In just one week, three former attorneys have turned against Donald Trump in a sweeping criminal case alleging a conspiracy to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in the state of Georgia.
That series of dramatic reversals has turned some of Trump’s most prominent allies, including former federal prosecutor Sidney Powell, into potential liabilities for the former president. Jenna Ellis and Kenneth Chesebro, two former Trump campaign lawyers, also pleaded guilty.
It is not yet clear whether the lawyers, who have all agreed to testify truthfully in future proceedings, will try to incriminate Trump in the Georgia case, legal experts said. But their deals could set off a chain of similar deals, increasing the number of potential witnesses prosecutors have on their side as they pursue the former president. CNN reported this week that at least six more of his 18 co-defendants in the Georgia case are in plea negotiations.
“There is definitely momentum in the Fulton County case, and that momentum is very much in favor of the district attorney,” said Clark Cunningham, a law professor at Georgia State University. “If anything, the pace continues to accelerate.”
Fulton County District Attorney Fannie Willis cited Georgia’s extensive racketeering laws in drafting the indictment, which covers a wide range of alleged criminal activity and a large array of defendants that include Trump’s most prominent lawyers and advisers in an alleged conspiracy with former president in center.
“You turn in one defendant, they can testify against another defendant. . . it’s sometimes compared to dominoes,” said Barbara McQuaid, a former U.S. attorney.
Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, said one of the other lawyers charged in the Georgia case, which includes Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman — two of the most vocal advocates of failed legal theories that Trump was rigged to win the election — could to be “the next domino to fall”.
Specifically, Cunningham said, Ellis “is almost certainly a potentially damaging witness against Giuliani.” She appeared alongside the former New York mayor at a hearing in the Georgia state capital after the 2020 election.
“So if her cooperation is enough to force Giuliani to cooperate, then that’s probably very bad for Trump, because if there’s anybody who can incriminate him, it’s probably Giuliani,” Cunningham added.
Trump is expected to argue that he was simply following the advice of his lawyers, a theory that could be supported by the guilty pleas in Georgia if he claims his former lawyer admitted wrongdoing.
But Daniel Richman, a professor at Columbia Law School, said if lawyers testify that they were misled or didn’t know all the facts, that “really weakens that defense.” It will come down to whether they “are ready, willing and able to give serious testimony that incriminates Trump,” he added.
Powell, Ellis and Chesebro will serve probation rather than prison under what analysts say are lenient deals, which could indicate the trio’s high value as witnesses – or prosecutors’ desire to reduce the large number of defendants in the case.
The guilty pleas could also benefit a separate federal criminal case against Trump for the 2020 election being overseen by special counsel Jack Smith — if Smith can convince cooperating witnesses in Georgia to help his case.
Mark Meadows, Trump’s White House chief of staff and co-defendant in Georgia, may seek a plea deal in Fulton County, analysts said, after ABC reported the Justice Department granted him immunity in the federal case in exchange for his testimony. His lawyer called the report “grossly inaccurate,” while the Justice Department declined to comment. Justice Department documents suggest Meadows could be a government witness in the federal case.
“It turns out to be a great tag team,” Cunningham said. “Jack Smith can’t convert people because there’s only one defendant. Fanny Willis makes a classic [racketeering] prosecution where she works her way up the food chain to elevate man to the top and . . . this should be useful for jack smith.
While broad by federal standards, the indictment against Smith is far narrower than the document unsealed in Georgia. The Justice Department includes only one defendant — Trump — and six unnamed co-conspirators, who are believed to include Powell and Chesebro. Trump has pleaded not guilty to both the state and federal election cases, as well as two additional criminal cases he faces in federal court in Miami and New York state.
Beyond the prospect of potential witnesses, federal prosecutors are seeking other benefits from guilty pleas in Georgia. In a motion filed Wednesday, Smith mentioned the deals when he asked Trump to disclose evidence surrounding the defense he intends to pursue. “[T]this is a good reason to question its viability, especially because . . . three accused attorney co-defendants have pleaded guilty to committing crimes in connection with the 2020 election,” Smith said.
Richman said the Justice Department is looking to “put these guilty pleas into play.” While Smith previously pressed Trump to share evidence, “he now says it’s especially important. . . because eventually these lawyers start pleading guilty”.