Donald Trump has been consolidating support in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, but the former president is bleeding support in an even more important contest: his coming trial in Georgia on 13 felony counts related to his effort to overturn his 2020 election loss.
On Tuesday, lawyer Jenna Ellis pleaded guilty to a single felony count of aiding and abetting false statements, which were made as part of the efforts of Trump’s “elite strike force” of lawyers to change the presidential election results.
Ellis’ admission of guilt is just the latest in a series of plea agreements in the sweeping case brought by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis against Trump and his associates for their attempts to block Joe Biden from assuming the presidency. She joins Trump lawyers Sidney Powell, another member of Trump’s “elite strike force,” and Kenneth Chesebro, the architect of a fake electors scheme, in accepting plea deals in exchange for agreeing to testify in the trial of the other 15 defendants. (A fourth co-defendant, Atlanta businessman Scott Hall, also pleaded guilty.) Trump has called the indictment a “witch hunt.”
The requirement that Ellis, Powell and Chesebro provide truthful testimony in exchange for reduced sentences bodes ill for the former president and others involved in the election theft effort, including Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and conservative lawyer John Eastman.
Even worse for Trump and his co-defendants, Ellis is also required as part of her plea deal to provide “additional recorded statements and affidavits to the state” and “any requested documents or evidence,” while also participating “in interviews with prosecutors” and “assisting in pretrial matters.”
The string of guilty pleas also drives home why legal experts have long pointed to the Georgia case as the one Trump, a master of escaping accountability, may not be able to run from. The state’s racketeering laws, the foundation of the case, are notoriously strong, and Willis’ prosecution is beyond the reach of Trump’s allies in the federal government.
Lawyers Jenna Ellis (center) and Sidney Powell pleaded guilty in Fulton County, Georgia, for their roles in former President Donald Trump's efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss.
Ellis, Powell and Chesebro were not bit players in the campaign to overturn the election. They were key actors involved in meetings, strategy and communications with the biggest targets of the indictment. All three of them, especially Ellis, have direct knowledge of the scheme concocted by Trump, Giuliani and others to steal the election.
The importance of Ellis’ plea deal was immediately clear during her tear-filled statement to the court on Tuesday, when she admitted her statements that the election had been stolen from Trump were false and implicitly pointed the finger at Giuliani as the reason why she believed the election fraud lie.
“I relied on others, including lawyers with many more years of experience than I, to provide me with true and reliable information, especially since my role involved speaking to the media and to legislators in various states,” Ellis said.
Giuliani is also implicated as the defendant whom Ellis admitted to “aiding and abetting” in the false statements in order to solicit the appointment of illegal electors. Guiliani, for his part, has called the indictment a “travesty” and an “attack on the American people.”
That effort is detailed in the indictment as 10 separate acts that Ellis engaged in, alongside Giuliani, to spread lies about the election in the press and before state legislatures in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania with the intent to get Republican lawmakers to reject their state election results and instead send alternate slates of electors to Congress that would flip the Electoral College count in Trump’s favor. Her actions included soliciting lawmakers to illegally appoint electors for Trump at committee hearings and in private meetings, including one held at the White House with Trump, Giuliani and then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who is also charged in the Georgia case.
Ellis’ participation in these efforts means that she was privy to meetings, phone calls, emails and other communications that went into the strategy and execution of the plot to overturn the election. By blaming Giuliani, who, as a former U.S. attorney, is a lawyer “with many more years of experience” than her, Ellis’ testimony can provide direct testimony about the former New York City mayor’s actions and thought process in the weeks after Biden won and leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.
She was also in communication with Trump, in particular at a Nov. 25, 2020, White House meeting, which also included Giuliani and Meadows, when the effort to overturn Pennsylvania’s election results was discussed with state GOP legislators.
Powell, who spouted absurd lies about electronic voting machines operated by Dominion Voting Systems, was also engaged in communications with Trump as part of his “elite strike team.” She not only participated in an infamous press conference with Giuliani and Ellis but also met with Trump on multiple occasions, including once when she pushed to be named a special counsel tasked with investigating election fraud and seizing voting machines. Trump was dissuaded from giving broad powers to Powell, but she pursued other avenues.
Trump lawyer Kenneth Chesebro is sworn in during a plea deal hearing Friday at the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta.
The effort to seize or otherwise access voting machines to prove fraud, or at least claim proof, led to Powell’s indictment in Georgia. She pleaded guilty on Thursday to six misdemeanors in connection with the illegal breach of voting systems in Coffee County, Georgia, conducted by a forensics firm that she hired. But there are still some open questions that could implicate Trump and Giuliani about how the Coffee County breach and theft of voter information related to the broader scheme, as Anna Bower lays out in an article in Lawfare, and whether there was any connection between Trump’s tweet announcing his Jan. 6 rally and a meeting Powell attended in the Oval Office the day before.
As for Chesebro, he was the architect of the fake electors scheme whereby Republicans in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin signed affidavits that claimed Trump had won their states and that they were the true electors, then submitted them to Congress. In pleading guilty, Chesebro admitted that the fake elector effort was an illegal conspiracy designed to “disrupt and delay the joint session of Congress on January 6, 2021.”
As part of this conspiracy, Chesebro was in regular contact with Eastman, who provided legal advice on how to manipulate the Electoral Count Act that governs Congress’ counting of the electoral votes on Jan. 6. The two lawyers also exchanged emails and phone calls over the Jan. 6 strategy.
Similarly, Chesebro worked closely with Giuliani in the effort to contact and convince the fake electors to do their part. He could also speak to the strategy and planning that involved Giuliani.
By turning these three lawyers, Willis has secured vital testimony from key participants who were close to the leaders of the alleged conspiracy and the top targets of her indictment: Trump and Giuliani. These losses for Team Trump are likely to be bigger than any forthcoming primary victory for the former president.