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Trump legal news brief: Trump tries yet again to get Fani Willis kicked off Georgia case

Yahoo News' succinct daily update on the criminal and civil cases against the 45th president of the United States.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis looks on during a hearing on the Georgia election interference case.
Fulton County, Ga., District Attorney Fani Willis. (Alex Slitz, Pool/AP)

Former President Donald Trump and several of his co-defendants charged in the Georgia election interference case submit an application to appeal Judge Scott McAfee’s ruling allowing Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis to continue to prosecute them. The filing calls McAfee’s ruling a “legal error.” Here are the latest legal developments involving the presumptive Republican presidential nominee for 2024.

Georgia election interference

Trump and several co-defendants appeal judge’s decision on Willis

Key players: Trump co-defendants Rudy Giuliani, Mark Meadows, Jeffrey Clark, Robert Cheeley, Michael Roman, David Shafer, Harrison Floyd and Cathy Latham, Judge Scott McAfee, former lead prosecutor Nathan Wade, Georgia Court of Appeals

  • Lawyers for Trump and several of his co-defendants submitted a formal application to appeal McAfee’s ruling that allowed Willis to continue to try the case against them on the condition that Wade step down, the Associated Press reported.

  • The filing with the Georgia Court of Appeals states that McAfee “erred as a matter of law” when he did not disqualify Willis from handling the case.

  • “This legal error requires the Court’s immediate review,” the filing states.

  • Earlier this month, after holding hearings on whether to dismiss Willis due to conflict of interest claims brought by Trump and his co-defendants, McAfee issued a blistering ruling that criticized Willis and Wade for their “tremendous lapse in judgment” regarding their romantic relationship.

  • But he added that “Georgia law does not permit the finding of an actual conflict for simply making bad choices — even repeatedly.”

  • McAfee allowed the defendants to appeal his decision, but has also made clear that the appeal would not impede the court from moving forward with the election interference and racketeering case.

Why it matters: Trump’s lawyers have shown repeatedly that they will vigorously pursue each and every line of defense available in the criminal and civil cases brought against the former president. Though Wade stepped down from the Georgia case, Willis, who is asking McAfee to begin the trial in Fulton County well before the 2024 election, is far from in the clear.

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Thursday, March 28

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Prosecutors who have charged former President Donald Trump with election interference and racketeering relating to his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election in Georgia tell Judge Scott McAfee that the First Amendment does not protect him from prosecution in the case. Trump’s lawyers tell the judge that contesting election results is protected by the Constitution, but Fulton County prosecutor Donald Wakeford counters that each of the 10 felony counts Trump faces “was employed as part of criminal activity with criminal intentions.” Here are the latest legal developments involving the presumptive Republican presidential nominee for 2024.

Georgia election interference

Trump’s lawyers, prosecutors spar over First Amendment protections

Key players: Judge Scott McAfee, Fulton County prosecutor Donald Wakeford, Trump lawyer Steve Sadow, former Georgia Republican Party chairman David Shafer, Shafer’s lawyer Craig Gillen, pro-Trump lawyers Kenneth Chesebro and Sidney Powell, Judge Tanya Chutkan

  • McAfee heard arguments Thursday on whether the charges in Georgia against Trump should be dropped because they violate his First Amendment rights, ABC News reported.

  • Trump is charged with conspiring to overturn his 2020 election loss to Joe Biden in Georgia, a contest that he continues to claim was rigged despite a lack of evidence to support that assertion.

  • “What do we have here?” Sadow added. “We have election speech, which is 'protected' from government restriction."

  • Wakeford countered: “It’s not that the defendant has been hauled into a courtroom because the prosecution doesn’t like what he said. He is free to make statements and to file lawsuits and to make other legitimate protests. What he is not allowed to do is employ his speech and his expression, and his statements as part of a criminal conspiracy to violate Georgia’s RICO statute.”

  • McAfee did not issue a ruling on the question, but has previously denied similar motions to dismiss from Chesebro and Powell, both of whom have since pleaded guilty in the case.

  • In the federal election interference case, Chutkan has already ruled that the First Amendment doesn’t protect Trump from being prosecuted for seeking to overturn the 2020 contest.

  • Gillen argued that the charges against Shafer should be dropped because he was simply “attempting to comply with the advice of legal counsel” when he posed as an official state elector to challenge Biden’s victory.

  • Gillen also sought to have the term “fake elector” stricken from the indictment against his client.

Why it matters: McAfee didn’t offer many indications Thursday on how he might rule on the motions to dismiss the charges against Trump and Shafer. Given his prior rulings — and Chutkan’s — most legal experts see them as a long shot.

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Wednesday, March 27

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Judge Scott McAfee will hear arguments Thursday on motions brought by former President Donald Trump and former Georgia Republican Party chairman David Shafer seeking to have the charges on the election interference case dismissed. This is the first hearing since McAfee ruled that Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis could continue to prosecute the case against Trump so long as lead prosecutor Nathan Wade stepped aside.

Here are the latest legal developments involving the presumptive Republican presidential nominee for 2024.

Georgia election interference

Key players: Judge Scott McAfee, former Georgia Republican Party chairman and Trump co-defendant David Shafer, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, former lead prosecutor Nathan Wade

  • On Thursday, McAfee will hear arguments on motions filed by Trump and Shafer seeking dismissal of more charges. The hearing is the first since McAfee ruled that Willis could remain on the case as long as Wade stepped aside.

  • Trump’s motion asks the court to dismiss the charges against him on the grounds that they violate his First Amendment rights. Similar motions by other co-defendants have been unsuccessful.

  • Shafer is asking McAfee to dismiss all of the eight felony charges against him stemming from his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, saying he was simply following the advice of his legal counsel when he sought to line up an alternate slate of state electors.

  • Earlier this month, McAfee, citing a lack of detail, tossed six of the criminal counts. Trump now faces 10 felony counts instead of 13, but McAfee said Willis could add information and go back to a grand jury to try to have the charges restored.

  • Following McAfee’s ruling on the defendants' motion to have Willis removed from the case, Wade stepped aside.

  • Thursday’s hearing will be livestreamed beginning at 10 a.m. ET.

Why it matters: While McAfee has allowed Trump and his co-defendants to appeal his ruling on Willis, he has also made clear that he will push forward with the case in the meantime. Willis plans to ask McAfee to schedule the start of the trial this summer, CNN reported. If McAfee agrees, that could mean that a jury could still come to a verdict before the 2024 presidential election.

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Tuesday, March 26

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Judge Juan Merchan slaps a gag order on former President Donald Trump that prevents him from making public statements about witnesses, prosecutors, court staff and jurors in his hush-money criminal trial, which is set to begin on April 15. The gag order comes just hours after Trump attacked Merchan and his daughter in a social media post. Here are the latest legal developments involving the presumptive Republican presidential nominee for 2024.

New York hush money

Judge hits Trump with gag order

Key players: Judge Juan Merchan, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg

  • On Tuesday, Merchan sided with Bragg, issuing a gag order on Trump that is designed to prevent him from “making or directing others to make public statements” about witnesses in the hush money trial, court staff, prosecutors, jurors or their family members, the Associated Press reported.

  • Merchan limited the gag order to statements “made with the intent to materially interfere with, or to cause others to materially interfere with, counsel's or staff's work in this criminal case, or with the knowledge that such interference is likely to result.”

  • Hours before Merchan issued the gag order, Trump attacked him and his daughter in a social media post.

  • “Judge Juan Merchan, a very distinguished looking man, is nevertheless a true and certified Trump Hater who suffers from a very serious case of Trump Derangement Syndrome,” Trump wrote. “In other words, he hates me!”

  • Trump also wrote that “His daughter is a senior executive at a Super Liberal Democrat firm that works for Adam ‘Shifty’ Schiff, the Democrat National Committee, (Dem)Senate Majority PAC, and even Crooked Joe Biden.”

  • Merchan’s gag order, which comes one day after the judge set an April 15 start date for the hush money trial, does not prevent Trump from commenting on him or Bragg in general.

Why it matters: Merchan will oversee the first-ever criminal trial of a former president of the United States. While Trump’s lawyers have successfully delayed the start of all of the four criminal trials in which he is charged with felony counts, the hush money case is the only one certain to be heard by a jury prior to the 2024 election.

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Monday, March 25

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A New York appeals court on Monday lowers the bond amount that former President Donald Trump must pay as he appeals the $464 million judgment in his civil fraud trial, saying he can put up just $175 million within 10 days. The 11th-hour deal temporarily prevents New York Attorney General Letitia James from moving to seize Trump’s assets. In Trump’s hush money trial, Judge Juan Merchan says jury selection can begin on April 15. Here are the latest legal developments involving the presumptive Republican presidential nominee for 2024.

New York financial fraud

Appeals court rules in favor of Trump hours before bond deadline

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

  • On Monday, a New York appeals court lowered the bond amount Trump and his co-defendants must pay in order to appeal Engoron’s $464 million judgment in his civil fraud trail to just $175 million, Semafor reported.

  • The appeals court also gave Trump 10 days to pay that sum.

  • Speaking to reporters outside a hearing in his criminal hush money case in Manhattan, Trump said he would do so “very quickly.”

  • “I greatly respect the decision of the appellate division,” he said. “And I'll post either $175 million in cash or bonds or security or whatever is necessary very quickly within the 10 days.”

  • James had begun clearing the way to seize some of Trump’s assets in order to secure the full bond amount.

Why it matters: Trump’s lawyers had argued that the original bond amount, which included interest, was excessive. They also told the court that 30 lenders had refused to give them a loan to cover the $464 million bond. This ruling buys Trump more time, and could keep James from freezing his bank accounts and seizing his assets.

Hush money case

Judge sets April 15 start date for Trump’s hush money trial

Key players: Judge Juan Merchan, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, adult film actress Stormy Daniels, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen

  • With Trump looking on in court on Monday, Merchan ruled that the hush money trial could begin jury selection on April 15, the Daily Beast reported.

  • The trial had previously been scheduled to begin on March 25, but Merchan delayed it until April 15 after federal prosecutors submitted new evidence stemming from their investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia during the 2016 election.

  • Merchan ruled Monday that the newly disclosed documents did not have any bearing on the hush money case, which will decide whether Trump broke New York campaign finance and tax laws when he paid Daniels $130,000 in 2016 to hide an alleged extramarital affair.

  • Trump’s lawyers had sought to have the case dismissed or to have it postponed so that they could have more time to review the newly disclosed documents.

  • “The defendant has been given a reasonable amount of time to prepare,” Merchan said.

Why it matters: Trump’s lawyers have skillfully delayed all of the criminal trials facing the former president. But Monday’s ruling could mean that that streak is coming to an end.

—With reporting from Dylan Stableford