Trump’s lawyers plead guilty. What does that mean for Georgia case?
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In August, these three lawyers were all charged by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis as co-defendants with Mr. Trump in her sweeping Georgia election interference case. But over recent days, all have pleaded guilty and accepted plea deals, potentially reshaping the case’s legal context and boosting prosecutors’ efforts to flip more defendants into cooperators.
The full stories that Ms. Powell, Mr. Chesebro, and Ms. Ellis might tell at trial remain unknown. Their 2020 election efforts appear to be only tangentially related to one another.
However, their accounts could help connect the dots between various aspects of the alleged plot to overturn the vote – a sprawling racketeering conspiracy that lies at the heart of the Georgia charges.
“They connect parts of the conspiracy together,” says Anthony Michael Kreis, a constitutional law professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
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Dwindling number of defendants
When Ms. Willis first filed her election case on Aug. 14, its scope surprised many legal experts. Based on Georgia’s expansive RICO anti-racketeering law, it contained 41 criminal counts and targeted 19 criminal defendants. By contrast, the federal case brought by special counsel Jack Smith targets only Mr. Trump as a defendant, with six unindicted and unnamed co-conspirators.
But in recent weeks one benefit to prosecutors of Georgia’s bigger approach has become apparent: Worried by their legal exposure, some lower-level defendants have pleaded guilty, creating pressure on others higher up the ladder to do the same.
Ms. Willis’ case is now down to 15 defendants. Last month Scott Hall, a Georgia bail bondsman, pleaded guilty to five misdemeanors. Then last week Ms. Powell similarly pleaded guilty to misdemeanors. She was followed in quick succession by Mr. Chesebro and Ms. Ellis, who both pleaded guilty to a felony.
All avoided a prison sentence.
It is quite possible that this was part of Ms. Willis’ plan from the beginning, says Caren Morrison, a former assistant U.S. attorney in New York and now a Georgia State University law professor. Ms. Willis may not have really wanted to bring 19 people to trial, but to shrink and bolster her case with testimony from flippers.
“That’s the beauty of RICO. You can tell a complete story, and it’s also a way of getting more witnesses and building a stronger case,” says Professor Morrison.
It is likely the case will get narrower still. On Wednesday, CNN reported that six additional defendants have discussed plea deals with Fulton County prosecutors.
Some experts counter that the plea deals actually reveal a weakness at the heart of the Georgia case.
So far, none of the deals have required the pleaders to acknowledge they are guilty of the central RICO conspiracy to overturn the vote, according to Andrew C. McCarthy, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and columnist for National Review. Instead, they have accepted responsibility for much lesser infractions.
Ordinarily prosecutors require the first cooperators in big cases to plead guilty to the major charges, with sentencing leniency, wrote Mr. McCarthy earlier this week.
“Willis wildly overcharged the election-interference case and is now picking off some defendants on minor charges,” he wrote in National Review.
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Who might plead guilty next?
In a sweeping criminal case, each flipped defendant can create a time dilemma for others. First movers get the sweetest deals. Subsequent pleaders often get steadily stiffer terms. In addition, the defendants left standing need to consider the information flippers might have. If it implicates them, does that mean the risk of going all the way to trial is greater?
“They all need to be wondering, I suspect, what each one of these witnesses is prepared to say when testifying under oath, what each is willing to share, documents, emails, that the government does not yet have,” says Kay Levine, a professor at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta.
Ms. Powell, for instance, was charged in Georgia in connection with an incident of unauthorized access to sensitive election equipment in Coffee County following the 2020 election. She allegedly dispatched a team from the Atlanta data forensics firm SullivanStrickler to download data from voting machines that she thought might be designed to secretly switch votes.
Former Coffee County elections director Misty Hampton remains a charged defendant in the Georgia RICO case. She was present in the county election office when the team was admitted on Jan. 7, 2021. She was also caught on video the next day allowing two men who were active in challenging the election outcome into the office for hours.
Ms. Hampton would be a likely flipping target for prosecutors. According to CNN, she has been in touch with Ms. Willis about a possible deal.
Mr. Chesebro was charged in the Georgia case with organizing fake Electoral College electors, an effort that spread across the nation to six other states: Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. He might be able to provide information on whether other defendants who were participants in the scheme – Georgia state Sen. Shawn Still, Georgia GOP chairman David Shafer, and former Trump White House aide Michael Roman – knew it was illegal.
Mr. Roman has also been involved in plea talks, according to CNN.
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Ms. Ellis and Ms. Powell together might be able to provide prosecutors something of high value: inside information on the thinking of the highest-ranking defendants, up to and including Mr. Trump himself.
“It seems to me that Sidney Powell … and Jenna Ellis were in the room where it happened, where important conversations took place,” says Professor Levine.
Ms. Powell, for instance, was a key participant in a raucous Oval Office meeting on Dec. 18, 2020, in which she argued for an executive order to seize voting machines and the appointment of herself as a special counsel to investigate election fraud allegations. White House lawyers argued heatedly against these ideas in front of President Trump.
Ms. Ellis worked closely with former Trump lawyer and current Georgia defendant Rudy Giuliani to organize an appearance before Georgia legislators after the 2020 election in which presenters rolled out a litany of wild, false claims, including the assertion that 10,000 dead people had voted.
In her tearful appearance in court Tuesday at which she pleaded guilty, Ms. Ellis said, “I relied on others, including lawyers with many more years of experience than I, to provide me with true and reliable information.” That seems a finger pointed directly at Mr. Giuliani.
It might also implicate John Eastman, a Trump lawyer and Georgia defendant who wrote a central memo arguing that then-Vice President Pence could overturn the results of the electoral certification of Mr. Biden’s victory during a joint session of Congress.
Mark Meadows, former Trump chief of staff, has also spoken at least three times with federal special counsel Mr. Smith’s prosecutors after being granted immunity to testify under oath, ABC News reported this week. He testified that he repeatedly told President Trump that claims of significant voter fraud coming in were all baseless, according to ABC. Mr. Meadows remains a defendant in the Georgia case.
In the end, the value of the Georgia plea deals will be judged by how important the testimony of flippers is and how it lands with a jury if the prosecution opts to put them on the witness stand.
“If their testimony is powerful, we could say in hindsight the prosecution got the best of these deals. … If they’re not providing the assistance [prosecutors] might like, we might be looking at these pleas a little differently,” says Shane Stansbury, a former federal prosecutor and distinguished fellow at Duke University School of Law in Durham, North Carolina.