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Judge Rules Fulton County D.A. Fani Willis Can Stay On Case; Fulton Co. Prosecutor Nathan Wade Quits After Judge's Ruling. Aired 3- 3:30p ET

Aired March 15, 2024 - 15:00   ET




BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Fani Willis facing a choice after a ruling by the judge in the Georgia Election interference case involving former President Trump. Either the prosecutor she had a relationship with has to be removed from the case or she and her entire office have to go.

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KEILAR: Fulton Country District Attorney Fani Willis has survived an effort by former President Trump and his allies to get her kicked off the election interference case against him in Georgia. Today the presiding judge, Scott McAfee, ruled that Willis can continue to prosecute the former president and his co-defendants but only if she removes her top prosecutor, Nathan Wade, with whom she was romantically involved with.

Trump and his team had argued that she financially benefited from hiring Wade and that created a conflict of interest. And even though today's decision marks a legal win for Willis and her office, the judge was quite critical of her saying that she demonstrated a "tremendous lapse in judgment," that is a quote, and ultimately he wrote in his ruling: "Georgia law does not permit the finding of an actual conflict of interest for making bad choices even repeatedly."

CNN's Nick Valencia is joining us now from outside of the courthouse in Atlanta.

Nick, take us through what the judge said here. NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well look, Brianna, there was as recently as this morning some serious concern among those close to Fani Willis that she could be disqualified and we know that those within the District Attorney's Office were preparing for either one of these scenarios to play out but this is a win - a technical win for Fani Willis even if it does coming - come with a stinging rebuke of her behavior.

The judge in this case, Scott McAfee, calling her unprofessional during her testimony at times during these disqualifications hearings and being very critical that she was in a relationship with her top prosecutor Nathan Wade. But he did say that this was not about politics that he played this right down the middle and this is what he said in part of his ruling, the conclusion to his ruling: "A reasonable observer unburdened bipartisan blinders should believe the law was impartially applied, that those accused of crimes had a fair opportunity to present their defenses, and than that any verdict was based on our criminal justice system's best efforts at ascertaining the truth."

There are some that have come out and been critical of Scott McAfee's decision including those among conservatives and Republicans.

But we should remind our viewers that Scott McAfee himself is somebody with conservative bona fides. During his college years he was ahead of the law Republicans he was also a member of the Federalist Society and he has been celebrated and really touted as fair for by both sides on this case. There are still some big questions about what happens next going forward, when will we see Nathan Wade make an appearance, will we hear from Fani Willis. It really seems at this point only a matter of time before we get a resignation from Nathan Wade even though we haven't heard from him officially. And also the big question right now at this hour is will the DA try to get this case back on track before the November election. Brianna?

KEILAR: Yes, that is the big question.

Nick Valencia live for us outside the Fulton County courthouse in Atlanta.

And with us now, we have CNN Chief Legal Affairs Correspondent, Paula Reid.

The timeline is the question here because theoretically now this case can move forward. Fani Willis had been pushing for August that seems increasingly unlikely.

PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: It seemed ambitious when she said it before these questions about possibly disqualifying her were even raised. This is a sprawling Rico case with over a dozen defendants and now we've lost time going through this process to analyze whether she should be disqualified. Now she's also likely going to have to find a new lead prosecutor.

[15:05:01] So it seems unrealistic that this case would go before the election, but now there's a question about whether any of these criminal cases, the four cases that former President Trump is facing whether any of them are going to start before the election, because in just the past 24 hours the one case that we keep saying will go - is expected to start in 10 days, prosecutors said they would not oppose a 30-day delay.

Defense attorneys for a former President Trump are asking for a three- month, a 90-day delay. The issue there is reviewing tens of thousands of pages of new evidence handed over by federal prosecutors. They knew the January 6th case, that can't go until the Supreme Court weighs in on the question of immunity and we're still waiting for judge Aileen Cannon down in Florida to tell us we're on the calendar she's going to put the classified documents case.

So at this point, it's unclear if any of these cases are going to go but I think what's significant especially about what's going on down in Georgia is we know Trump wants to delay as many of these cases as he can so we can get some dismissed or make it very difficult to bring cases against a sitting president if he's reelected, but it's getting a lot of help from justices. For example, the Supreme Court could have resolved the immunity issue months ago. They were asked to, they declined their help drawing this out.

And then in the case of Fani Willis, I mean, she had a romantic relationship with the lead prosecutor on one of the most high profile criminal cases in the country and the questions that that raised help to delay this case, it's possible it won't go before the election. And if he's re-elected there's a possibility it won't go at all.

KEILAR: Best case scenario for getting as much done as possible before the election would be what?

REID: In terms of the cases going?

KEILAR: That's right.

REID: Would be the shortest possible delay in Manhattan 30 days, though if you have one side asking for 90, one side asking for 30, it's more likely to be 45 and then maybe get one of the federal cases in before the election. But that would mean that the Supreme Court would have to give a decision maybe before the end of June or Aileen Cannon would have to put and keep the classified documents case in August.

But man, if that Manhattan case gets pushed back 60, 90 days that calendar is so crowded. I don't think you can say anything is for certain before November.

KEILAR: All right. Paula thank you so much for that, Boris?

SANCHEZ: Let's get some perspective now with former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti.

Renato, thanks so much for sharing part of your afternoon with us. So Judge McAfee essentially saying that there was no conflict of interest but an odor of mendacity, essentially a stain of untruthfulness, what did you make of that language and the ruling overall?

RENATO MARIOTTI, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: First of all, I thought it was a very down-the-middle fair reasonable decision by the judge. One that neither side could be completely happy with. On the - obviously, it's true that the defendants are going to be unhappy that Fani Willis is not on the case but obviously Nathan Wade is removed. And the judge, I think, it was fairly clear thought that Fani Willis was not truthful and Nathan Wade was not truthful and he was very upset about that and I think suggested that there may be some ethical problems for the two of them.

So I think the judge ultimately here was trying to go above and beyond really the legal standard. The legal standard, actual conflict of interest was - is very high. That wasn't met here. But he required a way to get off the case, because he just thought it had created an appearance of an issue here and he did not want anything a staining this high-profile case where the public is going to be seeing the criminal justice system at work.

SANCHEZ: So I think it's a safe bet that Willis is going to decide to stay on and have Wade step aside. How does that now impact the case?

MARIOTTI: I think that slows things down. Nathan Wade was brought in to carry a heavy oar essentially to be actually doing a lot of the work in the case. If you believe his bills, he spent hundreds and hundreds of hours working on this case. So now somebody else has to pick up that laboring oar, get up to speed and fill that gap in the team. You have to believe that that's going to take some time and some shuffling on Fani Willis's side, on her team.

And by the way as Paula pointed out a moment ago, she took on a lot here with all these defendants and RICO counts and so on, so it's a big case.

SANCHEZ: Yes. Looking back at some of the language that judge McAfee used. He said that Willis exhibited a "tremendous lapse in judgment making bad choices even repeatedly." He also called her testimony unprofessional. I'm wondering how that might affect a jury pool if that kind of language potentially moving forward sets grounds for an appeal. Like what are the ramifications from using that kind of language.

MARIOTTI: Well, first of all there's personal ramifications for finding Willis I mean the judge at one point alluded to the fact that there may be other bodies that are taking a look at this, like the Bar Association and so forth.


I mean, prosecutorial ethics issues there. So there may be a separate issue that Fani Willis has that the judge alludes to. Within this case, I think all of that should be kept away from the jury but it's never a good thing for a prosecutor to have the judge suggesting that you were not fully candid with him when you were on the witness stand or that you're unprofessional.

We hold prosecutors to a higher standard than a typical attorney. That's how it should be in the law and the fact that the judge overseeing the case has a dim view of the prosecution team and the lead prosecutor has to be very concerning for the prosecution team and means they're going to have to tread much more carefully going forward.

SANCHEZ: Renato Mariotti, appreciate the analysis. Thanks so much.

MARIOTTI: Thank you.

SANCHEZ: Brianna?

KEILAR: The Trump campaign is already working to capitalize financially on judge McAfee's ruling in the Georgia case. They sent out this fundraising text to supporters not long after the judge rebuked DA Fani Willis but allowed her to stay on the case.

We have CNN National Correspondent Kristen Holmes with us now on this.

How else is Trump's team responding to this ruling today?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, we reached out to both Donald Trump to the campaign to try to get a sense of where they are. And they sent us a statement from Donald Trump's attorney in Georgia which gives you an idea of just how linked to the campaign and the legal issues are at this point.

And this is what they said, it's unsurprising, they said, "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' extrajudicial MLK quote '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 to continue to fight to end this case, which should never have been brought in the first place."

So obviously they're saying they're going to appeal and again not surprising because the goal was to get rid of Fani Willis on this case. They're saying it didn't happen so we're not that happy. However, when you are talking to various senior advisers, when you are talking to members of Trump's inner circle - his allies - they are very happy with this, because they believe that there is a message here in this ruling that can be spun to Trump's advantage. All of this lapse in judgment, all of this narrative around whether or not Fani Willis crossed the line or did not. Yes they couldn't prove it legally but I'm talking about politically in the court of public opinion and that is one thing that Donald Trump is very good at doing, is taking nuggets of truth, taking lines out of something like this and spinning it up to get his base really revved up and supporting him through this legal process. The other good part about this Brianna for them is that they believe that this will now delay the case past that November election.

KEILAR: Certainly. And how are they feeling in general right now about all of the cases? Because when you look at the four criminal cases and now you have this delay in the Manhattan hush money case, it looks like it's entirely possible you only have one case that goes before the election.

HOLMES: Yes. And I think that that's really very good for them. They are very happy about what they've seen. I mean, remember one of the best legal days that they have had was the Supreme Court deciding to take up presidential immunity, because one of the cases they were the most worried about not being able to delay was the case here in Washington, D.C. election interference January 6th. This gave them an opportunity to perhaps push that trial beyond the November election.

The goal in all of this was to push each of these trials beyond the November election so with those federal cases Donald Trump, if he is elected, could dismiss them also. Yes, he wouldn't be able to dismiss a Georgia case, but how is a sitting president going to go on trial? It's definitely possible, but that's going to lead to a lot of complications something that they would address down the road but they are feeling very good right now about where they stand legally particularly as you said, they were thinking they were going to go to trial at the end of this month.

They were telling me, they were already planning, okay, Wednesdays, Saturdays, those are the days will be on the campaign trail. The rest of the week will be in court. That clearly does not seem like it's happening at least as soon as they thought it was so again in a very good headspace around all this stuff.

KEILAR: All right. Kristen thank you for that.

Still to come, intense efforts are underway to bridge the gap between Hamas and Israel after the terrorist group presented a counter proposal in the ceasefire talks. And it potentially has a poison pill in it when it comes to the number of Palestinian prisoners and the type of Palestinian prisoners they're calling to have released.

Plus, new details on the LATAM Airlines flight that sent passengers flying around the cabin. Was human error to blame here?

And then later, people ran for cover after a bunch of bees invaded a big tennis match.

We have those stories many more coming up on CNN NEWS CENTRAL.




SANCHEZ: We have breaking news into CNN as we have been expecting all afternoon since Judge Scott McAfee issued his ruling regarding District Attorney Fani Willis and her ability to stay on the case prosecuting Donald Trump and his co-defendants for trying to overturn the 2020 election. We've just learned that Nathan Wade, the lead prosecutor in that case, has stepped down after this scathing ruling by Judge McAfee and we've obtained a copy of the letter that Wade wrote to District Attorney Fani Willis tending his resignation.

The very first sentence: "The furtherance of the rule of law and democracy is and has always been the north star of our combined efforts in this prosecution."


Clearly here Wade taking the step of resigning in part because he had no other choice. We have a team of reporters and analysts looking at this story. Now, we want to go to CNN's Nick Valencia who's live for us in Fulton County.

Nick, the letter here essentially outlining that he's proud of the work that he's done for Fani Willis but that it's clear according to Judge McAfee that he needs to step away.

VALENCIA: Well, Boris it's official Nathan Wade is out as the special prosecutor in the criminal case involving the former president and some of his closest allies. I'm looking here at that resignation letter from the Wade & Campbell law firm addressed to the Honorable Fani Willis. You read part of that and I'm going to read a little bit more here.

It says, "Although the court found that the defendants failed to meet their burden of proving that the DA acquired an actual conflict of interest, I'm offering my resignation in the interest of democracy, in dedication to the American public and to move this case forward as quickly as possible."

It is a very short resignation letter but it does add at the end of it that he wishes that Fani - the District Attorney's Office success and safety through this process. It's something, as you mentioned, that we had been anticipating for - all day really since we got this ruling. But now Boris, it is official.

KEILAR: That's right. And let's just be clear about what this order had said, right? After the evidentiary hearing we heard from the judge writing in a couple dozen pages here, the court therefore concludes that the prosecution of this case cannot proceed until the state selects one of two options, one seemed very clear.


KEILAR: It wasn't going to happen, the district attorney may choose to step aside along with the whole of her office and refer the prosecution to the prosecuting attorneys counsel for reassignment or alternatively SADA Wade can withdraw.

Let's bring in Paula Reid to talk a little bit more about this.

We were expecting this. It was really a matter of when. REID: It was a matter of when and this is a pretty classy letter, right? He tries to bring it back to the idea that the most important thing here is the rule of law and democracy reminds people that the nature of this case are allegations that people tried to undermine the outcome of the 2020 election. These are grave allegations.

And in a pretty tactful way, he also points out the fact that the judge did not find an actual conflict here. They did not find actual corruption or that Fani Willis or Nathan Wade engaged in some sort of scheme to financially benefit off of this investigation. He says, "The defendants failed to meet their burden of proving that the District Attorney acquired an actual conflict of interest."

So this is a pretty well done letter, given all of the circumstances it brings it back to the facts in the law because at the heart of this is a criminal case that is mostly intact. They just had six counts dismissed, but we knew this had to happen and this is a pretty classy way to go, given everything that's happened over the past few months.

SANCHEZ: And to your point, he redirects the attention away from the question of conflict of interest which has been settled away from the controversy surrounding the romantic relationship and focuses on the question of Donald Trump and his allies allegedly trying to overturn the 2020 election. He says that he's offering his resignation in the interest of democracy and dedication to the American people.

We want to go to Norm Eisen who's standing by.

Norm, your reaction to the news that this is now official that Nathan Wade has stepped aside in the Fulton County prosecution.

NORM EISEN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Boris he's doing the right thing here. This relationship was never smart. We've discussed from the start that likely was not a legal or evidentiary basis for disqualification. But that Wade had to go, that's been clear for many weeks, now he's done it.

I do think it speaks to his commitment. There have been so many false things said about him that he was not a highly qualified lawyer coming to this case, that's been proven false, that he didn't do a good job on the case, that's not true either. He defeated with the team he led some of the best litigators in the country in a series of pretrial skirmishes. He got four guilty pleas.

But once this controversy emerged, he had to go. It's the right thing to do it's a strong and good order by the judge. I'm glad to see Wade and the DA's office acting fast so we can return to getting this trial scheduled which is what a majority of the American people would like to see happen.

KEILAR: Norm, stay with us as we head back to Atlanta and Nick Valencia where you, Nick, are tracking a new development. What can you share with us?

VALENCIA: Well look, Wade was an instrumental part of this case. He was with Fani Willis for 865 days to be exact and part of the team that secured 19 indictments including against the former president. And also four guilty pleas and now we have our hands on the response from Fani Willis to Nathan Wade's resignation letter and she highlights some of those accomplishments by her lead or former lead prosecutor.


I want to read part of this letter here now, it says, "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." Fani Willis goes on to say, "Others who were considered were understandably concerned for the safety of themselves and their families that would arise from their acceptance of your role. You were the one who had the courage to accept the role even though you did not seek it."

Just very quickly I think this other paragraph that follows up is also important. She says, "You are an outstanding advocate in the 865 days you served on this case you completed a thorough investigation that required the use of a special-purpose grand jury to compel the testimony of witnesses inside and outside of Georgia, including litigating in eight states the District of Columbia and the United States Supreme Court to obtain critical testimony."

So a very complimentary letter back by Fani Willis to this breaking news that we have here that Nathan Wade as we expected is out as a lead prosecutor in this case. Brianna?

SANCHEZ: Yes. A glowing review of Nathan Wade's work on the case.

Nick, please stand by.


SANCHEZ: We also have Jennifer Rodgers standing by.

And Jen, Norm alluded to the idea of how this case now moves forward. So Nathan Wade has tended his resignation. What do you think comes next?

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, next they'll continue with the process of trying to get a trial date set and moving towards that trial date you know they've been engulfed in this controversy for weeks now and that's kind of put everything else on the back burner. But Fani Willis and her team were looking for initially an August trial date. I don't think there's any way that's going to happen, but they're now going to shift their attention to trying to get Judge McAfee back in the mode of scheduling them a trial date so that they can move towards a date certain.

And, of course, to the extent that Nathan Wade was going to be involved in those preparations for trial, they'll have to replace him in order to move forward in that vein once they get a trial date.

KEILAR: Yes. And she has certainly been admonished in this, a legal win for her to be clear. She will remain on this case. But some blistering comments from the judge. Do you think that's going to change, Jen, how she proceeds here it may be an in style or tone?

RODGERS: Well, I do hope that she takes to heart some of what the judge said. He criticized her for the unprofessional nature of her testimony. He said that her judgment was poor in this whole thing, so I do hope that she takes those words to heart. There also was some sharp criticism of the church that she gave in this case including playing the race card suggesting the defendants were playing the race card.

So I do hope she carefully reads and absorbs the words of Judge McAfee who seems to me to have been very reasonable in this ruling and that she does have that govern her going forward. I mean this particular controversy is behind her but the judge even suggested that defendants should find ...

SANCHEZ: It looks like we have a technical issue, but I will finish the thought for her with Paula Reid. It seems like Judge McAfee set the table for a potential gag order against District Attorney Willis.

REID: Yes. And that's pretty shocking because usually prosecutors don't make statements about cases that they're working on. They're not sparring with defense counsel on the witness stand. I mean, the idea that you would have a prosecutor under a gag order that's pretty extraordinary. But it also speaks to how the judge views her conduct. In his opinion, he called a quote unprofessional.

And look, these are pretty classy letters, responses trying to bring it back to the facts of the case. But another fact is that these two prosecutors chose to have a romantic relationship while they were overseeing the most high-profile state-level criminal investigation in the land. As the judge said, this was bad judgment and in an effort to suss out whether this was an actual conflict or an appearance of conflict the judge even called into question their credibility. This is such a forced error that now cast as the judge described a cloud over this case.

So the way they've handled today the judge's order has been really impressive with their conduct over the past year or so has really put this case not in the great - the greatest of places and still an open question as to whether they'll even go before the election, because all of this prompted a delay.

KEILAR: Big question from the defendants' lawyers and certainly as you saw in the testimony of this evidentiary hearing of when this relationship started. But judge McAfee made it clear in this ruling that aside, the fact that it continued while he was employed by the District Attorney's Office unacceptable, very clear. And to your to your point on the gag order here, I just wanted to read a little bit of it so that our viewers can understand.