Politics / January 23, 2024

The Fani Willis Scandal Is Bad—but It Doesn’t Change Her Case Against Trump

While the allegations that Willis had a romantic relationship with prosecutor Nathan Wade are serious, they don’t affect the merits of the charges against the former president.

Elie Mystal

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, center, speaks at a news conference alongside prosecutor Nathan Wade, right.

(John Bazemore / AP Photo

I really can’t defend Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis. I want to, because her prosecution of the Donald Trump cronies involved in the conspiracy to overturn the election in Georgia is critical. I want to, because the Republican push to turn her personal missteps into a reason to dismiss her case is both wrong and infuriating. I want to, because, like Issa Rae, “I’m rooting for everybody Black.” But I can’t, or won’t, defend her from the salacious allegations leveled against her, because, if true, they represent a textbook case of public corruption—even if they shouldn’t affect the case against Trump.

The story begins with Willis’s hiring of a lawyer named Nathan Wade as one of the special prosecutors in the Trump election fraud case. According to Michael Roman, one of the 19 people Willis is prosecuting, Willis and Wade are romantically involved. Wade was, of course, paid for his work on the case, and Roman alleges that Wade spent some of the money on Willis, in the form of vacations and dinners and whatever else couples who don’t have children together do with their massive amounts of free time.

Willis denies that there was any “impropriety,” but has assiduously avoided denying the underlying charge: that she hired a man she was romantically involved with.

Roman, it should be noted, was an opposition researcher for the Trump campaign, which is a nice way of saying that his literal job is to dig up dirt on people. Willis has been divorced since 2005, but Wade is going through an apparently messy divorce right now. The hunt for Wade’s assets in that divorce proceeding is likely where the allegations about the relationship between Wade and Willis came from. Make no mistake: This is a hit job on a prominent Black woman, carried out by a longtime Republican operative who does this crap for a living.

Still, just because this looks like a bad-faith hit job doesn’t mean it can be ignored. That’s because, if true, the relationship looks a lot like a kickback scheme. There’s no law against hiring your lover (though there probably should be, because people seriously need to stop trying to serve the public and their genitals at the same time), but there absolutely are laws against public graft. Hiring a paramour, family member, or really good friend for a taxpayer-funded job, and then having that person spend their taxpayer salary on you in any capacity, is corrupt. There is no other word for it. It might be “petty” corruption or “harmless” corruption or “the kind of corruption white men have gotten away with for hundreds of years,” but it’s still “corruption.”

From there, however, Roman (and the white-wing cult of Trump that has glommed onto this story like sharks circling a wounded seal) overplay their hand. Roman says that the entire case against him and his codefendants should be dismissed. He argues that the whole prosecution is a scheme cooked up by Willis to enrich herself with the help of her alleged lover.

That argument is ridiculous on a number of levels. First and foremost, there’s no evidence that Willis inappropriately prosecuted the election fraudsters. All the evidence in this situation points to a messy divorce—and some galactically selfish and careless bad judgment—not a pattern of malicious prosecution.

The media has been getting a lot of play out of the fact that Wade was hired as a “special prosecutor.” But people are using that title without context, and ascribing outsize importance to his role. At the federal level, a special prosecutor like Jack Smith has independent authority and is brought on to make all the decisions and run the case. It’s not like that at the local level, where a special prosecutor can best be thought of as extra help. Wade is not the guy in charge; he’s more like the guy hired at Home Depot to help out with Christmas trees during the holiday season—if seasonal workers were paid $650,000 for their efforts. If anything, the fact that Wade was relatively unimportant to the case deepens the corruption here: Willis could have picked anybody with a legal pad and a working knowledge of trial law (literally anybody more skilled than Alina Habba) to do this job, but she picked a guy who would (allegedly) take her on luxury cruises?

However, his role as a well-paid functionary should help the case survive. Willis, in fact, hired two other special prosecutors, in addition to Wade, that nobody seems to have a problem with. Unless she’s in a romantic entanglement with all three (please, universe, make her slightly less lecherous than Zeus), you really can’t say the whole prosecution is compromised because Willis was getting busy with one of her helpers.

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The whole thing looks awful, but Willis represents the state of Georgia—she is not the state of Georgia. If she and Wade were kicked off the case or eloped to Fiji or quit to star in the next season of Love Island, the state of Georgia would still have a case. Remember, this is a case where multiple people—including Sidney Powell, Ken Chesboro, and Jenna Ellis—have already pleaded guilty. Prosecutions go on even after the prosecutors who started them are exposed to be corrupt individuals unworthy of the public trust. If every criminal trial stopped because a prosecutor was throwing money to some a bit on the side, we’d have to open the jails and free a whole bunch of people.

All that said, the time for Wade to get his ass gone from this case is now. He hasn’t even been deposed in his divorce proceeding (a motion, yesterday, made by Roman’s team to make Willis testify in Wade’s divorce before Wade was denied, but the case was unsealed). I imagine things are going to get even uglier as that process plays out.

The suggestion that Willis should leave is a bit more complicated. The court could kick her off the case, but my political calculus is that it’s better for the case for Willis to stay. Again, there’s no evidence that Willis’s personal failings affected the decision to bring these charges or her prosecution of the defendants. The appearance of impropriety and evidence of unethical behavior is likely more of an issue for the voters of Georgia than it is for Judge Scott McAfee, who is presiding over the trial.

This seems like a good time to mention that Willis is up for reelection this year.

The best-case scenario is probably for Willis to continue to lead this prosecution and let the voters of Georgia decide her fate in November. She has made a terrible bed for herself, and now everybody has to lie in it. If Willis is to be punished, it should be through the very electoral procedures she has used her office to defend. Or perhaps the voters will decide that placing your lover on the public dime is preferable to refusing to prosecute election deniers at all? There would be poetry in such justice, at the very least.

As part of her “defense,” Willis has said that she’s “imperfect.” I’d like to be sympathetic to that, because nobody is perfect, and most people would wither under the intense public scrutiny, criticism, and death threats she has been through for bringing these charges. But Black people know that is the standard—perfection—that we are held to, especially if we dare to challenge white power and authority. We can’t make mistakes. We can’t do substandard work. We can’t skim a little off the top. We even have to die, perfectly, in order to have any chance that our survivors can bring the cops who kill us to justice. We can’t act like white men, because the white men we’re pissing off will eat us alive if we stumble.

Fani Willis knows all that, and yet, in the biggest case of her life, with the entire world watching, she apparently decided to hire her lover for a $650,000 government job? If true, that’s not a “mistake.” It’s not merely “bad judgment.” It’s hubris. It’s reckless. It’s walking on a tightrope without a net while juggling live grenades, because you’ve convinced yourself that gravity doesn’t apply to you.

All that’s left now is the very long fall. Let us hope she doesn’t drag the case with her on the way down.

Elie Mystal

Elie Mystal is The Nation’s justice correspondent and the host of its legal podcast, Contempt of Court. He is also an Alfred Knobler Fellow at the Type Media Center. His first book is the New York Times bestseller Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy’s Guide to the Constitution, published by The New Press. Elie can be followed @ElieNYC.

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