Former President Trump’s co-defendants in Georgia have begun splintering, with two lawyers key to Trump’s efforts to overturn the election agreeing to cooperate with prosecutors.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis (D) late this week secured plea deals from Sidney Powell and Kenneth Chesebro, the highest-profile defendants to flip so far in the sprawling racketeering case. Both agreed to testify truthfully against their co-defendants, including Trump.
Legal experts said they weren’t surprised by the deals, arguing they would increase the legal jeopardy facing other defendants and raise the pressure for them to also consider taking plea deals.
“The real import of this plea is the signal it sends to the other defendants,” said Chris Mattei, a former federal prosecutor.
“Number one, that your time is running out for you to cooperate, because as cooperators come in and plead guilty, the prosecution continues to build its case and may not have a need to cooperate with other individuals,” he continued.
The duo’s plea deals came on the eve of their trial, which was scheduled to begin next week. Powell accepted a plea agreement on Thursday, and Chesebro followed suit one day later. The first group of jurors was already summoned to the courthouse.
The pleas followed another one weeks earlier from Scott Hall, a former bail bondsman.
Hall and Powell were charged over an election office breach in Coffee County, Ga. But Powell notably played a broader role in Trump’s orbit, serving as a key member of his legal team following the 2020 election.
Powell frequently promoted conspiracy theories about voting machines and foreign interference in court filings and media appearances. The Trump campaign ultimately distanced itself from Powell, who continued to independently file election lawsuits.
“There’s a whole number of people that she was dealing with who you would expect she would be able to offer testimony against, including Rudy Giuliani and others,” Mattei said.
The indictment notes Powell’s participation at a Nov. 19, 2020, press conference alongside Giuliani and Jenna Ellis, both former Trump attorneys who are also charged in Georgia. Ellis described the group as an “elite strike force team” to reporters that day.
Ellis reacted to Powell’s deal on X, formerly known as Twitter, reposting a conservative lawyer, who wrote prosecutors “overcharged and they knew it.”
Prosecutors’ indictment also notes Powell’s attendance at a Dec. 18, 2020, White House meeting with Trump, Giuliani and others, during which plans were discussed to seize voting equipment and appoint Powell as special counsel.
Testimony from several participants suggest the meeting went on for hours, including cursing and yelling at times as White House staffers pushed back against the unfounded fraud claims being advanced by Powell and several others. Axios dubbed it the “craziest meeting” to take place in the Trump White House.
“I think anytime a co-defendant pleads and makes a deal with a prosecutor to testify against co-defendants, that there is potential jeopardy for all of them,” said Gwen Keyes Fleming, who served as district attorney in DeKalb County, Ga.
Fleming added, “We’ll have to see what type of witness she is on the stand.”
Like Powell, Chesebro also played a key role following the 2020 election, writing a series of memos devising the Trump campaign’s alternate electors strategy.
The indictment lays out various alleged emails between Chesebro and other charged lawyers, like Giuliani and John Eastman. Three individuals who signed the Electoral College documents in Georgia also face charges.
“It doesn’t bode well for those at the top of the chain, like Trump and Giuliani, given that these are two individuals, who based on what we know, were sort of part of that inner circle,” said Anna Cominsky, director of New York Law School’s Criminal Defense Clinic.
Both originally faced seven felonies, but Powell instead pleaded guilty to six misdemeanors and Chesebro pleaded guilty to one of his original felony counts.
By doing so, they will avoid a conviction under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which accuses all the defendants of entering an unlawful conspiracy to keep Trump in power and forms the basis of the indictment.
Steve Sadow, Trump’s lead counsel in the case, brushed off Chesebro’s plea.
“It appears to me that the guilty plea to count 15 of the Fulton County indictment was the result of pressure by Fani Willis and her team and the prosecution’s looming threat of prison time,” Sadow said in a statement.
“However, it is very important for everyone to note that the RICO charge and every other count was dismissed. Once again, I fully expect that truthful testimony would be favorable to my defense strategy.”
Although they face no other criminal charges as of now, Chesebro and Powell are seemingly referenced in charging documents in Trump’s federal election case in D.C. as unindicted co-conspirators.
Powell also still faces legal jeopardy from two defamation lawsuits from voting equipment companies Smartmatic and Dominion. Citing her criminal prosecution, Powell sought to delay both civil lawsuits.
In Georgia, a trial date for Trump and the 15 others is not yet set but is not expected until at least next year — all while Trump continues his White House bid as the frontrunner in the GOP presidential primary.
Cominsky said the plea agreements leave Trump’s attorneys without the advantage of seeing the duo’s trial, which would’ve enabled his legal team to see prosecutors’ theory of the case and gather impeaching material before facing a jury themselves.
“I don’t think anyone should expect Trump or Giuliani to be pleading guilty anytime soon,” Cominsky said. “I think that you should expect them to take these cases to trial and that all of these pleas are not going to change the fact that, in my estimation, they will definitely go full force.”