Fani Willis hired Trump 2020 election case prosecutor — with whom she’s accused of having affair — after 2 others said no

Editor’s Note: This report includes reporting from “FIND ME THE VOTES: A Hard-Charging Georgia Prosecutor, a Rogue President, and the Plot to Steal and American Election,” by Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman, which will be published on Jan. 30, 2024 by Twelve, an imprint of The Grand Central Publishing Group. Klaidman is an investigative producer for CBS News.

Georgia Grand Jury Delivers Indictment In 2020 Election Case
File: Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis (center); special prosecutor Nathan Wade (right), on Aug. 14, 2023, in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

When Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis spoke at a historically Black church in Atlanta last Sunday, she gave a full-throated defense of Nathan Wade, a private lawyer whom she appointed to lead her 2020 election interference case against former President Donald Trump – and with whom she’s accused of having an affair. 

She lauded him as “a superstar” with “impeccable credentials” who is uniquely qualified to handle the complex prosecution, leaving unsaid that Wade was at best her third choice for the high-stakes job. Willis, unable to find someone in the DA’s office with the stature and credentials needed for the case, turned to at least two other legal heavy hitters in Atlanta before settling on Wade, as set out in “Find Me the Votes,” a new book about the investigation into the alleged conspiracy to subvert the 2020 election.

Willis initially approached Roy Barnes, the former governor of Georgia and one of the state’s premier lawyers, to serve as the senior counsel on the case.  But he turned her down.  She then tried Gabe Banks, a former federal prosecutor and highly respected Atlanta criminal defense lawyer. Banks also wasn’t interested. 

Neither Barnes nor Banks wanted to plunge into such an all-consuming case at the expense of their lucrative law practices, as laid out in the book. But the two were even more concerned about the inevitable threats that would come with such a politically incendiary case. Barnes declined to discuss his conversations with Willis, but nodded to those concerns in an interview: “Hypothetically speaking, do you want a bodyguard following you around for the rest of your life?” Banks declined comment.     

Who is Nathan Wade?

Ultimately, Willis turned to Wade, who had been a friend and mentor over the years and whom she told colleagues had the toughness to handle the scorched-earth legal tactics that Trump’s lawyers and their co-counsel were likely to employ in the legal battle.  

Wade was not brought on to be the lead courtroom lawyer in the case, a source close to the case said. It was always anticipated that he would play a more behind-the-scenes role — organizing the sprawling investigation, running the grand jury process and hammering out immunity deals. He is always a presence in the courtroom, with natty attire that includes colorful pocket squares and occasionally ascots. But he generally defers to deputies for courtroom arguments. 

Earlier this month, Willis was accused in a court filing of having an affair with Wade and joining him on lavish vacations allegedly paid for with taxpayer funds. The allegation of the affair has thrown a harsh spotlight on Willis’ decision to hire Wade in the first place and raised questions about whether it was influenced by her alleged personal relationship with him. It has also raised embarrassing questions for Wade about his abilities as a lawyer and whether he was out of his depth in one of the most high-profile legal cases in the country.

None of those thorny issues likely would have emerged had it not been for the bombshell legal motion filed on behalf of one of Trump’s 14 co-defendants in the Georgia case. The former director of the Trump campaign’s 2020 Election Day operations, Michael Roman, alleged in the motion that while Willis and Wade were carrying on an “improper, clandestine personal relationship,” she paid him more than $650,000 to work on the case and that some of that money was used for trips to Napa Valley, Florida and Caribbean cruises they took together. (The motion provided no concrete proof of the allegations and Willis has yet to address them directly.) Now the tawdry allegations threaten to upend the case, and scrutiny of Wade’s role in the case is only mounting.

What are Nathan Wade’s credentials?

Wade’s reputation as a lawyer in Georgia presents a mixed picture because there is no doubt that his resume is thin when it comes to criminal law. He had no experience trying complex felony cases, let alone a multi-defendant racketeering prosecution like the one he is now in charge of.   

His criminal work appears to be limited to relatively minor misdemeanor and traffic cases that he handled both as prosecutor in the Cobb County solicitor general’s office and later as a municipal judge in Marietta, Ga. Those cases almost always ended in plea deals rather than trials. 

“He was a super competent judge; he was timely, efficient with the docket and respectful,” said Holly Waltman, a criminal defense lawyer who practiced before Wade when he was a judge. 

In private practice, his bread and butter was civil litigation, contract law and family disputes. By most accounts he acquitted himself well with those kinds of cases.  

There is one group of Atlantans who have seen Wade demonstrate his legal abilities at great length: the members of the Fulton County Special Purpose Grand Jury, who in the end recommended that Trump and 18 other co-defendants be charged with election conspiracy. Wade ran the grand jury process for Willis over more than six months, guiding the jurors through hundreds of hours of testimony, thousands of documents and a thicket of legal and evidentiary issues.  

Interviews with some of those grand jurors indicate they were impressed with Wade. One member of the panel, the only lawyer among them, told CBS News Wade was “in command” and “highly skilled.”  The source, who asked not to be identified discussing what occurred inside the grand jury room, described Wade as a deft performer in front of the grand jury.  

“He had a lightness of tone when that was appropriate and was very serious when it was time to be serious,” the grand juror said.

Wade was also impeccably prepared, according to the source.  On more than one occasion, he demonstrated that with recalcitrant witnesses.  A critical witness for the grand jury was Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffesnperger, who received the Jan. 2, 2020, call in which Trump pressured him to “find” the 11,780 votes he needed to overturn the election. 

When he was questioned by the deputy foreperson about whether he felt threatened when Trump told him he could be committing a “criminal offense” by not reversing the results of the election, Raffensperger bobbed and weaved and avoided answering the question. Wade leapt up from his chair to do cleanup. In his hands was a copy of a book Raffensperger had published the year before that recounted the infamous phone call with Trump.  Wade turned to the relevant page and began reading out loud: “Now President Trump is using the power of his position to threaten . . . me with prosecution if we don’t do what he tells us to do.” Wade asked Raffensperger if he’d indeed written that. Raffensperger said he had. Wade then asked if he stood by those words. The secretary of state said he did.

Underlying the accusation against Willis is that she showed favoritism toward Wade at the expense of her constituents interests and the administration of justice.  But there is at least some evidence that Wade was subjected to Willis’ same exacting standards — and even wrath — as the rest of her team.  

“Find Me the Votes,” recounts a scene from February 2023 when Willis asked for a presentation of the evidence in the case from her prosecutors. Wade and his deputies presented a PowerPoint of the charges they were contemplating bringing against Trump and his alleged co-conspirators.  

Willis was underwhelmed and she let Wade and the others know it, letting loose with a string of profanities.  “No, y’all aren’t even close,” she told them. “This is f****** terrible. Get the f*** out of here.” She then brusquely walked out of the office by herself, leaving Wade and the rest of his team shaken.  

But in her remarks last Sunday, Willis made it clear that she had no misgivings about hiring Wade and raised the idea that those who criticized her for it were motivated by race.

“I appointed three special counsels, as is my right to do. Paid them all the same hourly rate,” Ms. Willis said. “They only attacked one.”

Willis went on to openly accuse her detractors of racism, of attacking “this lawyer of impeccable credentials.” 

She ran through the resume of “the Black man I chose,” noting he has served as a judge, private attorney, prosecutor, criminal defense lawyer and special attorney general. Willis wondered aloud, “I’m just asking God, is it that some will never see Black man as qualified, no matter his achievements? What more can one achieve?”

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