Judge In Trump Georgia Case Says Willis Can Continue Prosecution

Judge In Trump Georgia Case Says Willis Can Continue Prosecution
Fani Willis , right, in Fulton County courtroom

March 15 (Reuters) - The Georgia judge overseeing Donald Trump's trial on charges of trying to overturn his election defeat in the U.S. state said that lead prosecutor Fani Willis can remain on the case, so long as she removes a deputy she had a personal relationship with.

Judge Scott McAfee's ruling was a blow to the Republican former U.S. president, who seeks to unseat Democratic President Joe Biden in a Nov. 5 election. Trump has sought to delay trials in the four criminal cases he faces until after the election.

McAfee's decision caps a tumultuous two months for Fulton County District Attorney Willis, whose romantic relationship with Nathan Wade, the special prosecutor she appointed to lead the case, was disclosed in a January court filing by a Trump co-defendant.

It also ends three months of contentious litigation and evidentiary hearings over the relationship that effectively paused the rest of the case, though McAfee has yet to set a trial date.

Defense lawyers said the relationship posed a conflict of interest and improperly enriched Willis and Wade, who vacationed together while Wade was drawing a government salary.

McAfee found the relationship did not pose a conflict of interest but said it created "a significant appearance of impropriety" that required either Willis or Wade to step aside.

Trump's lawyer Steve Sadow said in a statement that he respected the judge's ruling but believed it did "not afford appropriate significance to the prosecutorial misconduct of Willis and Wade."

Willis' office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trump has pleaded not guilty in all the cases against him. He is accused in the Georgia case of illegally pressuring state officials to overturn his loss to Biden there in the 2020 presidential election.

He has so far been successful in delaying the start of any trial as he seeks to return to the White House.

One in four self-identified Republicans and about half of independents said they would not vote for Trump if he was convicted of a felony crime by a jury, according to a February Reuters/Ipsos poll. That would be a significant liability in a race where opinion polls show Trump and Biden essentially tied.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review Trump's bid for presidential immunity in a federal election interference case in Washington, which could delay that trial until after the election.

The judge in Trump's upcoming trial in New York on charges related to hush-money payments to a porn star during his 2016 campaign is weighing postponing the March 25 scheduled trial start after federal prosecutors turned over a mountain of new evidence.

Willis and Wade testified that their relationship did not begin until after Wade was hired. Prosecutors argued the affair was irrelevant because it did not harm the defendants.

Defense lawyers accused the prosecutors of lying to the court, saying the relationship began before Wade was hired. In court papers filed on Feb. 23, Trump's attorney cited location data from Wade’s cellphone suggesting he made numerous late-night visits to Willis’ home before she appointed him.

Trump is also under indictment in Florida over his handling of classified documents upon leaving office. The judge overseeing that case is weighing Trump's bid to move his May 20 trial date.

Reporting by Jack Queen in New York and Andrew Goudsward in Fort Pierce, Florida; editing by Scott Malone, Jonathan Oatis and Howard Goller

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