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Race is an ever present source of tension in Trump Georgia case

Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis (D) did not mince words the first time she spoke publicly after accusations surfaced that she was in a romantic relationship with Nathan Wade, the lawyer she had hired to lead the election interference case against former president Donald Trump and his allies.

“I am a little confused. I appointed three special counsel, which is my right to do. Paid them all the same hourly rate. They only attack one,” Willis said during a deeply personal speech at a Black church in Atlanta on Jan. 14 — the weekend commemorating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Willis and Wade are Black. The other two special prosecutors on the case are White. Willis’s implication was clear: Racism was at the heart of the effort to disqualify her from the case and dismiss all the charges.

The facts are less clear. Willis and Wade have acknowledged the relationship and sparked widespread agreement that it was improper to date someone she had hired. Additionally, public records show Wade has actually been paid more per hour than one of the other prosecutors, contrary to what Willis claimed.

Yet it’s hard to argue that race hasn’t infused the controversy. Since launching an investigation into Trump more than three years ago, Willis has faced a torrent of violent and racist threats that forced her to move out of her home and, allies say, influenced the way she views public criticism of her work. Now, she unabashedly casts questions about Wade’s qualifications for the job and criticism of her own behavior as racist. The defense lawyers, meanwhile — most of whom are White men — have bristled at the accusations, yet they have also described Willis as incompetent, dishonest and, in one instance, unable to put her dress on correctly — all characterizations that many of her allies say are belittling and cruel and, therefore, tinged with racial insensitivity if not outright racist.

All of it has muddied public opinion about Willis. With the judge overseeing the case expected to decide in the coming days if Willis and her office should be disqualified, supporters have rushed to defend the first Black woman elected district attorney in Georgia’s largest jurisdiction, even if they are conflicted about her actions. Critics have accused her of improperly using race to sidestep the allegations of misconduct, with Trump’s lawyers arguing that Willis’s race-focused church speech is itself grounds for her removal from the case.

In that speech, Willis said that she expected her critics would be angered when she called “them out on this nonsense.”

“First thing they say, ‘Oh, she’s going to play the race card.’ But … isn’t it them playing the race card when they think I need someone in some other jurisdiction in some other state to tell me how to do a job I’ve been doing almost 30 years?” Willis said.

Defense attorney Craig Gillen, who represents former Georgia GOP chairman David Shafer, argued the opposite in court earlier this month: “She was the one playing the race card in a way, to try to deflect from her own conduct.”

As outraged as some of the defendants were by the church speech, it was not unusual for Willis, who often talks about being a Black woman and a prosecutor, to riff on race — and it was welcomed by many of her supporters, particularly in Atlanta’s Black community.

One is Andre Dickens, the mayor of Atlanta, who is also Black and who showed up in court a few weeks later when Willis was scheduled to testify to show his solidarity.

“Fani Willis is not on trial,” Dickens (D) told reporters after the hearing. “I wanted to go into the court and make sure I looked at everybody and let them know that she is not on trial.”

Within weeks after Willis took office in January 2021, she came under harsh criticism for her prosecution decisions — and the threats against her began.

At first, they were mostly tied to her prosecution of rapper Young Thug, who is on trial for alleged gang activity in the Atlanta area. Then Willis launched an investigation of Trump’s attempts to try to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia, leading to felony charges in August against Trump and 18 of his allies.

She has had her home address published and has had false 911 calls made to her home. Her voice mail inbox has become a steady stream of hate-filled messages, with some callers wishing for her death, telling her to watch her back or threatening to target her family. Some used racist slurs such as calling her a “monkey” and the n-word. Willis moved out of her South Fulton home, stopped going to the grocery store and now travels with a security detail of at least four officers, who often vary her route to the courthouse, she has said.

“It was a lonely time,” Willis testified on Feb. 15. “I was very appreciative to the citizens for giving me this responsibility and this duty. But what I very, very quickly learned is that this is a very isolating job.”

One Alabama man, Arthur Ray Hanson II, faces federal felony charges stemming from threatening voice mails he left for Willis as well as Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat. Hanson referred to Willis as a “big fat black a–.” One lawyer for Hanson, Timothy Mays of Duluth, Ga., suggested that Hanson did not address Willis in the first person and therefore did not commit a crime — but the transcript of his voice mail suggests otherwise.

“Any time you’re alone, be looking over your shoulder, because I’ve been informed that there’s people that are going to want to f— you up,” he told Willis on the recording. “Not just you but your whole entire f—ing piece of s— family. So all of you sorry a– coons that are coming after Trump because you’ve got this power — watch your back.”

Then in early January, Trump co-defendant Mike Roman filed a motion accusing Willis of hiring Wade in November 2021 while in a romance with him, and then profiting from the hire by allowing him to take her on “lavish” international trips.

In the weeks that followed, the racist messages to Willis — some of them anonymous and difficult to trace — ramped up significantly in volume and tone, according to a sampling of them obtained by The Washington Post.

Willis received an email with her picture in it and the words, “You god damn N—–.” Another email shows her face imposed on a gallows. Another note, this one handwritten, says, “What? Some crackers have been b——’ about you putting that black buck of yours on the payroll? What’s their business? Don’t they now that’s the way n—— function?” The note ends with the phrase, “SLAVERY FOREVER.”

Willis said during a live interview at The Post last fall, “In the last three years I’ve been called the n-word so many times, I couldn’t even think to count how many.’

Now, the probing of Willis’s private life has unleashed a new round of bigoted attacks perpetuating ugly sexual stereotypes about Black men and women.

A few weeks after Roman’s filing, a woman showed up at a Fulton County Board of Commissioners meeting with a prop — a foot-long hot dog labeled “Nathan’s.” “Nothing comes between me and my Nathan’s hot dog,” the woman said during the public comments portion of the meeting. “Come on up in here now, my dark and lovely lunch.” Commissioners did not comment on the remarks, as is customary during the public comments periods of their meetings.

In a similarly vulgar attack, a video emerged on social media showing a man testifying in court about a woman whose mobile phone is named “gorilla grip p—– pal” — a lewd reference to female anatomy.

The video was from a New Mexico trial on the fatal shooting during the filming of the movie “Rust.” But a false claim that the man in the video was talking about Willis quickly spread on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. Among those who amplified the claim: Rep. Mike Collins (R-Ga.), who published a tweet saying his favorite glue is Gorilla “cause it’s got the best grip.”

A spokesman for Collins, James Winner, declined to explain the tweet in an email, saying, “We certainly disagree with the characterization of generating racist content, although these days some people think everything is racist so that’s a moving target.”

Race has repeatedly popped up in testimony, court filings and even email exchanges between Willis’s team and the defense lawyers for Trump and his co-defendants.

The issue bubbled over in a series of email exchanges between the prosecution team and defense lawyers in January, around the time Roman’s lawyer had filed the motion seeking Willis’s disqualification. In the exchange, Steve Sadow, Trump’s lead attorney, said he had grown frustrated that he had not gotten responses from the prosecution to questions sent two weeks earlier about the discovery process.

“For the life of me, I cannot understand why you refuse to respond,” Sadow wrote, according to two people who saw the exchange but requested anonymity to describe a private conversation.

That prompted Daysha Young, a senior deputy on the prosecution team, to admit that she had deemed some of the defense’s emails not worthy of a response because they were “disrespectful and condescending” and “lacking both professionalism and decorum.”

She said the state would “continue to provide all defense counsel with discoverable evidence” but would not allow “defense counsel to bully the state into providing information to which they are not legally entitled.”

Speaking for herself and for Willis, she also wrote: “We are both aware, especially as African American women, some find it difficult to treat us respectfully.”

Willis then weighed in.

“Young’s words, although hard to hear, are true,” she wrote. “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. 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.”

The exchange did not ease divisions. Sadow replied that Young’s email was “offensive, uncalled-for and untrue.”

“No defense counsel has treated you or your prosecutors in a disrespectful or condescending manner,” he wrote. “The relationship among counsel in our case has nothing to do with race or gender, nor should it.”

In the courtroom a few weeks later, race again came up as Willis’s father, John Floyd III, testified about his daughter’s explanation that she had given Wade cash to cover travel expenses. Defense attorneys had scoffed at the claim, accusing Willis of conveniently citing a method of payment with no records available to prove it. Gillen, Shafer’s lawyer, said in court that the explanation “does not pass the smell test or the straight-face test.”

Floyd testified that he had always taught his daughter to keep large amounts of cash in her home — and to carry cash out in the world to allow her the financial freedom to leave uncomfortable situations such as bad dates. He and others said it is a common practice among Black Americans that grew out of discriminatory practices by banks and credit-card companies who refused to do business with people of color.

Floyd knew this from experience, he told the judge. His credit had once been denied in a Cambridge restaurant when he was studying at Harvard on a fellowship. His cash had been accepted.

Bishop Reginald Jackson, who leads the AME 6th Episcopal District of Georgia and sat behind Willis during her church speech in January, has attended court proceedings in recent weeks to show his support for her. He has been stunned by the racial insensitivity of some of the defense lawyers, he said in an interview. The vast majority of Black Atlantans he has spoken to feel the same way, he said.

“They kept using words like ‘salacious’ and ‘her lover’ and other language that was completely inappropriate,” he said. “They implied that Ms. Willis hired Mr. Wade only to get some free trips, which is ridiculous.”

Jackson also bristled about the attacks on Willis’s claim that she keeps cash handy.

“Sitting in the court, listening to them go on and on about that, drove me up a wall,” he said. “It took everything in my power not to stand up and say something. But I said, well, I don’t think I need to go to jail today.”

Willis’s critics continue to doubt her story, noting that Willis is a professional with bank accounts, debit cards and cash apps, yet unable or unwilling to provide records of her cash withdrawals or Wade’s deposits to corroborate her testimony.

That same day, Willis took the stand wearing a bright pink dress with a zipper up the front — prompting one of the more absurd insults to surface against Willis.

It must be on backward, critics on social media concluded. Who wears a dress with the zipper in the front, they scoffed. One breathless “fashion expert” speaking to conservative radio personality Glenn Beck even posited: “Usually if [a dress] zips up the front, the zipper is a little more decorative.”

“I guess she really is that stupid,” one person opined on X.

One of Trump’s co-defendants in the case, who did not want to be named in connection with the issue, texted a reporter: “Is she wearing her dress backwards?”

She was not. Every picture of her dramatic testimony that day clearly showed seams sewn down the front to accommodate a woman’s bust. A vertical slit along the hemline was exactly where it belonged — in the back. And a screenshot provided to The Post of Willis’s order history at Amazon, where she had bought the garment on Jan. 30 for $42.99, describes it as a “Front Zipper Tie Waist” business dress. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)

“There is an absurd contradiction between the notion that Willis is a legal genius who has assembled a vast array of forces to maneuver a complicated case through two grand juries and an indictment against Trump and a host of his acolytes, but at the same time she can’t put her dress on right,” said Norm Eisen, an ally of the prosecution who served as special counsel to the House of Representatives’ first impeachment of Trump. “Racism is historically marred by that kind of illogic.”

A few days later, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp gave a talk titled “What You Talkin Bout Fani Willis,” a play on a popular catchphrase from the 1980s sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes,” which was about two Black youths from Harlem taken in by a wealthy, White Park Avenue family.

During the roughly 18-minute conversation, the two men took shots at Willis as they discussed how the charges against Trump in Georgia and elsewhere reflected a “weaponization” of government against “we the people.”

“We all saw her attitude on display when she took the stand,” Jordan said.

A Jordan spokeswoman called the premise of this story “beyond ridiculous” and defended Jordan’s focus on “constitutional oversight of the potential misuse of federal funds” by Willis’s office. A Schlapp spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

During the talk, Schlapp brought up how Willis had testified that she prefers Grey Goose to wine when asked questions about a trip she took with Wade to Napa Valley wine country. Willis was wasn’t invited to the conference, he said, “but there’s a Fani sandwich with a chaser of Grey Goose vodka — if you have enough cash, ready cash, in your pocket.”

The crowd of Republicans laughed.

Holly Bailey in Atlanta contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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