OPINION: The aim isn’t just to disqualify Fani Willis. It’s to discredit her

Before testimony in the evidentiary hearing began, all I could think was that Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis should have known better.

She had potentially muddled the biggest case of her career — election interference allegations involving former President Donald Trump and his allies — by either forming, or already having, a romantic relationship with Nathan Wade, the special prosecutor she appointed.

That left open the argument by defense attorneys that she should be removed from the case due to a conflict of interest.

It was all so unbelievable because Willis is an accomplished attorney. She has risen to the top of her field by being scrupulous and sharp. She knows that everything she does will be scrutinized, particularly as a woman in a male-dominated profession. After years on the Trump case, she should have known better than most how the ex-president and his co-defendants have operated.

Then, when the hearing began, it quickly became clear that defense attorneys weren’t only seeking to disqualify Willis. Their line of questioning and impudent manner indicated they wanted even more so to taint and embarrass her — not just in the moment, but for the rest of her career.

I found myself managing conflicting feelings: dismay over Willis’ seeming lapse in judgment and the irrepressible hope that she would prevail and dispel the notion that she, a highly skilled attorney, would use taxpayer dollars to fund inexpensive meals and vacations with Wade.

So, when Willis appeared in the courtroom, seemingly out of nowhere, and walked purposefully to the witness chair, I screamed, “Come on, Fani!”

As a woman, watching the hearing was painful. I felt every moment when defense attorneys used a rude or disrespectful tone with Willis, when they discounted cultural norms, or when they continually tried to push legal boundaries and had to be reined in by Judge Scott McAfee.

She wasn’t just defending herself. It felt like Willis was also taking the stand for me and any other woman who has ever felt maligned. As Willis herself said to Ashleigh Merchant, the attorney for one of the 19 co-defendants originally indicted in the case, “I am not on trial, no matter how hard you try to put me on trial.”

Chat trolls interpreted the quiver in Willis’ voice as an indication of fear. I heard her struggling to contain her anger. Her detractors wanted Georgians to believe that her actions in the case were impacted by a courtship in which she was wined and dined at the county’s expense.

I was proud when Willis repeatedly, and forcefully, asked defense attorneys to stop yelling at her. McAfee even intervened with a reprimand and reminder to all of them, the district attorney included, to be civil and professional.

It was disconcerting to watch as defense attorneys seemed dismissive of Willis’ concerns about her safety when they questioned why she felt the need to move out of her home and into a rented condo. If it was so dangerous, why did her father stay? Why didn’t everyone leave? That kind of glib reaction can come only from someone who has never been called a racial epithet or received death threats, or never been a father who felt it was important to stand his ground for his daughter.

When the line of questioning turned to exactly how Willis and Wade shared expenses for vacations, Willis said she paid for her portion in cash. Defense attorneys seemed incredulous that she would have large amounts of cash on hand because she had a tax lien on her property. As if other people with far more money don’t have outstanding bills.

I don’t know if Willis stockpiles cash in her home, but I know a lot of other Black people do. As Willis’ father, John Clifford Floyd III, stated from the witness stand on Friday, it’s a Black thing.

After my father died, my sister and I found thousands of dollars stashed in various places around the house. My parents had multiple bank accounts, but they also had the memory of dirty dealings that Black people have had with banks and financial institutions. Some Black people leave large sums of money in mattresses, drawers and home safes, trusting that they are better off doing that than putting their money in the bank.

Wade, in talking about Willis paying him back for vacation expenses, trotted out the familiar trope of the strong Black woman. I’m sure he meant that to highlight her independence. But, even though she may be self-sufficient, that characterization only serves to hold her to a mythical standard.

Ultimately, the judge will decide if Willis benefitted from hiring Wade and whether this impedes her ability to conduct the case fairly.

She made a mistake in mixing business with pleasure, as many of us do, though our stumbles aren’t so public.

But, while she may have brought this situation upon herself, I want to give her the space to be human.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.