Pivotal Hearing Could Stall Georgia Case Against Trump

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The three-year long Georgia investigation of Donald J. Trump and his allies for election interference faces its biggest hurdle at a hearing on Thursday, when a judge begins to assess whether the lead prosecutor and her office should be disqualified from the case.

The hearing will delve into a romantic relationship between the two main prosecutors — Fani T. Willis, the Fulton County district attorney, and Nathan J. Wade, whom she hired to run the case. The defense argues that their relationship has created an untenable conflict of interest.

Ms. Willis, Mr. Wade, and a number of others have been subpoenaed to testify at the hearing, including more than half a dozen prosecutors and others who work in the district attorney’s office as well as Mr. Wade’s former divorce lawyer. Ms. Willis’s office has indicated that the prosecutors may call her father, who lives with her in Atlanta, as a witness.

Mr. Trump and 18 other defendants were charged last August with racketeering and a variety of other charges, in connection with a plot to subvert the presidential election results in a number of swing states. Four of the defendants have already pleaded guilty.

The revelations about the affair between Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade surfaced in a legal filing last month from Michael Roman, a former Trump campaign official who is one of the defendants in the Georgia election case.

The argument being made by lawyers for Mr. Roman and other defendants hinges on assertions of a financial conflict. Mr. Wade has been paid more than $650,000 since he was hired in 2021, and during that time he has spent money on joint vacations he took with Ms. Willis. Defense lawyers argue that this creates an incentive for prosecutors to prolong the case, and violates a number of laws and the Georgia bar’s rules of professional conduct.

Ms. Willis, who acknowledged the romantic relationship in a filing last week, said it began only after Mr. Wade was hired, and was irrelevant to the case or her ability to lead it. She said that the costs of joint personal travel had been “divided roughly evenly” between her and Mr. Wade, so there was no financial conflict.

“The defense is not bringing you facts,” Anna Cross, a lawyer on the district attorney’s legal team, said at a hearing Monday. “The defense is not bringing you law. The defense is bringing you gossip, and the state cannot, and the court should not, condone that practice.”

Still, the presiding judge, Scott McAfee of Fulton County Superior Court, was persuaded that there was sufficient reason to hold an evidentiary hearing delving into the circumstances. He declined to quash subpoenas forcing witness testimony.

“It’s clear that disqualification can occur if evidence is produced demonstrating an actual conflict or the appearance of one,” the judge said at a hearing on Monday afternoon.

He added, “Because I think it’s possible that the facts alleged by the defendant could result in disqualification, I think an evidentiary hearing must occur to establish the record on those core allegations.”

The stakes are considerable. Though the circumstances change none of the underlying facts of the prosecution, a disqualification would put the case in limbo.

There is already precedent for what disqualification could mean. In July 2022, a judge disqualified Ms. Willis and her office from developing a criminal case against Burt Jones, who is now Georgia’s lieutenant governor, because Ms. Willis had headlined a fund-raiser for one of his political opponents.

No replacement prosecutor has been named. An important difference, though, is that Mr. Trump and his co-defendants have already been indicted by a grand jury; Mr. Jones’s case had not reached that stage.

The evidentiary hearing is expected to last into Friday, at least; whether it will take longer than that to complete was not entirely clear, even to the lawyers involved.

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