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Fulton County DA Fani Willis scrutinized after allegations from a Trump codefendant

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Former President Donald Trump appears to be on a clear path to the Republican nomination, almost guaranteeing a rematch of 2020 and almost guaranteeing that, in November, voters will be faced with a question of whether or not to put someone looking at 91 criminal counts back in the White House. Thirteen of those are coming out of the key swing state of Georgia, where Trump pressured election officials to overturn the results.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have.

DETROW: Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis brought criminal charges against Trump and others for those alleged efforts, but now Willis is facing scrutiny herself. The judge in the case has set a hearing to look into allegations raised by one of Trump's co-defendants that Willis is in a personal relationship with the outside counsel she appointed to lead the case against Trump. Trump is using those allegations to try and discredit the case. And it is important to say that there's still no concrete evidence of an affair and also that Willis has not formally denied them. To talk more about all of this we are joined by Norman Eisen, a lawyer and ethics expert who previously advised the House Judiciary Committee during the first Trump impeachment. Thanks for being here.

NORMAN EISEN: Thanks for having me, Scott.

DETROW: So you are now calling for Nathan Wade, the outside prosecutor in the case, to step aside. Why is that?

EISEN: There is no legal requirement that Mr. Wade or Ms. Willis step aside based on the allegations that the two of them are having a relationship. Georgia law, like law all over the United States, is very clear that those kinds of ancillary matters do not go to the merits of the case. Scott, we've all heard the tape. You just played it. There's powerful evidence here. And their having a relationship has nothing to do with the strength of the case against the former president or with any other prejudice to a defendant. It doesn't harm the defendants. So it's no basis, legally, for disqualification.

And yet, it has become a distraction. Instead of thinking about that evidence - I just want to find 11,780 votes that didn't exist and that the former president knew didn't exist - very serious alleged crimes - we've all become consumed with this relationship. So I think Mr. Wade has done a great job leading the team up until now. He's had a string of successes. And a suitable capstone to keep the case moving forward would be for him to say discretion is the better part of valor. I don't have to, but I'm going to step aside so we can return the focus where it should be - on the alleged criminality.

DETROW: You said this was an ancillary matter. And again, these are allegations that clear-cut evidence has not been presented yet. Is it ancillary to allegedly steer something like more than $600,000 of taxpayer money to someone you're in a relationship with, even if they're doing work to earn that money?

EISEN: I am not saying that we shouldn't look at it as an ethics matter, as a personnel matter, as a matter of public interest. But it's ancillary to the rules that govern whether Mr. Wade or Ms. Willis stay on this case. I'm not saying that they don't merit a look. They do. But they don't disqualify the prosecutors here, and they should not slow down this case which is of paramount public importance.

DETROW: What can the DA's office do to course-correct here, other than, you know, in your suggestion, Wade stepping aside? Is there anything else to do to kind of reset and say, this is a serious charge, and, as you said, we've already gotten convictions, and we are moving forward?

EISEN: No. 1, there needs to be some recognition of accountability, which is why I think Wade stepping aside is far preferable to the DA doing so. She was democratically elected. She owes it to her constituents to see this through. The DA stepping aside would be very disruptive. So that's step No. 1.

Step No. 2 - total transparency. I think when the DA files her motion on February 2, she should put it all out there. That's kind of the No. 1 rule of crisis management - is get all the facts. Get them all out at once.

And then No. 3, the judge has to have an evidentiary hearing and double down on the transparency by having scrutiny - kind of belt and suspenders - where he asks the hard questions. He hears from witnesses. He gets documents. And then he rules in a way that lifts the cloud.

I think, together with a gesture of accountability, like Wade stepping away, that really can put us in a situation in mid-February where it's been thoroughly ventilated. There's no more news, and we return to really what is the important issue here, like in the other three criminal cases - over 90 felony charges against the former president - some of the most serious alleged criminal wrongdoing, assaulting our democracy, that we've seen in the history of our country.

DETROW: That's Norman Eisen, a lawyer and ethics expert. Thanks so much for joining us.

EISEN: Thanks for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tyler Bartlam
Gabriel J. Sánchez
Gabriel J. Sánchez is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. Sánchez identifies stories, books guests, and produces what you hear on air. Sánchez also directs All Things Considered on Saturdays and Sundays.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.

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