Judge clears way for Trump to appeal ruling keeping Fani Willis on Georgia 2020 election case

FILE- Fulton County Superior Judge Scott McAfee presides over a hearing is to determine whether Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis should be removed from the case because of a relationship with Nathan Wade, special prosecutor she hired in the election interference case against former President Donald Trump, Friday, March, 1, 2024, in Atlanta. An attorney for Donald Trump says he’s optimistic an appellate review will lead to the Georgia 2020 election interference case against him being dismissed and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis being disqualified. (AP Photo/Alex Slitz, Pool, File)

FILE- Fulton County Superior Judge Scott McAfee presides over a hearing is to determine whether Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis should be removed from the case because of a relationship with Nathan Wade, special prosecutor she hired in the election interference case against former President Donald Trump, Friday, March, 1, 2024, in Atlanta. An attorney for Donald Trump says he’s optimistic an appellate review will lead to the Georgia 2020 election interference case against him being dismissed and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis being disqualified. (AP Photo/Alex Slitz, Pool, File)

ATLANTA (AP) — The judge overseeing the Georgia 2020 election interference case cleared the way Wednesday for Donald Trump and other defendants to appeal a ruling allowing Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis to remain on the prosecution.

Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee’s ruling means defense attorneys can ask the Georgia Court of Appeals to review the judge’s decision not to disqualify Willis or dismiss the indictment over her romantic relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade. It will be up to the appeals court to decide whether to hear the matter.

The judge said he would continue working to get the case ready for trial by addressing other matters in the meantime.

But while Willis had made clear her determination to turn the page from weeks of embarrassing headlines, the judge’s decision to green-light the appeal allows defense attorneys to keep at the forefront allegations of impropriety that threaten to damage the public’s perception of the prosecution.

McAfee last week said Willis can remain on the most sprawling of four criminal cases against the former president as long as Wade resigns, which Wade did on Friday.

Willis’ romantic relationship with Wade has roiled the case for weeks, overshadowing the allegations charging Trump and 18 others with trying to illegally overturn his narrow loss to Democrat Joe Biden in 2020 in Georgia in a desperate bid to remain in power. Among the acts listed in the indictment was a Jan. 2, 2021, phone call in which Trump urged fellow Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to help him “find” the 11,780 votes needed to beat Biden.

While the judge did not find Willis’ relationship with Wade created a conflict of interest that should force her off the case, he said an “appearance of impropriety” infected the prosecution team. The judge rebuked Willis for her “tremendous” lapse in judgment and questioned the truthfulness of Wade’s and her testimony about the timing of their relationship.

Attorneys for Trump and the other defendants said in court papers on Monday that Wade’s resignation was not enough to correct the appearance of impropriety the judge found. Defense lawyers say a failure to remove Willis could imperil any convictions and force a retrial if an appeals court later finds it was warranted.

Trump attorney Steve Sadow called the judge’s decision to allow the appeal “highly significant.”

“The defense is optimistic that appellate review will lead to the case being dismissed and the DA being disqualified,” Sadow said in an email.

Jeff DiSantis, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office, noted in a text message that the case had not been put on hold, adding that prosecutors will “work to move it forward to trial as quickly as possible.” The district attorney’s office will only comment on the appeal in court filings, he said.

Trump has pleaded not guilty and has denied doing anything wrong. The presumptive Republican nominee for the 2024 presidential election has characterized all the criminal cases against him as an effort to hurt his bid to reclaim the White House in November.

Defense attorneys alleged that Willis paid Wade large sums for his work and then improperly benefited from the prosecution of the case when Wade used his earnings to pay for vacations for the two of them.

Willis and Wade acknowledged they engaged in a romantic relationship, but they rejected the idea that Willis improperly benefited from it. Willis and Wade insisted they didn’t begin dating until after he became special prosecutor and the relationship ended in the summer of 2023. They both said that Willis either paid for things herself or used cash to reimburse Wade for travel expenses.

Wade offered his resignation in a letter to Willis on Friday, saying he was doing so “in the interest of democracy, in dedication to the American public and to move this case forward as quickly as possible.”

“I will always remember — and will remind everyone — that you were brave enough to step forward and take on the investigation and prosecution of the allegations that the defendants in this case engaged in a conspiracy to overturn Georgia’s 2020 Presidential Election,” Willis wrote in a letter accepting his resignation.

The case is separate from the 2020 election interference case brought by special counsel Jack Smith in Washington’s federal court. That case is currently on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court weighs Trump’s claims of presidential immunity, with oral arguments scheduled for next month.

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Richer reported from Boston.

AP Politics

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