I have no direct knowledge of when the relationship started,” Bradley responded.

It will be up to McAfee to determine whether Bradley is a credible witness. He has scheduled closing arguments on Merchant’s motion to disqualify Willis for Friday.

Staff writer Bill Rankin contributed to this report