Fani Willis Didn’t Stand a Chance

Fulton County Court Holds Fani Willis Misconduct Hearing
Photo: Pool/Getty Images

Former president Donald Trump and 18 of his associates are facing charges for racketeering in Georgia related to their conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election. This is one of four criminal indictments against Trump and it’s considered to be one of the strongest, given that four of his co-defendants have already pleaded guilty. The prosecutor who opened the case, Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis, had been hailed as a national hero for having the guts to prosecute 19 people at once, for extracting multiple guilty pleas, and for having the potential to put Trump behind bars.

But the narrative around the case has taken a sharp turn in the past two weeks. After one of Trump’s co-defendants complained that Willis had dated a prosecutor she hired to help with the case, the judge has effectively put Willis on trial for being unethical. He set up a separate hearing to assess team Trump’s claims that Willis and her ex, Nathan Wade, had incentive to draw out the case to fund their lavish vacations together. Now, headlines about the case are focused almost entirely on Willis’s personal life instead of the former president’s attempts to overturn an election.

The courtroom devolved last week into a melodramatic grilling about a relationship between two middle-aged lawyers that sounded so normal and unremarkable as to be comedically mundane. Wade was asked to recall, on the stand, the date of the last time they had sex. Willis then had to defend their romance and detail why she used cash instead of Venmo to reimburse Wade for dates. “It’s a Black thing,” her 79-year-old dad explained to the court, about having advised his daughter to keep large amounts of cash on hand.

Willis held up impressively well during her testimony, though she betrayed more than a few times how ridiculous she found the entire line of questioning to be. When exactly did her relationship with Wade begin, a Trump lawyer asked? Sometime in early 2022, she said — months after she hired Wade to work with her on the case, though she couldn’t offer a specific date. “It’s not like when you’re in grade school and you send a little letter saying ‘will you be my girlfriend?’ and you check it,” she said.

What was the first vacation they took together? “A vacation is a stretch,” Willis said. “I took him to, like, Tennessee for the day.” They also went to Aruba and Belize, “where they may or may not have visited a tattoo parlor,” according to the New York Times.

Who paid for these vacations? Both of them, she said. “Mr. Wade is used to women that, as he told me one time, only thing a woman can do for him is make him a sandwich,” she told the court. “We would have brutal arguments about the fact that I am your equal. I don’t need anything from a man. A man is not a plan. A man is a companion.”

And when did their relationship end? Again, they might disagree. “I would say we had a tough conversation in August,” she said. “Men end relationships when there’s an end of physical intimacy. Women end it when that tough conversation takes place.”

At one point, an exasperated Willis had to remind the courtroom who was actually being charged with a crime in Georgia. “These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020!” she said. “I’m not on trial. No matter how hard you try to put me on trial.”

The bottom line, according to legal experts interviewed by the Times, is that Willis has not done anything illegal. She has just created a perception problem. A problem that likely wouldn’t exist — or at least would be considered much less consequential — if she didn’t happen to be a Black woman prosecuting Trump. Black women are more likely to have their judgment questioned at work and tend to be scrutinized or penalized in the workplace for things that have nothing to do with their job performance. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, by contrast, has faced exactly zero consequences for his flagrant conflict of interest. Aside from being secretly bankrolled for 20 years by a right-wing billionaire with a house full of Nazi artifacts, Thomas refused to recuse himself from Senator Lindsey Graham’s attempt to weasel out of testifying before a grand jury in Willis’s case, despite his wife having been a key promoter of Trump’s lies about a stolen election. Trump, meanwhile, has racked up 91 felony charges, two impeachments, and a verdict finding him liable for sexual abuse, and he’s still the likely Republican nominee for president. But of course, no perception problem there!

Against that backdrop, it feels inevitable that the case Willis built ended up here. Black women in a position of power often have to over-perform to be seen as competent, and so Willis is afforded zero mistakes — even if those mistakes are plainly legal. (Both Willis and Trump have made the racial politics here explicit: Willis gave a speech where she suggested the claims against her are racially motivated, since the white attorneys she hired to help with the case are not being attacked, to which Trump accused her of playing the race card.) She may be kicked off the Trump case and even out of office for having dated the wrong colleague. The question of when she and Wade last “boinked,” as the Washington Post put it, is now “both none of our business and influential to the future of American democracy.” Major national outlets, including The Wall Street Journal and The Hill, have explicitly called for Willis to resign. Even corrupt former senator Kelly Loeffler, who notoriously profited off dumping her stocks after a Senate briefing on the pandemic while downplaying the risks of COVID in early 2020, has published an op-ed in Georgia’s largest newspaper calling for Willis to resign and for voters to reject her.

If Willis does resign or recuse herself, or the judge removes her from the case, Trump and his associates could escape accountability altogether. Willis had asked the judge to set an August trial date before the defendants began pushing him to look into her affair. Finding a new prosecutor to take over the case would be a heavy lift that, at the very least, would likely delay the trial until after the 2024 election — if the new mystery prosecutor decides to continue pursuing the charges at all. The former president could very well succeed in erasing the case against him by simply smearing public opinion of Willis, reinforcing the idea that wealthy powerful white men operate under a different system of justice than the rest of us. That’s very dark news for anyone who hoped that these criminal charges might put a dent in his re-election prospects.

Fani Willis Didn’t Stand a Chance