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Judge Allows Prosecution Of Trump In Georgia Election Interference Case To Proceed; Ruling Allows Prosecution Of Trump In Georgia Election Interference Case, Despite Judge's Criticism Of District Attorney; National Security Attorney Analyzes Judge's Ruling In Trump's Georgia Case; Former President Trump Responds To Judge's Ruling In Georgia Election Interference Case; Political Analysts Discuss Political Ramifications Of Judge's Ruling In Trump's Georgia Case; Russians Head To Polls As Putin Poised To Win Fifth Term, Extending Grip On Power; Putin's Likely Reelection Fuels Concerns Of Increased Aggression, Especially In Ukraine; Republican Nominee For North Carolina Schools Chief Faces Backlash Over Social Media Posts. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired March 15, 2024 - 14:00   ET



BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: Donald Trump's election interference case in Georgia can now theoretically move forward. Today, the presiding judge delivered a major ruling that allows Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis to continue prosecuting the former president and his co-defendants. But she may only stay on if she removes special prosecutor Nathan Wade, who you may recall she'd been romantically involved with.

This all follows a months-long effort by Trump and his allies to disqualify Willis. They argue that she financially benefited from hiring Wade and that that created a conflict of interest. Now, today's ruling is a major victory for Willis and her office, but it came with some harsh criticism from Judge Scott McAfee, who rebuked Willis for the relationship and now says that it leaves a stain on the prosecution's team. CNN's Nick Valencia is live outside the courthouse for us in Fulton County. Nick, you've been watching this case unfold for months. What stands out to you about the decision today?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, Fanie Willis, there were some real concerns that she would be disqualified before today, and as it stands, she's going to be allowed to stay so long as she gets rid of the man whom she was romantically involved in. And those close to Fani Willis, her allies, they are seeing this as a big win, as a huge win, even if it's only a technical win on paper, and even if it does come with some blistering criticism from the judge, a massive indictment on her behavior. He called some of her testimony on February 15th during those disqualification hearings unprofessional, and he had some sharp and pointed words, about her relationship with Nathan Wade. This is what Judge Scott McAfee is saying in part of his decision, saying, quote, Georgia law does not permit the finding of an actual conflict for simply making bad choices, even repeatedly.

He goes on to say that this finding is by no means an indication that the court condones this tremendous lapse in judgment for the unprofessional manner of the district attorney's testimony during the evidentiary hearing. You know, we've been hearing from defense attorneys, including the one that surfaced these allegations, and while they say they respect the decision, they do feel vindicated in a certain sense. And I also spoke to Scott Grubman. He faced off against Fani Willis in an earlier phase of this case when he represented Ken Chesebro.

He criticized Judge Scott McAfee, saying he really kind of split the baby here, and says that he expects the defense attorneys in this case, primarily Stephen Sadow, the defense attorney for former President Trump, to appeal this decision.


SCOTT GRUBMAN, DEFENSE ATTORNEY FOR KENNETH CHESEBRO: I hope and expect that the criminal defense lawyers in this case will appeal this decision, and I hope the Georgia Court of Appeals has a different view than Scott McAfee.


VALENCIA: So the big things that we're waiting for here are Nathan Wade's resignation, and to see what phase next. What happens next with the district attorney's office. Will we hear from Fani Willis? No indication now at this point, but the big question here is, will they be able to get this case back on track before the November election? Boris.

SANCHEZ: Yeah, tough odds to see the trial take place in August as they had been forecasting. Nick Valencia, live from Atlanta, thank you so much. Let's discuss the case, now with National Security Attorney Bradley Moss. Bradley, thank you so much for being with us. So Judge McAfee here is saying that there is no effective conflict of interest, that the relationship between Fani Willis and Nathan Wade was not relevant to the charges against Donald Trump and his co-defendants. But he does say that there was an appearance of impropriety that must be removed. What's your main takeaway from that ruling?

BRADLEY MOSS, PARTNER, LAW OF OFFICE OF MARK S .ZAID: Yeah, Judge McAfee here, it was a pretty even-handed ruling. Basically decided, I'm not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. There was a bunch of smoke. There's certainly a stain on the reputation now of Nathan Wade and of Fani Willis and of this prosecution from an optics standpoint, but as a matter of law, in terms of the evidentiary standard that these defense lawyers had to meet they simply didn't have the proof that there was an actual conflict of interest

That there was an actual financial material benefit tied to Fani Willis in prosecuting this case that would mandate disqualification. But he agreed with the idea that because there is this stain on the case, that because there's the appearance of impropriety, someone has to go, and that's almost certainly going to be Nathan Wade. The case will continue on, and the question becomes, if this gets to trial, will the voters even remember what happened leading up to it if it makes it to the trial and we have a verdict before Election Day? SANCHEZ: You said it'll almost certainly be that Fani Willis stays and hires a new prosecutor. How does that process complicate the case? It doesn't seem like this August timeline that we were trending toward is tenable.

MOSS: Sure. So the idea is that she's most likely going to just rely on her existing team. She's indicated they're ready to go within 30 days.


There's no way that's going to happen at this point given the various changes in the schedule since that time, especially with the chaos we're seeing out in Manhattan right now with the district attorney case in the Stormy Daniels matter. But it's more than likely that what Fani Wills will try to do, is use the existing team that was already there. Aside from Nathan Wade, they can pick up the slack from that he would have otherwise handled, and they can still aim for an early fall trial.

How we're going to figure out this trial schedule for a presidential candidate, given that almost all three of the other cases are certainly going to start no earlier than June or July, is something that no one really knows yet. The judges have got to be just gnashing their teeth over right now.

SANCHEZ: Yeah, it is quite possible she doesn't hire anyone else and just sticks with the team that's in place. I do want to ask you about the potential for a gag order, because it's something that Judge McAfee alluded to. He described comments that were made by Willis at an Atlanta-area church in January as legally improper. I want to listen to some of those remarks now.


FANI WILLIS, FUTON COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: I hired one white man, brilliant, my friend, and a great boy. And I hired one black man, another superstar, a great friend, and a great boy. First thing they say, oh, she's going to play the race card now.


SANCHEZ: In defending Nathan Wade there, the defense argued that Willis was tainting a jury pool. McAfee's saying that it's probably too soon, we're too far out from jury selection for that to be the case. But he did say that the time may have arrived for an order preventing Willis from further discussing the case in public. Do you think that is essentially winking at the defense, saying that they should file a motion to impose a gag order on Willis?

MOSS: I think it certainly was suggesting that they should consider it. It doesn't mean he'll necessarily grant it. We'd have to see what the scope of any gag order would be. But if I'm Fani Willis, I want to retreat from the limelight of this case right now in the sense that let your line prosecutors, let the team you assembled be the face of this case. You're the political face, understandably. You were elected. You're going to always be the face in some manner.

But let your team handle the case, prosecute it, bring it to trial, and get a conviction. You want to be in the background as much as possible so that when people think about this case going forward, when they see it possibly going to trial and the lead up to election day, they're thinking about the evidence in the case. And they're thinking about the allegations against Donald Trump. They're not thinking about Fani Willis.

SANCHEZ: Bradley Moss, appreciate the analysis. Thanks for joining us.

MOSS: Anytime.

SANCHEZ: Brianna.

KEILAR: Former President Trump is already fundraising off of Judge McAfee's ruling to put things into perspective here. His campaign sending out this text to his supporters not long after the decision was handed down here. Trump's legal team also releasing this statement, slamming the ruling.

While respecting the court's decision, 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 when their personal relationship began, as well as Willis's extrajudicial MLK church speech where she played the race card and falsely accused the defendants and their counsel of racism. We will use all legal options available as we continue to fight to end this case, which should never have been brought in the first place. Let's talk about this now. CNN senior political analyst Ron Brownstein and Republican strategist Matt Gorman. All right, Ron, you tell us, what are the political ramifications of this ruling as you see it?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think the main implication is both that it pushes back the case in all likelihood, and it gives Trump and his supporters another reason to view this as illegitimate. I don't know if that extends beyond the Trump base, and that has always really been the question for me. I mean, all of these cases are looking less likely to render a verdict before November. But whether they go to trial is also really significant. Trump's retrospective job approval has been rising in most polls now. He has a higher job approval, retrospectively, people looking back at his presidency, than he had at any actual point during the presidency.

And I think one of the questions is whether any of these cases, particularly the ones related to election interference, are underway by the election in a manner that, like the January 6th committee, reminds voters, particularly those who are pretty tuned out. That last 10 percent of voters don't pay a lot of attention. What it was that happened in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election. And that, I think, is the risk to Trump at this point, more than that there will be a definitive verdict before the election.

KEILAR: Yet the timing, obviously, hugely important here, Matt.

[14:10:09] MATT GORMAN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: It absolutely is. I mean, what we've seen now is yet another, as Ron mentioned and Bradley mentioned too, this is the third of really pre-trial wins with Trump. The delay in New York, the immunity case going to Supreme Court, delaying that. What looked to be just a couple months ago as a year stocked with Trump in a courtroom suddenly looks a little bit more free now. And that changes how he campaigns. That changes his message. And I think that also changes, I think to Ron's point, how people perceive him.

KEILAR: Well, let me ask you a little bit about that. Do you think, and we have to be clear, she's still on the case. So legally that is a win for her. But if you go through and read what the judge wrote here repeatedly, he is admonishing her, saying that she testified in an unprofessional manner, that she made poor choices, etc. Does it really change the perception of whatever the outcome of this case is among people who hadn't already decided that they would not accept, say, some sort of verdict that does not serve Trump?

GORMAN: I think a couple of things. I think just purely stepping back. If you were a prosecutor and you're prosecuting the former president of the United States for actions they took in and around an election, you have to be above reproach. You cannot give, knowing that this will be a politically charged thing, your political enemies any sort of thing to latch up on. As we've seen here, just her lack of judgment, and as the judge said, gave, really left a stain in this case, and it left Trump and his campaign something concrete to now use politically. And look, I'm not a lawyer, I'm not going to pretend to be one. I'll leave that to Brad and the rest of the folks. But also, as this trial goes on, if it goes on, if there's an appeal, how they use it also can also be very potent, too.

Keilar: But Ron, let's say, the judge said here, she stays on the case, she just keeps it business and proceeds with the case whenever that may be. And obviously, the timing is a huge issue. I mean, can the case then stand for itself and maybe change some perceptions of her at this point in time, if we see how that is carried out in court?

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, I'm not sure it's going to change perceptions of her, really. The bigger question is whether it changes perceptions of Trump. I mean, the--as I said, I mean, you know, his retrospective type (ph) of approval is now at a level that exceeds his actual approval at any point during his presidency. And in some ways, that's because people are reacting primarily to the economy before COVID. All of these cases remind people of some of the anxieties they felt about having Trump in the White House, not only the question of whether he is bound by the rule of law or is a threat to kind of the Constitution. But just the sheer chaos and uncertainty and constant drama that surrounded him. So he has a strong interest in putting off any of these trials until after the election.

I mean, the Supreme Court has certainly thrown in a big lifeline in that regard and the most consequential of them. But look, I think the damage to her reputation and her judgment has been done, can't be undone. The question is how much of this evidence will be out before the public before November. That is the real issue here. KEILAR: Yeah. That and also, Matt, because, you know, a lot of people have no idea about the fake elector scheme. We talk about it all the time, right? That's why we look at this Georgia case. We know it's important. But there are a lot of voters who completely don't realize that this happened during the election. So how important is it that these facts are aired when it comes to maybe that affecting the outcome, whichever way you want that to go?

GORMAN: Or also, you know, a lot of folks don't follow this as close as we all do their way.

KEILAR: They certainly don't.

GORMAN: Is this a Stormy Daniels thing? Is it the January 6th? They tend to mush a lot of these facts together. And when you separate case by case, it's a little different thing. It focuses the attention a little bit more. And certainly in Georgia, where this is all televised, as opposed to I know some districts that are necessarily not, that does make a difference. And I think also to Ron's point. We saw with COVID, I think people got just tired of Trump because he's in your face every day with those COVID press conferences. And the like.

And I think that wore some folks down. The ability now to not be on TV in a courtroom every day, not be the center of attention every day, does absolutely help. And I think that's no secret also why you're looking right now, he has a steady two to four point lead in a lot of polls against Joe Biden. If he rises to the center and becomes the sole focus, not a horse race with him and Biden, does that change?

KEILAR: Matt and Ron, thank you so much to both of you for your analysis. We appreciate it. And ahead, Russians are hitting the polls today. Some venting frustration with the notion of Vladimir Putin serving a fifth term as president.


Plus, it's a move that could save home sellers and buyers a big chunk of change at closing as the National Association of Realtors ends some longstanding guidelines on broker commissions. And mapping the brain, how new technology and techniques could give people with certain neurological conditions a better treatment option.



SANCHEZ: Three days of voting are underway right now in Russia, and Vladimir Putin is all but certain to win a fifth term as president, extending his grip on power into the 2030s. Some videos are actually surfacing of election protests, and in this one, you can see a woman pouring what appears to be dye into a ballot box. The late opposition leader Alexei Navalny's widow also wants voters to turn out collectively at noon on Sunday as a show of protest. Let's discuss the election with CNN Chief National Security Analyst Jim Sciutto. He's also the author of the new book, 'The Return of Great Powers: Russia, China, and the Next World War.' A familiar face here on CNN NEWS CENTRAL, Jim, great to see you. So, this sets up Putin to become the longest-reigning leader of Russia since Stalin. He's effectively led Russia for the entirety of the 21st century, and now he's poised to lead it into the 2030s.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: And led it into a far more confrontational relationship with the West. And we should remember they had constitutional term limits; he busted through those, right? I mean, he kind of faked it by having his deputy become the leader; he was prime minister. But he's effectively leader for life, not dissimilar from what's happening in China as well. In addition to that, you know, we should put elections in quotes because these are far from free or fair elections. It's notable, of course, that one of his primary opponents he put away in a penal colony and died there recently, Alexei Navalny. And there is no free press there to cover the candidate honestly or cover the war honestly there as well, which normally would be, you imagine, a subject of debate. So, it extends his reign; he is certainly untouchable virtually there, you know, at least politically for now, and he's doing so with what is sort of like a Saddam Hussein-like election.

SANCHEZ: Yeah, it strikes me that this is also happening at a time when Russia appears to be ascendant. They're gaining territory in Ukraine; he's eliminated his rival in Navalny. Between Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, there's this strengthening of opposition to the United States and to democratic powers. But it wasn't that long ago that his grip over Russia seemed tenuous. You had Progozhin, losses in the war in Ukraine. How quickly things change.

SCIUTTO: We were on the air when that happened. We covered that breaking news at the time. There was a genuine thought that Progozhin, that mini coup, temporary coup that he attempted there, was a genuine threat to his power. And it does seem that it was at that moment, but effectively quashed. And of course, Progozhin's no longer with us. I'm told by U.S. military officials that they believe, as this relates to Ukraine, that his presumed almost certain victory in this not quite election, that he will feel emboldened and might very well expand Russian military operations in Ukraine, including the possibility of a further mobilization of military-age men in Russia.

In other words, to send more forces there. He senses weakness now in Ukrainian forces with the continued delay, particularly of U.S. aid. And he senses public division in this country and public division in Europe about aid. So they're worried that post-election, he will be even more confident and perhaps more aggressive.

SANCHEZ: And that switch from seeming to be in a tenuous position to now being emboldened, so much of that is tied to what's happening in Congress.

SCUITTO: No question. And listen, you know, he exploits those divisions. Russia has done that for years. He welcomes them. And they do it in a whole host of ways, including by getting into our social media and kind of playing this kind of this stuff up. So and that's something you do hear from Democratic lawmakers and even some Republican lawmakers about opponents to U.S. military assistance. They will say you're helping Putin's position here and you're helping the prospect, the progress of his war in Ukraine. And oftentimes I notice that some of the very language is similar to what you hear here in terms of opposition to what you will hear from Putin in terms of how they describe the war, what caused the war, etc.

SANCHEZ: It's also notable that a lot of his recent success, if you could call it that, has a lot to do with his ability to court admiration from people like Donald Trump.

SCIUTTO: It's true. And in my book, I spoke to several of Trump's former senior advisers, his former national security adviser, John Bolton, former chief of staff, John Kelly and others. Who say that he of all the dictators that he expresses and shows affinity for the Kims, the Xi Jinping's, etc. Putin is the one that he is most enamored of. Why is that? They can't quite grasp, but it certainly affects his view of how the relationship between the U.S. and Russia should be.

SANCHEZ: The Great Powers. It's out now. I have a copy. I'm excited to read it.

SCUITTO: Fantastic. I might even sign it for you.

SANCHEZ: Yeah, please. I got to get a- find a marker somewhere. Thanks so much, Jim. Still ahead. New reporting on the Republican Nominee to run North Carolina's public schools and the conspiracy theories she pushed online for years. Wait until you hear what she was posting online. Plus, a new report finding that more businesses are being started by women, specifically businesses traditionally run by men. We're digging into the so-called she-conomy when we come back.



KEILAR: The Republican nominee to run North Carolina public schools is under fire for a series of social media posts, which include her calling for the deaths of top Democrats. Her name is Michele Morrow, and in a post from May--