ATLANTA (AP) - By Kate Brumback, Alanna Durkin Richer, AP 

A special prosecutor who had a romantic relationship with Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis formally withdrew Friday from the Georgia election interference case against former President Donald Trump after a judge ruled one of them had to leave the case for it to move forward.

Attorney Nathan Wade’s role in the prosecution had come under fire since an attorney representing one of Trump’s co-defendants alleged in early January that Wade and Willis were involved in an inappropriate relationship that resulted in Willis profiting improperly from the prosecution.

Wade offered his resignation in a letter to Willis, saying he was doing so “in the interest of democracy.'

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee had ruled Friday that Wade had to be removed or Willis must step aside from the case. McAfee did not find that Willis’ relationship with Wade amounted to a conflict of interest that should disqualify her from the case. However, he said, the allegations created an “appearance of impropriety” that infected the prosecution team.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

ATLANTA (AP) — Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis must step aside from the Georgia election interference case against Donald Trump or remove the special prosecutor with whom she had a romantic relationship before the case can proceed, the judge overseeing it ruled Friday.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee did not find that Willis' relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade amounted to a conflict of interest that should force her off the most sprawling of the four criminal cases against the former president.

However, the judge said Willis can stay on the case only if Wade withdraws due to “an appearance of impropriety” that infected the prosecution team. The judge criticized Willis for a “tremendous” lapse of judgement and questioned the truthfulness of Willis and Wade's testimony about the timing of their relationship.

“As the case moves forward, reasonable members of the public could easily be left to wonder whether the financial exchanges have continued resulting in some form of benefit to the District Attorney, or even whether the romantic relationship has resumed," the judge wrote.

"Put differently, an outsider could reasonably think that the District Attorney is not exercising her independent professional judgment totally free of any compromising influences. As long as Wade remains on the case, this unnecessary perception will persist.”

Even though the judge gave Willis the option to stay on the case, the allegations threaten to damage her reputation and taint the public's perception of the prosecution. Trump and his allies have seized on the allegations to impugn Willis’ credibility as the prosecutors seeking to hold the former president accountable have found themselves under fire.

For weeks, embarrassing headlines about romantic getaways, sex and stashes of cash have consumed the coverage, turning the prosecution of a former president accused of undermining the will of the people who voted him out of the White House into a soap opera.

A spokesperson for Willis did not immediately respond to a text message seeking comment Friday.

An attorney for Trump said the former president's team respects the court's decision but believes the judge “did not afford appropriate significance to the prosecutorial misconduct of Willis and Wade."

“We will use all legal options available as we continue to fight to end this case, which should never have been brought in the first place,” defense attorney Steve Sadow said.

Defense attorneys could try to appeal the ruling, but they would need the judge’s permission to do so.

Willis hired Wade to lead the team to investigate and ultimately prosecute Trump and 18 others on charges that they illegally tried to overturn his narrow loss to Democrat Joe Biden in Georgia in 2020. The case uses a statute normally associated with mobsters to accuse the former president, lawyers and other aides of a “criminal enterprise” to keep him in power.

Trump, the Republicans’ presumptive presidential nominee for 2024, has denied doing anything wrong and pleaded not guilty.

Willis and Wade testified at a hearing last month that they had engaged in a romantic relationship, but they rejected the idea that Willis improperly benefited from it, as lawyers for Trump and some of his co-defendants alleged. Willis and Wade insisted they didn't begin dating until after he became special prosecutor, though another a former friend and employee of Willis' testified that she saw the pair hugging and kissing before he was hired.

Willis and Wade said the relationship ended in the summer of 2023. They both said that Willis either paid for things herself or used cash to reimburse Wade for travel expenses.

McAfee wrote that there was insufficient evidence that Willis had a personal stake in the prosecution. And he said he was unable to “conclusively establish by a preponderance of the evidence” whether Willis and Wade began dating before or after he was hired as special prosecutor.

“However, an odor of mendacity remains," the judge wrote. He said “reasonable questions” about whether Willis and Wade testified truthfully about the timing of their relationship “further underpin the finding of an appearance of impropriety and the need to make proportional efforts to cure it.”

Even so, he said, dismissal of the case was not the appropriate remedy to "adequately dissipate the financial cloud of impropriety and potential untruthfulness found here.”

McAfee found no showing that the due process rights of Trump and the other defendants had been violated or that the issues involved prejudiced them in any way. He also said the disqualification of a constitutional officer, like a district attorney, is not necessary when a less drastic option is sufficient.

The judge said he believes that “Georgia law does not permit the finding of an actual conflict for simply making bad choices -- even repeatedly -- and it is the trial court’s duty to confine itself to the relevant issues and applicable law properly brought before it.”

An attorney for co-defendant Michael Roman was the first to ask McAfee to dismiss the indictment and prevent Willis and Wade and their offices from continuing to prosecute the case. The attorney, Ashleigh Merchant, alleged that Willis paid Wade large sums for his work and then improperly benefited from the prosecution of the case when Wade used his earnings to pay for vacations for the two of them.

Merchant said in a statement Friday that while Roman's team maintains that the judge should have disqualified Willis' office entirely, the judge clearly agreed with the defense that there is a “risk to the future of this case” if Willis "doesn’t quickly work to cure her conflict.”

The ruling comes days after the judge dismissed three of 13 counts against Trump in the indictment. The judge said prosecutors failed to allege sufficient detail regarding the nature of the allegations related to soliciting public officers to violate their oaths. However, the bulk of the 41-count indictment remains intact, and the judge said prosecutors could seek a new indictment to try to reinstate the charges he dismissed.

One dismissed count stemmed from a phone call Trump made to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a fellow Republican, on Jan. 2, 2021, in which Trump urged Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes” for him to win the election in the state.

Of the 19 people originally charged in the indictment, four have pleaded guilty after reaching deals with prosecutors. They include prominent Trump allies and attorneys Sidney Powell and Kenneth Chesebro.

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