By Rick Rojas and Sean Keenan
Fani T. Willis, the district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, pushed back Sunday against the criticism and questions about her judgment that have followed a court filing accusing her of being romantically involved with an outside lawyer she hired to lead the racketeering case against former President Donald Trump.
Willis emerged from almost a week of silence to address the congregation at one of the oldest Black churches in Atlanta, which had invited her to be the keynote speaker for a service dedicated to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
She did not address the allegation that she was in a relationship with Nathan Wade, the special prosecutor she hired in 2021, who has earned more than $650,000 in the job to date.
Instead, what Willis detailed were the frustrations and struggles that she said she has faced not only as a prosecutor, but also as a Black woman taking on the most powerful figure in the Republican Party.
She said the scrutiny of her hiring of Wade reflected the racism directed at her, adding that he had “impeccable credentials” that were being questioned only because both she and Wade were Black. Racist attacks and threats to her and her family were hurtful and unnerving, she said — and now practically routine.
“Wait a minute, God,” Willis, 52, said from the pulpit of Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, recounting a prayer last week in which she reminded God that the job of district attorney, to which she was elected as a Democrat in 2020, came with more anguish, hardship and loneliness than she had anticipated.
“You did not tell me,” she added, “as a woman of color, it would not matter what I did — my motive, my talent, my ability and my character would be constantly attacked.”
Trump and 18 of his allies were indicted in August on racketeering and other state charges for what Willis’ office described as a multipronged effort to overturn his 2020 election loss in Georgia. Four of the defendants have pleaded guilty and pledged to cooperate with prosecutors.
The claim that Willis and Wade are romantically involved has spurred questions not only about Wade’s qualifications, but also about her rationale for hiring him. Before his current role, Wade, 50, had never led a high-profile criminal case and had largely worked as a suburban defense lawyer and municipal judge.
The court filing on Jan. 8 from Michael Roman, a co-defendant in the Trump case, asserted that Willis and Wade have gone on vacations together with some of his earnings from her office.
The accusations have emboldened Trump and his supporters, raising their hopes of getting Willis removed from the case — or getting the case dismissed altogether, as the filing requested.
“When is Fani going to drop the case, or should it be dropped for her?” Trump asked in a social media post last week. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a R-Ga., called for a criminal investigation, and Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, also a Republican, called the accusations “deeply troubling.”
But those criticisms did not appear to penetrate Big Bethel’s walls.
“She’s been faithful to her oath and to the people of Fulton County,” Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, the presiding prelate for Georgia for the African Methodist Episcopal Church, said as he introduced her to the congregation. “How proud we are of her.”
He praised her for withstanding attacks on her reputation and threats to her safety. “She keeps on doing the job,” he said. “Fulton County, Georgia, and the nation are blessed because Fani Willis is our district attorney.”
Some congregants said after the church service that they were skeptical of the accusations.
Rita Robinzine, 56, said she believed that the rumors and the way they had been weaponized against Willis underscored her point about Black women carrying an extra burden.
“Black women always have to prove ourselves,” said Robinzine, a retired teacher. “Once upon a time, teachers would tell students, ‘You have to be twice as good as the white person in order to get ahead.’ So we’re all constantly proving ourselves and defending ourselves.”
Still, she added of the allegations: “I hope it’s not true.”
Willis noted from the pulpit that Wade had been hired in the past by a Republican in another Georgia county and that neither the official nor Wade had faced pushback then.
“I appointed three special counsels, as is my right to do. Paid them all the same hourly rate,” Willis said. “They only attacked one.” (The other two outside lawyers, she said, are white.)
After Willis’ appearance, Ashleigh Merchant, a lawyer for Roman, said, “Nothing she said today changes any of the important arguments raised in our motion and does not change the unfortunate facts surrounding her appointment of Wade.”
During the roughly half-hour speech, Willis repeatedly referred to herself as flawed and imperfect. But she never provided much explanation other than describing a tendency for hardheadedness.
Willis said she turned to prayer last week, at one point even writing a letter to God in which she expressed self-doubt.
“A divorced single mom who doesn’t belong to the right social groups, who doesn’t necessarily come from the right family, doesn’t have the right pedigree — the assignment was just too high for lowly me,” she said, sharing parts of the letter with the congregation. “All I brought to the table, God, is my mind, my heart, my work ethic, my undying love for people and the community.”
In turn, she said, God encouraged her to keep pushing and to pray for her critics, even if she did not want to. “Do my work, ignore the distractions,” she said God told her.
She described herself to the worshippers at Big Bethel as “built and being constantly chiseled by faith and resilience,” just like the sanctuary she stood in, a towering church in the heart of Atlanta first established in 1847 by enslaved African Americans.
She said imperfect individuals are often given divine assignments that are large and challenging. Moses, she said, had a speech impediment, yet he was chosen to be God’s messenger. King had his struggles, too.
“See, Dr. King was an extremely special, brilliant, godly man,” she said. “But he was just a man and his journey was full of mistakes, pitfalls, pain and ugliness.”
The lesson she took from that: “He overcame those things, and he could change the world.”
After she spoke, Jackson stood beside Willis as the congregation stretched their hands toward her in prayer.
“Renew her strength,” he said.
Then Willis walked out onto the street, brushing past reporters waiting with questions she declined to answer.