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Tense Fani Willis hearing ends as judge plans to decide on disqualification

<span> Fani Willis in court on Friday.</span><span>Photograph: Alex Slitz/Reuters</span>
Fani Willis in court on Friday.Photograph: Alex Slitz/Reuters

Lawyers presented their closing arguments on Friday afternoon in a three-day evidentiary hearing to determine whether the district attorney, Fani Willis, should be disqualified from the election interference prosecution against Donald Trump because of her romantic relationship with a deputy handling the case.

The hearing was the coda to a dramatic deviation from the racketeering case against the former US president and 14 remaining co-defendants for trying to overturn the election in Georgia.

Willis sat at the counsel table in court on Friday for the latter half of the hearing, and Judge Scott McAfee, who is overseeing the case, said he hoped to issue a decision on the matter in the next two weeks.

Related: Star witness for Trump defendants in Georgia fails to give damning testimony

The matter kicked off in January when Michael Roman, a Republican operative and one of the defendants in the case, filed a motion claiming Willis financially benefited from the case because of a romantic relationship with Nathan Wade, a top prosecutor in the case. Trump and several other defendants later joined the request.

John Merchant, a lawyer for Roman, said as part of his argument on Friday: “They did this, they knew it was wrong, they hid it, and even when they were called out on it, they created an excuse for it, saying it happened after the fact … You have to pay attention to what this looks like to the public. If this court allows this kind of behavior to go on … the entire public confidence in the system will be shot and the integrity of the system will be undermined.”

Willis and Wade admitted to a romantic relationship, but both said it only began after he was hired on 1 November 2021. They both testified about vacations they had taken together and revealed personal details about a romantic relationship that they say only began in 2022, after he was hired, and ended last summer.

Adam Abbate, a lawyer in Willis’s office, said on Friday: “Not a single shred of evidence was produced through the exhibits or any testimony showing how their due process rights or constitutional rights were violated by the relationship that began in March 2022.

“There has been absolutely no evidence the district attorney has benefited financially at all.”

A key question before McAfee is what standard he should use to determine if Willis should be disqualified. Lawyers for the defense argued that the appearance of a conflict of interest was enough to disqualify Willis.

Ashleigh Merchant, another lawyer for Roman, said on Friday: “The law in Georgia demonstrates that we can demonstrate the appearance of a conflict and that is sufficient.”

Abbate said that Georgia law was clear in saying a conflict had to exist. “They must show an actual conflict,” he said. Experts say state law has long established this high bar to clear and the defendants in the case have not done so, but McAfee seemed somewhat skeptical on Friday that the appearance of a conflict would not be enough.

Robert CI McBurney, a different Fulton county judge who was overseeing the case at an earlier stage, disqualified Willis from investigating a fake elector after she appeared at a fundraiser for his political rival. That appearance, he said, would lead to questions about her motives in every step of the case, which was enough to disqualify her.

A disqualification would upend the case and delay it past the 2024 election. The Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, a state agency, would have the sole discretion to reassign the case to another prosecutor, and there is no timeline for how long that could take.

Pressed by McAfee, Merchant struggled to articulate what exactly Willis’s personal interest in the case was. “I think you know it when you see it,” he said.

Abbate, for Willis, also rejected claims that his client was living a lavish lifestyle. “She [Willis] stayed at a DoubleTree in Napa: a DoubleTree. I don’t know that to be a lavish hotel,” he said.

There was also more discussion of the testimony of Terrence Bradley, a star witness who told defense lawyers he knew the relationship began before Wade was hired. But when he testified, Wade said he was only speculating and had no first-hand knowledge.

While defense lawyers suggested Bradley was being dishonest on the stand, McAfee pressed them to explain how they knew he was being honest in text messages. Steve Sadow, an attorney for Trump, pointed to the fact that Bradley had answered with the word “absolutely” in a text message when he was asked if the relationship began before Wade was hired.

“If we take that view that he thoroughly impeached himself, that he did not give truthful conduct, what’s left standing?” McAfee asked at one point during the hearing. “Generally, you would see someone who’s impeached, perhaps we have some kind of core that you could point back to and say, ‘That’s the time he was telling the truth.’ In these text messages, is it ever definitively shown how he knew this, and that he actually did know it? Other than just an assertion outright – ‘Absolutely’.”

Abbate sought to undermine the testimony of Bradley, and Robin Yeartie, a former friend of Willis who testified that the relationship began before 2019. He said both had motive against Willis and Wade. Bradley, he claimed, left his law partnership with Wade after a sexual assault allegation. Yeartie, he said, had a falling-out with Willis and was essentially fired from the district attorney’s office.

Abbate said: “Mr Bradley had every motive to lie.”

Sadow and several other defense attorneys said Willis should be disqualified because of a speech she gave at a historically Black church in Atlanta during Martin Luther King weekend claiming that the effort to disqualify her was racially motivated.

“It was a calculated determination by Ms Willis to prejudice the defendant and their counsel,” Sadow said. “The purpose of that was to get public sympathy, public empathy for what Ms Merchant had alleged in her motion,” he said, referring to Merchant.

On the surface, the question at the heart of the hearing, which lasted three days was whether Willis had a conflict of interest because of her relationship with Wade. But over several hours of testimony, lawyers for Roman, Trump and the other defendants did not produce any concrete evidence showing that she did.

Willis testified that she repaid Wade in cash for any travel they had taken together – a claim that drew skepticism from defense lawyers, but no evidence to prove otherwise.

“This was a disqualification hearing that quickly denigrated into a daytime soap opera,” said J Tom Morgan, a former district attorney in DeKalb county, a Fulton county neighbor. “Have they proven a conflict of interest, where this all started, absolutely not.”

But even if Willis and Wade are not disqualified, defense attorneys have used the hearings to damage the two prosecutors’ judgment and credibility in the public’s eye.

By bringing to light something the prosecutors failed to disclose on their own, they have seeded the impression that the two were trying to conceal something.