With Trump case on the line, a defiant Willis takes the stand

On Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, an embattled Fani Willis spoke to parishioners at a Black church in downtown Atlanta. The Fulton County district attorney was defiant, sharp-elbowed and cutting but also deeply personal, sensitive and funny.

It was a similar Fani Willis who showed up — suddenly and unexpectedly — in Fulton Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee’s 5th floor courtroom on Thursday afternoon. Standing in the aisle in a hot pink dress and seeming to take her own staff by surprise, Willis said she was eager to testify in an evidentiary hearing about whether her previous relationship with one of her employees, Nathan Wade, created a conflict of interest.

“I ran to the courtroom” as Wade finished up his testimony, she said. “It only makes sense” for me to be the next witness, she said.

After a brief break, Willis was on the stand roaring to answer questions from defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant, who has accused her of misconduct and led the push to disqualify the her office from its blockbuster election interference case.

What resulted was nothing short of extraordinary and strikingly personal as Willis sought to protect the case — and her reputation.

Willis repeatedly called Merchant a liar and became visibly agitated at Merchant’s suggestion in court documents that Willis slept with Wade soon after meeting him at a judicial conference in 2019.

“It’s highly offensive when someone lies on you,” Willis said.

A few minutes later, she proclaimed, “Ms. Merchant’s interests are contrary to democracy, your honor, not to mine.”

It was a stark departure from the more cautious tack the DA’s office took as it waited more than three weeks to formally respond to Merchant’s allegations in a court filing. Beyond her speech at Big Bethel AME Church, Willis has declined to speak in public since Merchant began her disqualification push.

Willis made cheeky comments about her alcohol preferences (“I don’t really like wine, I like Grey Goose”) and where she prefers to keep her petty cash (“I always have cash at the house”).

And she had no problem hitting back at Merchant when she felt the defense counsel went too far. (“Ma’am, you are mischaracterizing my testimony greatly.” “You’ve been intrusive into people’s lives.” “I’m not on trial no matter how hard you try to put me on trial.”)

After 45 minutes, things boiled over. Willis raised her voice and began talking over Merchant and Steve Sadow, Donald Trump’s lead Atlanta attorney.

“Let’s be clear, because you’ve lied,” Willis said, holding up legal documents. “It is a lie! It is a lie!”

The exchange prompted McAfee to abruptly call for a five minute break. When he reconvened the hearing, he lectured the room about professionalism and decorum.

“Ms. Willis, I’m going to have to caution you. If this happens again and again, I’m going to have no choice but to strike your testimony,” he said.

Staff writer Rosie Manins contributed to this article.