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Trump legal news brief: Judge to decide Fani Willis' fate 'in the next two weeks' after hearing closing arguments at disqualification hearing

At the conclusion of closing arguments in a hearing to decide whether Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis should be disqualified from prosecuting former President Donald Trump and 18 co-defendants, Judge Scott McAfee says he hopes to have a final decision in two weeks.

At another high-stakes hearing in Florida, Judge Aileen Cannon voices skepticism on special counsel Jack Smith’s proposal to start Trump’s trial on July 8. Here are the latest developments in the legal cases facing the man hoping to be reelected to the White House.

Georgia election interference

Judge hears closing arguments on whether to disqualify Fani Willis from prosecuting Trump

Key players: Judge Scott McAfee, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, lead prosecutor Nathan Wade, Fulton County prosecutor Adam Abbate, Trump lawyer Steve Sadow, Trump co-defendant Mike Roman, Roman's lawyer John Merchant, Trump co-defendant David Shafer, Shafer's lawyer Craig Gillen, Trump co-defendant Bob Cheeley, Cheeley's lawyer Richard Rice, Trump co-defendant Jeffrey Clark, Clark lawyer Harry MacDougald

In closing arguments Friday in the motion to dismiss Willis from the Georgia election interference case she brought against Trump and 18 co-defendants, defense attorneys accused Willis and Wade of ethical misconduct and lying on the witness stand, while Fulton County prosecutors argued that there was no evidence of either.

“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,” Merchant told McAfee.

Sadow argued that Willis and Wade had not told the truth on the witness stand about when their relationship began, but he made the case that the judge didn’t need proof of that to disqualify them from the case.

“I’m not saying you have to find that she was untruthful, or that Wade was untruthful. You don’t have to make a finding of fact that they lied,” Sadow said. “All you have to do is make a finding of fact that you have genuine, legitimate concerns about their credibility.”

Gillen, like Sadow before him, took aim at a speech given by Willis in an Atlanta church in which she suggested defense lawyers had targeted Wade because he was Black.

“She chose to play the race card and the God card,” Gillen said.

On the cell phone records entered into evidence that showed that Wade and Willis allegedly communicated with one another thousands of times in the first 11 months of 2021, Rice implied they disproved the claim that Wade and Willis had not started their romantic relationship until 2022.

“I don’t even think lovestruck teenagers communicate that much,” Rice said.

MacDougald called Willis’ assertion that there was no evidence she received any financial benefit from hiring Wade “flat out false.”

“Throw another log on the bonfire of conflicts of interest,” he said.

In his rebuttal of the defense arguments to dismiss Willis and Wade, Abbate said the defense lawyers had failed to show why Willis and Wade deserved to be disqualified.

“There’s absolutely no evidence that the defendants in this case, their due process rights, have been harmed in absolutely any way,” he said.

But he also spent a great deal of his time on the question of whether a judge could or should disqualify a district attorney on the sole basis of an appearance of a conflict of interest.

“Speculation and conjecture leads to an appearance of impropriety, not an actual conflict, which I would submit to the court what is required” for disqualification, he said.

After challenging lawyers on both sides of the motion to dismiss Willis and Wade, McAfee indicated that it would take some time to reach a final decision.

“There are several legal issues to sort through — several determinations that I have to make — and those aren’t ones I can make at this moment. And so, I’ll be taking the time to make sure that I can give this case full consideration,” McAfee said, adding, “I hope to have an answer for everyone in the next two weeks.”

Why it matters: If McAfee decides to disqualify Wade and Willis from the case, it is unclear whether Trump and the remaining defendants (four have already pleaded guilty) will ever face charges in a court of law for their alleged roles in attempting to subvert the 2020 presidential election results in Georgia.

Classified documents

Judge Cannon seems skeptical about Jack Smith’s proposal for July 8 start date for trial

Key players: Judge Aileen Cannon, special counsel Jack Smith, federal prosecutor Jay Bratt

In a Friday morning hearing attended by Trump, Cannon appeared skeptical over Smith's proposal to start the classified documents trial on July 8, Politico reported.

“A lot of work needs to be done in the pretrial phase of this case,” Cannon said during the hearing.

Cannon expressed doubts about the July 8 timeline at various points throughout the hearing.

“To try to do 13 motions in a day or even two days seems unrealistic,” she said.

The case was originally scheduled to go to trial on May 20, but the judge has issued a series of rulings that make that date all but impossible. In addition, Trump’s hush money trial is now slated to begin on March 25 and is expected to take six to eight weeks.

Trump’s lawyers had asked the judge, who Trump appointed to the federal bench, to delay the start of the trial until after the 2024 presidential election. Short of that, they wrote in a legal filing this week, they said they would be amenable to begin the trial on August 12.

At the hearing Bratt took issue with that proposal, saying, “What it really seems to me is that those were fake dates and really almost bad faith dates. We just need to bring this case to trial this summer.”

Cannon did not immediately announce when she would announce a new start date for the documents trial.

Why it matters: Even if Cannon decides to begin the documents trial in early August, it is unclear whether further delays will mean that a verdict may not be reached ahead of the 2024 election.

Recommended reading

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ABC News: House Republicans release more Jan. 6 tapes — now without face blurring

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Thursday, February 29

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Lawyers for columnist E. Jean Carroll respond to a request by former President Donald Trump to delay payment of the $83.3 million judgment against him. In their filing, the lawyers tell Judge Lewis Kaplan that they have “serious concerns about Trump’s cash position.” In Illinois, lawyers for Trump ask an appeals court to stay a ruling by a state judge that would remove Trump’s name from primary ballots on the grounds that he violated Section 3 of the 14th Amendment. The United States Supreme Court is expected to release a ruling soon on whether Colorado’s Supreme Court overstepped its authority by ordering Trump’s removal from ballots in that state on the same grounds. Here are the latest legal developments involving the only U.S. president ever to be charged with a criminal offense.

E. Jean Carroll defamation

Carroll’s lawyers counter Trump’s request to postpone payment of $83.3 million judgment

Key players: Columnist E. Jean Carroll, Carroll's lawyer Roberta Kaplan, Judge Lewis Kaplan, New York Attorney General Letitia James

In a legal filing Thursday, Carroll's lawyers responded to Trump's request to delay payment of the $83.3 million judgment in the defamation case against him, saying they had "serious concerns about Trump's cash position,"The Hill reported.

On Friday, Trump’s lawyers asked Kaplan to pause payment of the massive judgment on the grounds that an appeal of the verdict would likely diminish the amount he owed Carroll or wipe it away completely.

“He simply asks the Court to ‘trust me’ and offers, in a case with an $83.3 million judgment against him, the court filing equivalent of a paper napkin; signed by the least trustworthy of borrowers,” Kaplan wrote.

Carroll’s lawyers also noted the $454 million judgment against Trump in his financial fraud trial.

Trump is appealing the decision in that case as well, but an appeals court judge ruled this week that Trump must pay the entirety of that amount as bond while he pursues his appeal. If Trump fails to post the $454 million bond, James could require him to sell off his assets.

Why it matters: While Trump's lawyers have successfully delayed the start of the majority of the criminal trials in which he is charged, the civil verdicts in New York threaten his business empire and personal fortune. Appeals may indeed lessen the amount he will be required to pay Carroll and the state of New York, but they likely won't spare him from having to raise significant sums in the short term.

Jan. 6 election interference

Trump appeals Illinois judge’s ruling to kick him off ballot

Key players: Judge Tracie Porter, the Illinois Appellate Court, the Illinois State Board of Elections, the Colorado Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court

On Thursday, Trump's lawyers filed an appeal of Porter's ruling that he should be removed from state primary ballots for violating Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which bars those who have "previously taken an oath" to uphold the Constitution but later "engaged in insurrection" from ever holding office again, CBS News reported.

In their appeal, Trump’s lawyers asked to stay Porter’s decision "until the appeal is fully and finally resolved by the Illinois Appellate Court, First District, the Illinois Supreme Court, and/or the U.S. Supreme Court."

The Supreme Court has heard arguments to decide whether to let stand the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision to remove Trump from ballots in that state.

Illinois holds its presidential primary on Mar. 19 and Trump’s name currently appears on early voting ballots. Porter, a Democrat, put her own ruling on hold until Friday to give Trump’s lawyers a chance to appeal it, and acknowledged that the Supreme Court could soon issue a ruling to decide the question.

In her ruling, Porter said the Illinois State Board of Elections had made a mistake by finding that Trump was eligible to run in the state.

Why it matters: The U.S. Supreme Court is widely expected to overturn the Colorado Supreme Court's decision to remove Trump's name from ballots. Because the Illinois judge's ruling relies heavily on findings by the Colorado court that Trump did "engage in insurrection," it would also be nullified if that happens.

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Wednesday, February 28

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The U.S. Supreme Court says it will take up an appeal by former President Donald Trump on the question of whether presidential immunity protects former presidents from being prosecuted for "criminal prosecution for conduct alleged to involve official acts during his tenure in office." An appellate court judge denies Trump's request to stay a ruling obliging him to pay a bond of $454 million while he appeals the decision, but the judge does grant him the right to seek loans from New York banks to raise that sum. Earlier in the day, lawyers for Trump said it was "impossible" for their client to raise the full bond amount set by Judge Arthur Engoron and proposed paying just $100 million instead. In response, New York Attorney General Letitia James argued that there was "no merit" to that request and that Trump should be forced to pay the full amount. Here are the latest legal developments involving the billionaire hoping to be reelected to the White House in 2024.

Jan. 6 election interference

Supreme Court to hear Trump’s presidential immunity appeal

Key players: U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, special counsel Jack Smith, Judge Tanya Chutkan

The Supreme Court announced Wednesday that it would hear Trump's appeal of a lower court's ruling that presidential immunity does not protect him from prosecution for his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, USA Today reported.

In a statement, the court said it would limit arguments to the question of “Whether and if so to what extent does a former President enjoy presidential immunity from criminal prosecution for conduct alleged to involve official acts during his tenure in office.”

The court will hear oral arguments the week of April 22.

Chutkan ruled that presidential immunity did not protect Trump, but the former president’s lawyers appealed that decision.

In December, Smith had asked the court for an expedited ruling on the presidential immunity question. At that time, the court declined.

Instead, a three-judge panel with the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit took up the case, siding with Chutkan. Trump then asked the Supreme Court to pause that ruling so that the full appeals court could hear the case.

Why it matters: Trump has sought to delay the start of the federal election interference case until after the 2024 presidential election. But if the court rules against him, it is conceivable that a trial could begin in August or September.

New York financial fraud

Judge denies Trump motion to delay payment of $454 million bond

Key players: Appellate Court Judge Anil Singh, Trump lawyers Clifford Robert and Alina Habba, New York Attorney General Letitia James, JudgeArthur Engoron, Supreme Court of New York Appellate Division

Singh denied a motion by Trump’s lawyers for a stay that would have allowed them to pay just $100 million of the court-ordered $454 million bond imposed for years of fraudulent business practices in New York.

But the judge did stay portions of Engoron’s ruling, saying Trump’s sons Eric and Donald Jr. could remain in control of the family company as the appeal played out and that Trump could apply for loans from New York-based banks to help him cover his bond.

In a court filing Wednesday morning, Robert and Habba proposed that as he awaits his appeal to be heard by a New York appellate court, Trump should be allowed to pay a $100 million bond instead of the $454 million mandated by Engoron, USA Today reported.

In a letter to the appeals court, the lawyers said that because Engoron’s verdict prevented him from doing business in New York for three years, including borrowing money from state banks, he was unable to raise the full bond amount.

“The exorbitant and punitive amount of the Judgment coupled with an unlawful and unconstitutional blanket prohibition on lending transactions would make it impossible to secure and post a complete bond,” the lawyers wrote.

Instead, the lawyers continued, Trump planned to post a different amount. “Appellants nonetheless plan to secure and post a bond in the amount of $100 million,” they wrote.

James, who has said she will look to seize Trump’s real estate assets if he fails to post bond, dismissed the request in her own filing.

“There is no merit to defendants’ contention that a full bond or deposit is unnecessary because they are willing to post a partial undertaking of less than a quarter of the judgment amount,” James wrote. “Defendants all but concede that Mr. Trump has insufficient liquid assets to satisfy the judgment; defendants would need ‘to raise capital’ to do so.”

Engoron’s ruling that Trump be prohibited from obtaining loans from New York-based banks was warranted, James continued, as it was the central issue of the fraud trial.

“These are precisely the circumstances for which a full bond or deposit is necessary, where defendants’ approach would leave OAG with substantial shortfalls once this Court affirms the judgment,” James wrote.

Trump has until March 25 to pay off the full amount of his bond, and every day that he doesn’t pay, the amount goes up more than $100,000 in interest.

Why it matters: The ruling by the appeals court judge means that Trump will have to secure bank loans or he could be forced to sell off his real estate holdings in order to make bond.

Recommended reading

Salon:'I have no answer': Experts say Trump world's 'star witness' sank their case against Fani Willis

The Independent:Mark Meadows's bid to move Georgia election interference case dealt another blow

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Tuesday, February 27

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Nathan Wade’s former business partner Terrence Bradley again takes the witness stand at a hearing to decide whether Wade’s romantic relationship with Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis should disqualify both from prosecuting the case against former President Donald Trump and 18 others. But in a setback for the defense, Bradley testifies that he had no direct knowledge of when that relationship began. Here are the latest legal developments for the former president looking to win reelection to the White House in 2024.

Georgia election interference

‘Star witness’ at hearing at Wade and Willis dismissal hearing denies knowing when their relationship began

Key players: Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, lead prosecutor Nathan Wade, Wade's former business partner Terrence Bradley, Judge Scott McAfee, Trump co-defendant Mike Roman, Wade's attorney Ashleigh Merchant, Trump attorney Steve Sadow

During his second appearance on the witness stand, Bradley repeatedly stated on Tuesday that he did not know when the romantic relationship between Willis and Wade began.

“I do not have knowledge ... of when it started,” Bradley said.

That testimony appeared to contradict text messages sent between Merchant and Bradley in the lead-up to the hearing seeking to dismiss Willis and Wade over a romantic relationship that, the defendants in the case claim, represents a conflict of interest.

That left the defense lawyers in the position of scrambling to try to establish that the testimony of their most important witness was not credible.

Merchant revisited the email correspondence, but Bradley contended that the meaning of his answers were different than what Merchant contended, and that he had merely speculated to Merchant about when Wade and Willis had started their relationship.

McAfee, who compelled Bradley to retake the stand after meeting with him for a private interview on Monday, pushed Merchant to try to cover new ground.

“You’re making the point that he had made some comments to you along the way that led you to believe he had more knowledge than today he is testifying that he had,” McAfee, who had earlier referred to Bradley as a “star witness” for the defense, said at one point. “And so, if you’ve hit the high points of that, then I don’t know what else we can actually cover that moves the needle.”

Sadow also questioned Bradley about why he initially speculated to Merchant that Wade and Willis began their romantic relationship prior to Willis hiring him to prosecute the Georgia case.

“You do, in fact, know when it started and you don’t want to testify to that in court,” Sadow said. “That’s the true explanation, but you don’t want to admit it in court, correct?”

“No, I have no direct knowledge of when the relationship started,” Bradley answered.

Watching the proceedings, reporter Michael Isikoff, co-author of the book "Find Me the Votes: A Hard-Charging Georgia Prosecutor, a Rogue President, and the Plot to Steal an American Election," posted a courtroom observation.

"There will be a lot of time to dissect the lawyering but at a minimum Merchant should have tried to get an affidavit from Bradley back in January," Isikoff wrote on X. "Who knows what he might have said then but now she and Sadow have nothing — from him."

McAfee will hold a final hearing on Friday, March 1, on the question of whether to remove Willis and Wade from the case.

Why it matters: Ultimately it will be up to McAfee to decide whether the romantic relationship between Willis and Wade represents a conflict of interest serious enough to remove both from their roles in prosecuting the case against Trump and his co-defendants. Without the sworn testimony of their "star witness" to bolster the claim that Willis hired Wade so as to financially benefit from their relationship, that may be a harder point to prove.

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Monday, February 26

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Lawyers for former President Donald Trump ask Judge Scott McAffee to allow cellphone records to be used in his decision on whether to remove Fulton County District Attorney Fani Wilis and lead prosecutor Nathan Wade from the Georgia election interference case. Trump’s lawyers also appeal New York Judge Arthur Engoron’s $454 million judgment in the financial fraud case. Here are the latest developments in the legal cases against the man seeking to be reelected to the White House in 2024.

Georgia election interference

Trump lawyers seek to admit cellphone records obtained by private investigator

Key players: Trump lawyers Steven Sadow and Jennifer Little, Judge Scott McAfee, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, lead prosecutor Nathan Wade, private investigator Charles Mittelstadt

On Monday, Sadow and Little filed a motion with McAfee, asking the judge to admit cellphone records for Wade that they say show he and Willis lied in court about when their romantic relationship began, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Lawyers for Trump and other defendants have argued that Willis should be removed from handling the case because, they allege, she benefited financially from her relationship with Wade, who paid for vacations with Willis, who hired him. Willis and Wade testified earlier this month that they split expenses on those trips and that their relationship does not represent a conflict of interest.

Willis and Wade also both testified that they did not begin their sexual relationship until 2022, after Willis had hired Wade to lead the prosecution of Trump and 18 others charged with crimes stemming from their efforts to overturn the presidential election results in Georgia.

Trump’s lawyers hired Mittlestadt, who used online analytics tools to track Wade’s cellphone activity. In an affidavit, Mittlestat said the data he obtained showed that Wade visited Willis’s neighborhood multiple times in 2011, that the two talked on the phone more than 2,000 times in the first 11 months of 2021 and that they exchanged almost 11,000 text messages.

The Fulton County prosecutors countered that the cellphone records do not show proof that Willis or Wade lied about their relationship.

McAfee has stated that in order for him to disqualify Willis or Wade, the defense needs to show that the two lawyers brought their prosecution of Trump in order to financially benefit from the case, USA Today reported.

The judge has scheduled another hearing on Friday, March 1, on whether to remove Wade and Willis.

Why it matters: If McAfee decides to remove Willis or Wade from prosecuting Trump and his co-defendants, that could deal a potentially fatal blow to what many legal observers consider the strongest criminal case the former president faces and would almost certainly delay it until after the 2024 election.

New York financial fraud

Trump appeals $454 million fraud judgment

Key players: Judge Arthur Engoron, New York Attorney General Letitia James, Trump lawyer Alina Habba

On Monday, Trump appealed Engoron's ruling that he must pay $454 million in penalties and interest for years of fraudulent business practices in New York, CBS News reported.

Trump asked an intermediate-level state appellate court to overturn Engoron’s ruling, which gives the former president, his adult sons and members of the Trump Organization 30 days to begin paying.

In order to qualify for a stay of Engoron’s decision during the appeal, however, Trump will be obliged to pony up the entire amount of the judgment as a bond. So far, Trump has yet to do so, according to a spokesperson for James.

If Trump were to fork over the $454 million as his appeal played out, the money would go into an escrow account and would be returned to Trump if the appeals court ruled the massive fines were an overreach by Engoron.

Every day that Trump does not pay the full amount of the judgment, he accrues more than $100,000 in interest.

“We trust that the Appellate Division will overturn this egregious fine and take the necessary steps to restore the public faith in New York's legal system,” Habba told CBS News in a statement.

James’s office did not offer any comment on Trump’s appeal.

Why it matters: While Trump's appeal contends that Engoron "committed errors of law" in his decision to wallop Trump, his adult sons and members of the Trump Organization with hefty fines, simply filing the appeal does not get them off the hook from paying it in the short term.