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The latest in Trump's trials

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) We love Trump.

DONALD TRUMP: This is a persecution.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He actually just stormed out of the courtroom.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It's time for Trump's Trials. It's been a week where Trump racked up a big political win in the Iowa caucuses, clear evidence that Republican voters, at least, are buying his argument that the 91 criminal counts he's facing don't really matter. And the way that Trump politicized his legal cases and goes on the attack seems to be paying off, too. One of Trump's co-defendants in the Georgia election interference case has made some serious allegations about Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and whether she had an improper relationship with a prosecutor, Nathan Wade, who she hired for the case. The co-defendant has not presented any evidence, but documents have now surfaced showing that Wade purchased airline tickets for a trip with Willis. And the charge has cast a huge shadow over the case, especially in the absence of a clear denial from Willis. Now a Georgia judge has scheduled a February hearing on the matter.

A lot to discuss, as always, it seems. And I'm joined again by my colleague, senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: And along with Domenico Montanaro, we are joined by NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey there.

DETROW: So I want to start with the latest news out of this Georgia election case as were were talking about involving District Attorney Fani Willis and this accusation of improper conduct. This week, the judge in that case scheduled a hearing in February to hear evidence surrounding some pretty serious accusations. I mean, she's essentially being accused of giving her boyfriend a job. We don't know if they had a relationship at this point, but it's a serious accusation. And why does it carry so much weight?

JOHNSON: It carries so much weight because this is one of the potentially most damaging criminal cases against the former president of the United States, Donald Trump. This is squarely about whether he interfered with the last election and tried to overturn it, pressuring state officials in Georgia, allegedly conspiring with others in the state and of submitting fake slates of electors. You know, these are very, very serious allegations against the former president. And instead of talking about what Donald Trump allegedly did, we're now talking about what the district attorney and her special prosecutor may have done. And that's just bad news for the case, for sure.

DETROW: And the charges remain the charges. This doesn't change any of the facts that Trump would eventually face a trial for. But is it fair to say that this just casts an enormous pall over the prosecution's case at this point?

JOHNSON: An enormous shadow. You know, one of the co-defendants of Donald Trump, Mike Roman, has actually filed court papers trying to get this case tossed out altogether against Mike Roman and trying to disqualify Fani Willis and Nathan Wade from participating in this prosecution, trying to get the entire Fulton County DA's office knocked off the case, in fact. So this is really serious stuff. Trump's lawyer in Georgia has suggested he's reviewing the allegations and may potentially join in that motion. So this could be a cascading series of problems for the district attorney's office that would really benefit Donald Trump in the media atmosphere, and we know he's seizing on it already.

DETROW: Yeah. And, Domenico, we had talked last week about how Trump and his allies were trying to use this to undermine the case. You were with me Monday night as we were covering caucus results. We were interviewing a spokesperson for Trump's campaign. And he repeatedly, over and over and over, every question I had about the seriousness of the charges, he brought up these Willis allegations. That's certainly going to continue from Trump and everybody else.

MONTANARO: Absolutely, especially anybody who's supporting Trump, you know, looking to keep him where he is in the Republican primary, insulated from some of these charges, claiming that they're witch hunts, painting himself to be a victim. And this just further helps to muddy up what was and is a sprawling case.

DETROW: Domenico, there's a lot of political fallout from this vacuum that's been created. I think one of the more interesting ones is that Brian Kemp, the Republican governor of Georgia, who, despite his opposition to Trump's efforts to overturn the election, is a pretty conservative guy. And he, up until this point, had mostly defended or at least not criticized Willis and her charges against Trump. And he is now raising some serious questions and saying, what's going on here? So I think you're seeing her lose some of her at least subtle allies in Georgia who are pretty key here.

MONTANARO: Well, they want to see the prosecution go forward and not have there be some massive distraction where Trump gets off the hook because of something like this, you know. And Willis claiming, you know, racist or misogynistic attacks, those things may very well be true, but it sort of misreads the politics like you're talking about with somebody like Kemp, who she needs to keep on board, you know. And not addressing the allegations head on really kind of mucks things up, allows Trump's team to muddy the waters, question Willis character and ethics just as she's trying to take on this sweeping case.

You know, now, even if she is having a relationship with someone who works with her, as inappropriate as that might be, it really says nothing about whether Trump is guilty of the crimes he's being accused of - trying to overturn the election results. But it's an unwelcome distraction for her. And the case could, you know, this could lead to delays in a case that Willis had wanted to begin a trial for on August 5.

DETROW: And before we shift gears, just one more contextual thing here. Carrie, I think we kind of mentioned in passing, but just to underscore, to remind people who aren't as up to speed, this matters because this was an outside lawyer brought in to handle this case who has been paid legal fees in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

JOHNSON: An outside lawyer who's well-known in Fulton County but hasn't done a lot of major league criminal cases like this one, this big racketeering case against the former president and many of his associates. And the guy's gotten $650,000 in payments. And the allegation from one of these defendants, co-defendants of Donald Trump, is that Fani Willis may have taken steps in the investigation that benefited Nathan Wade financially and may have benefited her. And so there's a serious legal and ethical issue here. It may not result in the dismissal of any of these charges, but it certainly is going to require a response from both of these prosecutors.

DETROW: Carrie Johnson, national justice correspondent, thanks again for joining us.

JOHNSON: Oh, my pleasure.

DETROW: And Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent. Thank you.

MONTANARO: Hey. You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.