October 26, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Snitching gets you everywhere

The defections of three well-placed co-defendants in the Georgia RICO case is a huge blow to Donald Trump, writes Lindsay Beyerstein.

Jenna Ellis, in court, screenshot via MSNBC.
Jenna Ellis, in court, screenshot via MSNBC.

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Two of Donald Trump’s co-defendants in the Georgia election theft case plead guilty last week and a third followed suit on Tuesday. 

Former Trump lawyers Sidney Powell, Kenneth Chesebro and Jenna Ellis have agreed to testify against the former president and remaining co-defendants. Assuming they successfully complete their probation, none of these newly minted convicts will face prison time. 

The remaining defendants, including Trump, are being prosecuted under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute, a law that was originally designed to fight organized crime, but which is now being applied to various illegal networks. 

Mid-level conspirators are particularly useful if they can testify to both the orders of the ringleaders and the operational details of the scheme.  

Powell’s decision to plead guilty on the eve of her trial came as a shock to the Trump camp. “[Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and her team] managed to break the woman who was never supposed to be breakable,” a deluded person told Rolling Stone. Powell will go to her grave believing conspiracy theories, but her loyalty to Donald Trump is not inexhaustible. Trump threw Powell under the bus publicly, ridiculed her privately, and cut off all contact. 

Chesebro pled guilty to a single felony count of conspiracy to file false documents in connection with his role in the fake electors scam. Powell didn’t even have to concede that much. She was allowed to plead to six misdemeanors. She’ll be free to file more frivolous lawsuits someday. But before you start complaining about our rigged justice system, consider how much these two have to offer as witnesses. 

Why did the lawyers get such generous plea deals? Because they can testify against defendants who are even guiltier than they are. Mid-level conspirators are particularly useful if they can testify to both the orders of the ringleaders and the operational details of the scheme. Snitching will get you everywhere. 

The lawyers worked directly with Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman and Donald Trump himself. Powell met with Trump in the Oval Office and presented him with a blueprint for declaring martial law and seizing voting machines. Her proposal was not acted upon, but the mere fact that she had that kind of access speaks volumes. 

Critically, the lawyers can testify that the flurry of illegal activity to overturn the election was a conspiracy. That may sound obvious, but proving the existence of an illicit network to a legal certainty can be a big hurdle for a RICO case. The more insiders who can explain how the pieces fit together, the more likely Willis is to secure RICO convictions.

Powell has something else going for her as a cooperating witness. She has now pled guilty to orchestrating the theft of voter data from Coffee County. A bail bondsman named Scott Hall has already pled guilty to his role in the theft. Critically, the indictment asserts that Hall was working on behalf of Donald Trump. If Hall and Powell can link the Coffee County heist to Trump, that would be a boon to the prosecution’s case against the highest-value defendant of all. 

The lawyers also had the advantage of being among the first to plead guilty. Prosecutors want to leverage the prisoner’s dilemma to create a sense of urgency: If nobody talks, everybody walks; but the person who talks first gets the best deal. Powell and Chesebro were the first nationally known defendants to plead guilty. Rest assured that the remaining co-defendants are watching carefully. Now that the united front is beginning to crumble, others may fold as well. 

It’s not sunshine and rainbows, though. Powell’s cachet as a witness might be tarnished by her long history of spouting outlandish conspiracy theories starring Hugo Chavez, George Soros and other fan faves from the QAnon cinematic universe. Trump’s lawyers will try to undermine her credibility. They must tread carefully, however. 

The more they paint Powell as crazy, the harder it’s going to be to justify Trump’s decision to rely on her advice. Trump’s defense will likely hinge on his sincere belief that the election was stolen. And yet there’s already testimony from the J6 Committee that Trump dismissed Powell’s conspiracy theories as crazy. 

The defections of three well-placed co-defendants in the Georgia RICO case is a huge blow to Trump and his top lieutenants. 

Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.

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