Fani T. Willis and Defense Lawyers in Trump Case Had Tense Exchange on Racism

An exchange between the lawyers in the Georgia criminal case against former President Donald J. Trump grew testy last week, with Fani T. Willis, the district attorney leading the prosecution, telling the defense lawyers in an email that “some people will never be able to respect African Americans.”

The email exchange, portions of which were obtained by The New York Times, unfolded in the days before and after a co-defendant of Mr. Trump’s accused Ms. Willis of being in a romantic relationship with the outside lawyer she hired as a special prosecutor to manage the ​​case. ​ The emails suggest that even before the explosive allegations emerged, conversations between the two sides were becoming strained.

On Thursday, a judge in Atlanta scheduled a hearing for Feb. 15 on the allegations, which were made in a court motion seeking to have the special prosecutor, Nathan Wade, thrown off the case along with Ms. Willis and her entire office. The judge, Scott McAfee of Fulton County Superior Court, ordered Ms. Willis to file a written response to the motion by Feb. 2 and to appear at the hearing, which will be televised just as all the proceedings in the case have been.

The recent tense exchange unfolded in a group email thread that includes prosecutors and defense lawyers in the case. It began when the lead lawyer for Mr. Trump in Georgia, Steven H. Sadow, expressed annoyance with prosecutors for ignoring a request he had made. On Jan. 5, he wrote to prosecutors: “For the life of me, I cannot understand why you refuse to respond to the series of emails below.”

Five days later, Daysha Young, an executive district attorney who, like Ms. Willis, is Black, wrote that she and Ms. Willis “are both aware, especially as an African American woman some find it difficult to treat us respectfully.”

She added, “Over the last month the emails of some of you have been disrespectful and condescending lacking both professionalism and decorum.” Ms. Young also said that she did not respond to some emails because they were disrespectful.

Mr. Sadow, who is white, responded with an email in which he said that it was “offensive, uncalled for and untrue” to suggest that racism was at play. He also said that Ms. Young’s lack of response to some emails from the defense “suggests a degree of haughtiness.”

Then Ms. Willis weighed in.

“In the legal community (and the world at large) some people will never be able to respect African Americans and/or women as their equal and counterpart,” she wrote in a note addressed to Mr. Sadow but sent to all of the defense lawyers, most of whom are white men. “That is a burden you do not experience. Further, some are so used to doing it they are not even aware they are doing it while others are intentional in their continued disrespect.”

Ms. Willis also made a case for her own fortitude. “Now you know, I cannot be bullied,” she wrote. “So I do not even think anyone on this team thought someone was silly enough to try that as a tactic. As you are aware, I have now experienced some of the most powerful people in the country call me everything, but a child of God. But, yet here I and my team stand still pursuing justice.”

Mr. Sadow declined to comment when asked about the exchange on Thursday, as did Ms. Willis’s office.

In a speech on Sunday at a historically Black church in Atlanta, Ms. Willis suggested racism was playing a role in the allegations against her and Mr. Wade, who is also Black. The defendant who made the allegations, Michael Roman, a former Trump campaign official, argued in a court filing last week that Mr. Wade is not qualified for the job. He is seeking to have Mr. Wade, Ms. Willis and her office thrown off the case.

Ms. Willis, in her church address, did not address the allegation that she and Mr. Wade were romantic partners. She noted the frequent racist threats she has been subject to since starting her investigation of Mr. Trump in 2021.

Mr. Trump has sought to cast the Georgia case, and other criminal cases against him, as unfair “witch hunts” that are motivated in part by his being a white man. Without basis, he has called Ms. Willis “racist,” and has said the same of other Black prosecutors trying cases against him. During a speech in August, Mr. Trump made an unsubstantiated claim that Ms. Willis was “having an affair” with a “gang member.” She said it was false.

It is unclear whether the allegations of the relationship between Ms. Willis and Mr. Wade, which came in a Jan. 8 court filing, will have a substantive effect on the case against Mr. Trump and his 14 co-defendants, each of whom faces one count of violating the state racketeering law, as well as other charges, for their efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss in Georgia.

The filing, which also seeks to dismiss the indictment, charges that their romantic relationship — which it offered no proof of — amounts to a conflict of interest for Mr. Wade and Ms. Willis.

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