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Deadly Tornadoes in Midwest; Judge Allows Fani Willis to Remain on Trump Election Subversion Case. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired March 15, 2024 - 13:00   ET



BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: She can stay, but only if he goes. The judge overseeing Donald Trump's election subversion case in Georgia rules that DA Fani Willis can remain, but only as long as special prosecutor Nathan Wade is removed.

We're going to break down what happens next, and the implications for former President Donald Trump.

Plus, deadly tornadoes in the Midwest, powerful storms causing widespread devastation. We're going to get you an up-close look at the damage as this storm system now barrels toward millions of Americans in the Southeast.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: And going after the NCAA, a group of female athletes now suing the association for letting transgender athletes compete against them.

We're following these major developing stories and many more, all coming in right here to CNN NEWS CENTRAL.

SANCHEZ: A major decision today in the election interference case against Donald Trump in Georgia, Judge Scott McAfee ruling that Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis can continue prosecuting the case.

There is a catch, though. If she stays, Nathan Wade, the special prosecutor who Willis hired who she's been romantically involved with in the past, must be removed.

Today's decision comes after a monthslong effort to disqualify Willis from the case, with attorneys for Trump and his co-defendants arguing that Willis financially benefited from hiring Wade, and that created a conflict of interest. Now, the judge was critical of that relationship. He described a serious lapse in judgment.

But, ultimately, he wrote in his ruling -- quote -- "Georgia law does not permit the finding of an actual conflict of interest for simply making bad choices, even repeatedly."

Let's get you live now to Fulton County.

And CNN's Nick Valencia has been following this case very closely. Nick, despite that stern language about Willis' conduct, Judge Scott

McAfee here delivering a win for her office.

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A monumental decision, a historic decision, Boris, and a technical win for Fani Willis, but one that comes with a massive indictment on her behavior.

The judge, though, saying in his order that the defense attorneys were unable to prove that Willis enriched herself by hiring Nathan Wade as her lead prosecutor, but he was very critical of that relationship, saying that Georgia law does not permit an actual conflict even for repeatedly making bad choices.

He did have some pointed words for the district attorney. I want to read part of this ruling here, Scott McAfee, the judge, saying: "Reasonable questions about whether the district attorney and her hand-selected lead special assistant district attorney testified untruthfully about the timing of the relationship further underpinned the finding of an appearance of impropriety and the need to make proportional efforts to cure it."

So it is definitely an admonishment there from the judge. And we're getting some more sharp words from defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant. She is the defense attorney that first surfaced these allegations against Willis and her team. This is the first time that she's responded since that order came out this morning. And this is part of her statement here.

"While we believe the court should have disqualified Willis' office entirely, this opinion is a vindication that everything put forth by the defense was true, accurate and relevant to the issues surrounding our clients' right to a fair trial."

She goes on to say: "The judge clearly agreed with the defense that the actions of Willis are a result of her poor judgment and that there is a risk to the future of this case if she doesn't quickly work to cure her conflict."

We do expect a resignation to happen some time from Nathan Wade. We have reached out to Wade. We have not heard back, but we can only imagine that that decision is forthcoming. Big questions, though, still remain. Will Willis be able to get this trial back on track for a desired trial before the election? That is the most outstanding question right now -- Boris.

SANCHEZ: And potentially who she may hire to replace Wade.

Nick Valencia, thanks so much for the update.

We want to turn now to CNN's Paula Reid.

Paula, the case now can theoretically move forward in Fulton County once we find out whether Nathan Wade will resign. We believe that's what's going to happen. What is the next step?

PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, they need to find someone else to oversee this case.


And the fact that they had to take time to vet these allegations, this has pushed the trial back. And, right now, Boris, it's really unclear if Fani Willis will be able to bring this case before the election.

But let's take a step back and look at the four criminal prosecutions that Trump is facing. I mean, just in the past 24 hours, we have had changes to this calendar. There was expected to be the first criminal case in two weeks from now. Just in 10 days, this was supposed to start. This is the Manhattan district attorney's so-called hush money case, though the district attorney is framing it as a 2016 election interference case.

And last night, the district attorney revealed that they would not oppose delaying that case for 30 days. Trump lawyers are asking to delay it for 90 days. Both sides need to go through tens of thousands of pages of new evidence that they have received from federal prosecutors. This is a state case.

Boris, that was pretty surprising because this is the only case that was definitely on the calendar. And now it's up to the judge how far back that gets delayed. You see the election subversion case, the federal case. That's on hold while the Supreme Court hears arguments about Trump's possible immunity.

We are watching and waiting to see the judge overseeing the classified document case. We expect that she's going to push that back. It's on the calendar for May. It'll get pushed back. But then Fani Willis thought she was going to start in August. That appears unlikely.

Boris, at this point, it's really hard to say for sure if Trump will face any of these criminal cases before the November election.

SANCHEZ: His legal team, it appears their effort to delay his trials has been successful to this point.

Paula Reid, thanks so much -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Let's talk more about this now with Anthony Michael Kreis. He's an assistant professor of law at Georgia State University and he's been in court following this case pretty closely.

OK, so, first, headline here, Fani Willis not disqualified from the case as long as Nathan Wade, the special attorney, that she hired, goes, which is our expectation here, but Judge Scott McAfee is saying that this relationship was a -- quote -- "tremendous lapse in judgment," a result of -- quote -- "bad choices."

He also said Willis was -- quote -- "unprofessional" in her testimony in last month's hearing. These are pretty blistering words. What did you think?

ANTHONY MICHAEL KREIS, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY: Well, this is really a huge legal victory for Fani Willis, to the extent that her ability to bring this prosecution will remain in her control, because she can decide whether to keep the case or to keep Nathan Wade essentially in her office.

But, as a political matter, she received a pretty big drumming today from Judge McAfee. But, at the same time, I think that a lot of people who have been watching this case, people in Georgia legal circles in particular, have thought that a lot of the things that were going on in the aftermath of these allegations and in the run-up to them were kind of dicey.

And so there's really nothing new in this, but I really do think that she will walk away with a huge victory, but she will be a little bit more battered and bruised than she was before.

KEILAR: The judge did call comments that Willis made in January at an Atlanta area church about the case legally improper. He said, a gag order isn't the question before the court, but I wonder if you thought he was basically saying he might be inclined to grant one if he's asked to do so based on public comments she's made about the case.

KREIS: What's really important to understand about that dynamic of the opinion is that we don't want DAs to ever, not even remotely, discuss the facts, innocence or the allegations of wrongdoing in a substantive way in the public eye.

And so we don't want to taint the jury pool. What Fani Willis did in her church speech was speak in very broad generalities, and that happens a lot, because DAs in Georgia and as the case in many states are partisanly elected officials. So they will make campaign speeches, they will make appearances in the public, and talk about their philosophies generally.

But what she did here for Judge McAfee was a step too far in impugning the character of the defense attorneys and perhaps coloring the view that people in Fulton County and the jury pool here would have of the case that's been brought against Donald Trump and his allies in an improper way.

So I think she's on -- she's been warned pretty significantly by Judge McAfee to not step out of bounds and to really only speak through legal filings.

KEILAR: In terms of affecting a jury pool, he seemed to say or he said in this filing that there's enough time between now, when this has been -- this decision has come out and when jury selection will begin that it's not going to affect that. He says it shouldn't get in the way.

But what if potential jury members have heard about this, about this evidentiary hearing? Do you think that could be a factor in jury selection they may be asked about?

KREIS: The voir dire process, which is the process which we screen potential jurors through, was going to be complicated no matter what, in large part because this case is so salient and so politically polarizing. [13:10:00]

It will be very hard to find a panel of jurors who don't have some kind of preordained notion of what this case is about and who can judge the evidence fairly and impartially. That was always going to be an issue. But I think time is to the DA's benefit here and to everybody, the entire judicial system's benefit here, because people have a fairly short memory.

And that's especially true in a year like 2024, where there will be so many political issues, so many trials that Donald Trump has in other places, that this may be just a blip in people's memories in the long term by the time we get to a trial, which may be very late 2024 or even early 2025 at this rate.

KEILAR: That's your expectation. She's pushing for August, but that's what you expect on timing?

KREIS: There's a lot more that we have to go through, I think, before we can talk about an August trial. Two things are true. There are other important pretrial motions that are still under consideration by Judge McAfee, one of them being one about presidential immunity and the Supremacy Clause, which is related to a case that the Supreme Court will hear next month.

So he may want to hear what the Supreme Court has to say about that before he weighs in, and that might take some time. And there are other sundry issues that have to be addressed. And the other important key dynamic here is, Donald Trump can't be in multiple places at once. So if there are other criminal trials that are happening in the summer or early fall, then Fulton County will have to wait their turn.

It's not implausible that we will have a late summer trial, perhaps, but I think at this point it's impractical.

KEILAR: All right, professor, very interesting, especially there on the timing. We appreciate it.

Professor Anthony Michael Kreis, thank you.

KREIS: Thank you.

KEILAR: Boris.

SANCHEZ: Donald Trump and his team have wasted no time in fund- raising off of Judge McAfee's decision, which allows Fulton County DA Fani Willis to stay on his election subversion case in Georgia.

Just moments after the decision dropped, his campaign sent out a text to his supporters that reads -- quote -- "Fani Willis can continue the witch-hunt against me, rigged system against us."

The message also had a link to a fund-raising page.

CNN's Kristen Holmes joins us now, tracking the response from Trump world. Other than fund-raising, what else are you hearing, Kristen?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So, in the world of Trump, where now we have a complete political and legal alignment, I reached out for a statement and I got a legal statement from Trump's lawyer in Georgia on this case.

And this is what they said. It's not surprising.

He said: "While respecting the court's decision" -- again, this is Steve Sadow, who has been the Fulton County lawyer for Trump -- "we believe that the court did not afford appropriate significance to the prosecutorial misconduct of Willis and Wade, including the financial benefits, testifying untruthfully about their personal relationship, when it began, as well as Willis' extrajudicial MLK church speech, where she played the race card to falsely accuse the defendants and their counsel of racism."

It goes on to say: "We will use all legal options available to continue to fight to end this case, which never should have been brought in the first place."

Unsurprising there that they're saying that this is not what they wanted, that they are going to continue to fight this. But if you are talking to people in Trump's inner circle, this is good for them. They believe that this is a win. They believe that Fani Willis, sure, she's staying on the case. That's why they are saying, oh, this wasn't what we wanted.

But she does come out of this damaged. And that's their belief. The other part of this that you have to remember is that Donald Trump does everything through messaging and the court of public opinion. There is no doubt, no conflict of -- conflict on this ruling. It is very clear and very scathing when it comes to Fani Willis.

Donald Trump is going to use that language. He is going to turn this into something against Fani Willis. They also believe that taking Nathan Wade off the case could help them in the long run, because they have to bring someone else in. Who's that person going to be? Do they have to get caught up?

Again, this goes to that delay, delay, delay tactic, Boris.

SANCHEZ: Kristen Holmes, thanks so much for the reporting. Appreciate it, as always.

Still ahead this hour on CNN NEWS CENTRAL: Daylight reveals complete devastation in parts of Indiana and Ohio after reported tornadoes tear through those states. Our next guest says that buildings in her town are completely gone.

Plus, diplomats have tried to prevent it and humanitarian groups have been fearing it. Israelis' prime minister says he has just approved plans for action in Rafah. But he intends to evacuate Palestinian civilians first. The big question now, how? And we're following a developing story that could have a major impact

on how much it costs to buy and sell a home. The National Association of Realtors just agreed to a deal that would nix the standard 6 percent sales commission, settling a series of lawsuits by paying up more than $400 million in damages.

The settlement now just needs a judge's approval. It's expected to lead to a much more competitive market. We will discuss in just moments.



SANCHEZ: A killer storm system overnight spews several likely tornadoes tearing through Indiana and Ohio.

These images show what's left in Indian Lake, Ohio, where the sheriff says that the storm took the lives of three people. About 30 minutes to the West, one man captured this terrifying scene, fierce winds cutting through his neighborhood, shredding his property.

Our meteorologists say that the video appears to show a rare horizontal tornado getting swallowed into a larger one. Watch this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, no. Oh, no. All those poor people.



SANCHEZ: Let's go to Winchester, Indiana, now with CNN's Whitney Wild.

Whitney, the mayor there says that 38 people were hurt by the system, several of them critically injured. What are you hearing from residents about what happened?

WHITNEY WILD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're shocked by the destruction, but they are also so grateful that there have been no fatalities, as you mentioned, 38 people here in Randolph County, Indiana, have been injured.

What we know now, Boris, is that those were EF-2 tornadoes that touched down in Indiana, as well as Ohio,to give you a sense of how massive that storm is, 120-miles-per-hour winds, the size, the width of that tornado, 250 yards.

And out here in Winchester, you can see how powerful that storm was. Right now, I'm standing by what was a Taco Bell drive-through. You can see that big, iconic sign. And then, through, you can see that that restaurant was simply leveled.

I spoke with one man who was inside. He said, at the time, there were at least seven people inside. The storm system passed over them. It went pretty quickly, but what happened inside, Boris, is simply gut- wrenching.

He was standing on the -- if you see on your frame, the right side of the restaurant. And he and his manager and other co-workers got into a cooler and just pushed on this heavy steel door and just tried to hold on. Here's exactly what he told us.


ANDY DAY, TORNADO SURVIVOR: About the time I got in the walk-in cooler, I turned around and started holding the freezer door. And then it just started shaking, and it blew me back about 15 feet from there to about right there in that debris.

And then I just held on to whatever I could grab ahold of and held us down. She was screaming: "Oh, my God, Andy." And I was like: "Just hold on. That's all we can do."

WILD: What were you thinking in that moment?

DAY: Just hold on.


DAY: That's all you could think. I mean, it was a lot quicker than you think. It was about five seconds, and it -- the worst of it was over.


WILD: As you heard, he said that he had been pushed to the other side of that restaurant.

The destruction out here just goes on for blocks. If you look down here, you can see that these sheets of metal are somewhat draped around this light pole, as if they're not sheets of metal, but instead thin pieces of fabric. That's how powerful this storm was, Brianna and Boris.

And then if you look on the left side of your frame, that debris there, if you see there are cars that are coming, it's that debris pile that's just at the edge of those vehicles. That was a house that, Boris and Brianna, was not on the side of that street. That house is supposed to be standing on the other side of the street.

We spoke with that family, who described these harrowing moments. Fortunately, the woman who is the homeowner was found OK. They say she just has a broken nose. And it's really the miracles out here. These people who were caught in the eye of this storm, just right at the center of some of the most powerful moments walked away in some cases, in some cases, with just a couple of bumps and bruises, in some cases, a couple broken bones -- back to you.

SANCHEZ: Wow, that woman lucky to be alive.

Whitney Wild live for us in Winchester, Indiana, thanks so much -- Brianna.

KEILAR: One place that was hit particularly hard by these tornadoes is the Indian Lake area in Logan County, Ohio. That is where one community member described the scene as complete devastation.

Amber Fagan is the president and CEO of the Indian Lake Chamber of Commerce. She took these images that you're looking at of what is left in the village of Lakeview.

Amber, thank you so much for taking some time out to talk with us today.

This sounds incredibly scary and just devastating when you look at what this has done to folks' lives there. What are they telling you? How are you doing?

AMBER FAGAN, PRESIDENT AND CEO, INDIAN LAKE AREA, OHIO, CHAMBER OF COMMERCE: I have been in contact with the EMA and the sheriff's department.

The governor just landed here at Indian Lake, and he's getting ready to do a press conference. There will be a lot watching for that. But, right now, I mean, we have snowplows plowing the streets of debris just to help get rescuers, search-and-rescue teams here.

They're just asking everybody, stay away. Don't bring any more traffic, congestion. Just stay away from the Indian Lake region right now. We have all the professionals we need. The hospitals are fully stocked. They don't need any volunteers or supplies.

Water companies have came and brought pallets and cases of water. We're OK. We don't need anything at this time. As things progress, hopefully, we will be able to get out to things that the community needs. But, right now, we're still in active search-and-rescue. It's very, very sad.

KEILAR: It's very sad.

And, Amber, tell us where you were when you first realized that a tornado was coming through your area.

FAGAN: I hate to admit this. I was actually at my house. I live in Russells Point on the water in the Dunns Pond area, which one of my neighbor's houses was completely lifted up and just gone.


Another one caught fire. But my best friend called me from Lakeview. And she said: "Get to Lakeview. Get to Lakeview. Come here and be with me."

I don't know why, but I got in my car and I drove there. And that's why I was able to get pictures of the aftermath, I hate to admit, and I had no business even being on the road at the time. And just your adrenaline kicks in and you just try to do what you can for the people you love and care about. So, a lot of my businesses are just gone. So, it was a good thing that

I was able to get to Lakeview, and then back through Russells Point, because everybody's called. And I have been able to tell them, your business is still standing, your windows are out, your roof is gone. So that's been helpful, but just a lot of prayers for Indian Lake.

And we will get through this. And the community is strong. And we appreciate all the support that we have gotten from around the state.

KEILAR: Yes, because people can't even get to their -- can't get necessarily to their homes, if they were away from them, or their businesses.

Tell us what you need. What does the community need right now?

FAGAN: Indian Lake School is set up kind of working and disbursing things.

They -- I know they have shared the Red Cross link to be able to donate. On our Indian Lake Chamber page, I shared our fireworks link for donations. All that will be going to tornado relief to help different communities and outreach centers in need.

They're just asking for people to not bring traffic and not make any more congestion right now is the big thing that I have been asked to help communicate.

KEILAR: Yes. And we're hearing that time and again, so, very good to repeat there.

Amber, thank you so much. We're so sorry for what you're dealing with there, and we're so happy that you're safe. Thank you for being with us.

FAGAN: Thank you.

KEILAR: Next: The U.N. has warned an Israeli invasion of Rafah could lead to a slaughter in Gaza, but Prime Minister -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he has just approved plans for the operation. We will have details on it ahead.

Plus, new evidence that the sudden plunge of a LATAM flight that sent passengers flying through the cabin, hitting the ceiling in some cases, could have been caused by a flight attendant. We will tell you how.