Another Domino Falls in Georgia
Three down, 16 to go.
With the attorney Kenneth Chesebro agreeing to plead guilty to a single felony today, the Fulton County, Georgia, racketeering case against Donald Trump and others for attempting to steal the 2020 election has one more conviction and one fewer defendant.
As part of the deal, Chesebro pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to file false documents. He’ll pay $5,000 in fines, write an apology letter, and face five years of probation. Perhaps most important, he agreed to testify in upcoming trials. Chesebro faced seven counts that portrayed him as central to a scheme to send slates of false electors to Washington, D.C., after the 2020 election and to efforts to disrupt the certification of the election on January 6, 2021, in Congress. He had argued that he was merely offering legal opinions to clients. Chesebro’s plea came on the same day that jury selection began in his case, and one day after the attorney Sidney Powell took a somewhat similar plea deal. Scott Hall, an Atlanta bail bondsman, pleaded guilty in September.
The question for anyone watching the proceedings now is whether these pleas portend the sort of falling-dominos scenario that prosecutors hope for in a big racketeering case like this, in which low-level defendants decide to cut their losses and aid prosecutors in convicting the biggest names—in this case, a group including Trump, Rudy Giuliani, the lawyer John Eastman, and the former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark.
Anthony Michael Kreis, a law professor at Georgia State University who has closely followed the case, cautioned against expectations of a flurry of pleas now. But he told me that the agreements will force other defendants to think carefully about their choices.
“Do you want to drag it out and risk being lumped in with Donald Trump and the other top-tier people in this alleged racketeering scheme?” he said. “Are [defendants] willing to take the deals of the kind that Powell and Chesebro took, or are they going to fall on their swords for Donald Trump and go down with him?”
This week’s pleas appear to be a win for all parties. Chesebro and Powell both got fairly lenient sentences and, as first offenders, can have their convictions wiped from the record if they comply with the terms of the deals. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, meanwhile, scored two convictions and will now be able to draw on testimony from two people who were deeply enmeshed in the paperwork coup.
The pleas also spare all parties the rigamarole of a trial. Chesebro and Powell were the only two defendants who had requested a speedy trial under state law; others preferred more time to mount a defense. Now neither has to deal with the stress—and legal bills—of a trial. Nor do Willis and her team have to go through the exercise and risk revealing their strategy before the other defendants go on trial, which is expected sometime next year. This might help explain why both Chesebro and Powell got what many observers feel were favorable deals.
“It was an open-ended question as to what the district attorney was willing to do for them in terms of a deal, and where the district attorney saw them in the pecking order [of defendants],” Kreis told me. “It’s clear to me now that the D.A. sees them as linchpins, and they want them to testify.”
What’s not clear is what exactly Chesebro might testify about. Unlike Powell, he doesn’t have much of a public profile and didn’t spend time in front of cameras. In fact, he was one of the last witnesses to testify to the House committee investigating the 2020 election subversion, because investigators took time to chase him down in Puerto Rico. A quiet man and reputedly a skilled lawyer, he attended Harvard Law School, was a protégé of the prominent liberal legal mind Laurence Tribe, and worked for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign before getting involved in conservative legal causes starting around 2016, including working with Eastman to challenge birthright citizenship.
Given that Chesebro has been described as a key architect of the false-elector scheme, he could presumably speak to the actions of the major players, perhaps even Trump’s. But Chesebro’s deposition for the House committee gives few hints of what he might be able to divulge. He said that his main contacts on the campaign included the close Trump adviser Boris Epshteyn, and that he had spoken with Giuliani only once or twice. But in most cases, he invoked both the Fifth Amendment and attorney-client privilege to avoid giving answers, including about whether he had any direct communication with Trump.
That will be different if and when he is called to testify in Fulton County. The judge in the case has already ruled that attorney-client privilege does not apply to some of Chesebro’s communications under an exception that covers the commission of crimes, and having pleaded guilty, Chesebro can’t cite his right against self-incrimination. His role, instead, will be to incriminate others.
David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.
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