The latest in the lawsuits surrounding Donald Trump
In Georgia, three of Donald Trump’s lawyers have pleaded guilty to attempting to interfere with the 2020 election.
In New York, another former Trump lawyer is testifying against him in a financial fraud case.
Today, On Point: We’ll talk about all that’s happened so far, and what the future holds, in the cases against former President Donald Trump.
Paula Reid, senior legal affairs correspondent for CNN.
Andrea Bernstein, journalist covering Trump legal cases for NPR. Member of ProPublica’s democracy team. Author of American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power. Co-hosted the podcasts Will Be Wild and Trump, Inc. (@AndreaBNYC)
Tamar Hallerman, senior reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Co-host of the AJC’s Breakdown podcast.
DAYSHA YOUNG: How do you plead to the six counts of conspiracy to commit intentional interference with performance of election duties?
SIDNEY POWELL: Guilty.
DAYSHA YOUNG: How do you plead to count 15 conspiracy to commit filing false documents in indictment number23SC188947?
KENNETH CHESEBRO: Guilty.
DAYSHA YOUNG: How do you plead to aiding and abetting false statements and writings … under accusation23SC190514?
JENNA ELLIS: Guilty.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: That was three key moments that took place in Georgia last week, featuring three of former President Donald Trump’s previous lawyers, Sidney Powell, Kenneth Chesebro, and Jenna Ellis. They all pleaded guilty to charges of attempting to overturn 2020 election results in Georgia. And in a separate financial fraud case in New York, Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen also took the stand against Trump.
MICHAEL COHEN: He will ultimately be held accountable. And as I said the other day, that’s what this is all about. It’s accountability.
CHAKRABARTI: So these are a few of the major developments in the cases against Donald Trump. Today we want to find out what impact, if any, these developments could have on the federal charges against the former president.
So joining us today is Paula Reid. She’s Senior Legal Affairs Correspondent for CNN and she’s with us from New York. Paula, welcome back to the show.
PAULA REID: Thank you so much. And also, with us today is Andrea Bernstein. She covers legal issues for NPR. Her most recent podcast is called “We Don’t Talk About Leonard” from On the Media and ProPublica.
And Andrea, one day soon we’ll have you back on the show to talk about that. But she’s also previously co-hosted the podcast “Will Be Wild” and “Trump, Inc.” She’s also author of American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power. Andrea, welcome to On Point.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: Great to be back with you.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so Paula, first of all, for the many Americans who haven’t been able to keep up with all the active court cases against the former president, can you just give us a quick rundown of what’s the cases that are currently actually in courts right now?
REID: Sure. So right now, the former president faces a civil case, a civil fraud case in New York alleging something that has been alleged in the past, but this time it’s in a civil courtroom, that he defrauded banks and did this by misrepresenting the value of his properties. Now, previously, his longtime lawyer and consigliere Michael Cohen, had testified in Congress that Trump for many decades had lied to get more favorable terms on loans, but also would lie about the value of his property in a way that would also advantageously impact his taxes.
So that is actually where he is physically sitting in a courtroom some days, but we also have other cases slowly moving towards a trial phase. The soonest, a case that we will likely see, is the January 6th federal case here in Washington, DC against former president Trump. There’s also the classified documents case that the special council has brought.
And then there’s the sprawling Rico case down in Fulton County, Georgia, related to January 6. So those are the key ones. There are some other outstanding civil matters. Those are the major cases. He also faces a criminal case in Manhattan related to alleged hush money payments. But that again, not at the forefront right now.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, thank you for that, Paula. It is quite a bit. So let’s start by focusing on New York. And Andrea, you’ve been covering the trial every day that it’s been going on in the courtroom. First of all, what’s the mood been like?
BERNSTEIN: (LAUGHS) Hard to describe the mood. I think we’re now beginning week number five of this trial. And a lot of it has been spreadsheets and accountants and bookkeepers and lawyers.
So not the sort of, you might hear the assistant attorney general say, turning your attention to cell number 958 on sheet one. There’s been a lot of that. And then you have overlaid on that the former president, Donald Trump, showing up from time to time in this courtroom.
It’s a bigger courtroom than it might have been, but it’s still a pretty small room to see the sort of protagonists and antagonists of this national drama sitting within feet of each other. Outside the courtroom, so right in the hallway, through the doors, Mr. Trump says whatever he wants, for example, “I have to be here in this trial, so I can’t be campaigning in Iowa.” Even though it’s entirely voluntary.
And all I can think is, that coverage must mean a lot to him, that sort of instant scrum of hundreds of probably a hundred cameras packed into that courtroom, TV and still photographers, for him to be able to say his bit. But inside, he has to be silent. And then you have this moment that happened last week, when Michael Cohen came in and testified, and he is, I would say, the chief antagonist of Mr. Trump in this drama.
He’s the one who started it all with his testimony in Congress in 2019, as you alluded to. And he was, his direct testimony was devastating for Mr. Trump, but I would say that the defense attorney scored some points getting under his skin in cross.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. We’re going to get to that.
BERNSTEIN: So that’s the mood. Yeah.
CHAKRABARTI: So that’s really interesting. And we’ll get, we really want to dig into the Cohen testimony in a moment. But let me just rewind the clock a bit and go back to September 21st of last year, when New York Attorney General Letitia James first announced the accusations against members of the Trump organization of fraud in the civil lawsuit that you and Paula are describing.
So here’s what the New York AG said.
LETITIA JAMES: I am announcing that today we are filing a lawsuit against Donald Trump for violating the law as part of his efforts to generate profits for himself, his family. The complaint demonstrates that Donald Trump falsely inflated his net worth by billions of dollars.
CHAKRABARTI: So that’s New York Attorney General Letitia James from September of last year. Andrea, what more is Trump and the Trump organization alleged to have done to falsely, allegedly, inflate the value of Trump’s net worth, essentially? Remind us specifically I think the one that caught everyone’s attention was what he said in a deposition about how much Mar-a-Lago might be worth.
BERNSTEIN: All of his personal properties seem to be worth many times over. What the Attorney General says the documents show they believe. Now, I think it’s worth, just pointing out to all of your listeners, that the judge in the case already issued a summary judgment. That is, he already concluded that Donald Trump and the other defendants had committed persistent and repeated fraud in their business practices.
That was the first cause of action of the attorney general’s complaint. There are six more, and that’s what’s at issue in this trial. And also, is at issue is how much of the $250 million that the attorney general says he owes the state he will have to pay. So there’s already been a finding of fraud against Mr. Trump.
And now we’re looking at whether he committed insurance fraud, whether there was conspiracy in a number of other issues related to that. I would say the most dramatic accusation, the one that really caught people’s attention was about Trump Tower, in which Mr. Trump said that his penthouse apartment was three times the size that it actually was.
And as his former CFO said in a deposition, give or take $200 million, it made it the most expensive property in Manhattan. Obviously, he lived there, knew how much it was worth, and one of the interesting early things that we learned at trial is that Mr. Trump actually was caught by Forbes magazine lying about the value of that, saying that it was three times size it was.
What we learned was there was this behind the scenes scrambling and it was laid out in emails and in spreadsheets, that the Trump business had to then find $300 million or $200 million, the difference between the actual value and the stated value, to keep his entire net worth the same and you see this sort of, can we raise the value of 40 Wall Street, which is a downtown property?
How about a golf course? And that is the sort of nature of the charges, that this went on for years. And under New York law, this is a very specific New York law, under New York law. Whether or not someone’s harmed, you cannot persistently lie in the course of doing business.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Two really important things there, Paula, that Andrea pointed out. First of all, let’s go back to what she said about that the judges already issued that summary judgment against the Trump Organization, and dissolved the business certificates of Trump’s companies. How significant is that, Paula?
REID: Incredibly significant. This is going after his livelihood. I think this is a large part of why you’re seeing the former president physically show up in court, day after day, when he might rather wish to be in Iowa or out on the campaign trail.
They are, of course, arguing that this is a partisanly motivated pursuit, but this is incredibly serious. The idea that they would be able to basically completely dissolve his business this way, that would be devastating for him. This isn’t just about him. This is about his family, his legacy.
This is how they make money. I do want to caveat that this would be arguably almost unprecedented. It would have to go through years and years of appeals. This would be one of the most significant actions ever taken against the former president, if it winds up being upheld.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Then also explain to us why would Trump and his financial associates wish to see, again, allegedly wish to seek to inflate the value of businesses and properties beyond just continuing to advance the narrative of his business success?
REID: So beyond the ego of it all, the way his associates have explained it is that if you inflate your net worth, you can get more favorable terms from banks, especially when it comes to loans. Now, of course, in the inverse, which has also been accused of by some of his former associates, if you say your properties or your assets are worth less than they actually are, you can get more favorable terms on your taxes.
So this is something that people close to the former president have accused him of doing for decades. And that is in addition to the ego of it all, part of the alleged motivation for lying.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Andrea, did you want to pick them and add more to that?
BERNSTEIN: Well, what I think that this is, there’ve been many cases about Trump’s fraud.
And I think what this one does is it bundles it all up and lays it all out. In one fell swoop. Very early on in 2019 I had done a story with my colleagues at ProPublica about this and we found the numbers don’t match. That is the repeated pattern with Mr. Trump, is that the numbers don’t match what you tell the taxing authorities, what you tell the banks, and what the Attorney General says is he made $250 million dollars extra, and he should have made because of that fraud.
CHAKRABARTI: I see, so tell the tax folks one thing to reduce your taxes, tell the bank something else to get more leverage off your loans.
Okay, so we’re gonna talk more about what Michael Cohen had to say in New York when we come back in just a moment.
CHAKRABARTI: So we’re now at the point where we’re discussing Michael Cohen’s appearance on the stand in the former president’s New York Financial Fraud trial. So on Saturday, Cohen spoke with CNN’s Erin Burnett about his testimony.
ERIN BURNETT: Did you make the case that Trump actually cooked the books that he actually directed you to do that?
COHEN: The answer is yes. I think that the attorney general’s office has more than enough information. In fact, they’ve already lost that point. It was already determined by Judge Engoron that the Trump Organization committed fraud. The rest of the case right now is all about disgorgement. How much money is the Attorney General going to seek in terms of damages based upon the actions of Donald and the Trump Organization, with a baseline of $250 million? I predict it’s going to be more like over $600 million.
CHAKRABARTI: Andrea, other than my love for the simultaneously visceral and esoteric language of the law, like using the word discouragement, what more did Michael Cohen have to say on the stand than he has already said, as you pointed out, in previous moments, like testifying before Congress?
BERNSTEIN: When he testified before Congress, this was new to the nation, this entire idea. People were just learning about this, and it was congressional testimony is five minutes of one party, five minutes of the other. It’s disjointed. On his direct examination, the thing that Michael Cohen did that none of the other witnesses have done is tie together the whole.
All of the threads, and to put himself in the room with Donald Trump and Allen Weisselberg, the former chief financial officer of the Trump organization. And he basically describes how it works, that Mr. Trump invites him into his office and he goes into his office and Allen Weisselberg is there and Mr. Trump says, “I don’t really think that my net worth is $4. 5 billion. I think it’s more like $6 billion.” And so Mr. Cohen and Mr. Weisselberg go into Weisselberg’s office, according to Cohen’s testimony. And they start to figure out, “Okay how can we come up with another $1.6 billion dollars in value?” That was the assignment.
They had to make it so. Reverse engineer was the term that Cohen used over and over again, and that they would do things like he would say, for example, they would look at one of their properties, like their Park Avenue property. And instead of doing what you’re supposed to do when you value a property, which is look at values for actual comparables, they would take the value of the most expensive apartments in Manhattan and times it by the number of units in the building and come up with this fictitious number, or sometimes they would just Google values and plug them in to get, for example, in this example, an extra $1.5 billion of value. And that is what Mr. Cohen laid out and he put himself in the room with Donald Trump.
CHAKRABARTI: I see. Hang on for just a second, Andrea, because I also heard you say earlier about the fact that Trump’s defense team may have scored some points in cross with Cohen.
I want to come back to that but in all journalistic rigor Paula, let me ask you this. Why is Trump on trial for these alleged financial fraudulent actions when it sounds like a lot of what he and his associates are being accused of is pretty common in corporate America. You call it, we call it, what? Creative accounting and valuing assets the way you want to be favorable for you in terms of taxation purposes, which is how we have some major blue-chip corporations in America paying zero dollars in taxes to the IRS.
Why is this different? Why is Trump on trial when other companies are not?
REID: Sure. Here, the attorney general of the state of New York believes this went beyond just playing at the edges of what is legal and what is creative to actual fraud. She is alleging that he and his co-defendants repeatedly committed fraud, inflating assets on financial statements because they, again, wanted to get these better terms on commercial real estate loans and insurance policies.
Now, I want to know that this is a civil case. This is not a criminal case. No one’s going to go to jail here. And what’s at the core here, really what’s at risk is Trump’s business. But again, you have people like Michael Cohen who has publicly said this. There have been other, at least one other criminal case related to this.
And the Trump Organization CFO, Allen Weisselberg, a lot of law enforcement officials in the state of New York and elsewhere have looked into this. And the Attorney General believes this goes beyond just being creative and maximizing the flexibility in the law to full blown fraud.
CHAKRABARTI: Gotcha. Andrea, did you want to add to that?
BERNSTEIN: Yeah. I’ve covered New York real estate for some time. And it is a business where everybody understands that you are constantly inflating values, but there’s a thing called generally accepted accounted procedures and there’s an unofficial generally accepted amount that you could inflate the value.
And, yeah, what everybody has said to me, and I think what this trial is bearing out is that this is off the charts. There’s a connection between this and what normally goes on in New York real estate, but it is so unusual. So out of the ordinary that it rises, as has already been found by the judge.
Now Trump is appealing it, but right now Trump committed persistent and repeated fraud, according to the summary judgment ruling in this case.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So let’s hear a little bit more from what Michael Cohen had to say after the fact about his testimony. Again, this is from CNN. And by the way, Paula, I think I might have accidentally demoted you to senior legal affairs correspondent when you’re actually the chief legal affairs correspondent for CNN.
My apologies for that.
REID: No worries.
CHAKRABARTI: But here’s Erin Burnett again talking to Michael Cohen about an instant where Trump’s lawyer asked him about the truthfulness of his testimonies from February 28th, 2019. Testimony, I guess that Trump gave. And the lawyer asked if Cohen had lied under oath when he said he couldn’t recall whether Trump or Allen Weisselberg directed him to lie about Trump’s net worth.
And so here’s how Cohen explained his answer to Erin Burnett.
COHEN: Donald never came out and said specifically Michael and Allen, I want to inflate the numbers to be $6 billion instead of $5 billion. What he does, and I’ve stated this many times I wrote about it in my books, Donald Trump speaks like a mob boss.
What he does is he says, you know I’m actually not worth $5 billion dollars. I’m worth $6. Why don’t you guys go and figure it out? That’s not specifically telling us.
CHAKRABARTI: Andrea, in the room testimony from someone like Cohen would seem to be, would seem to carry a lot of weight. And yet I am curious to hear what you observed in terms of how he was cross examined by Trump’s lawyers.
BERNSTEIN: Let me just say that I, in real time, watched the Michael Cohen testimony in 2019. He has been pretty consistent. In that Donald Trump did not directly order him, “Go inflate the values.” That he would say something, and that Michael could, Michael Cohen understood the code and the code was get my values up.
Now where he has been, and the way that the questions were asked, that was a little sort of confusing in the way it came out. Michael Cohen, where he foundered a little, was he pleaded guilty, and I was there in 2018 to five counts of tax evasion, having to do with his personal taxes. And he later said, “I just did that because I felt compelled to do that, but I didn’t really do that.”
So Trump’s lawyers really made hay of that, and they said, “Okay, so when you pleaded guilty and said you committed tax evasion, you were lying. You are lying under oath to a judge.” And of course, he is sitting there in front of another judge. There’s no jury in this case, so that judge is going to be making the determination and they really leaned into this. At one point, Mr. Cohen said when the Trump’s lawyer Alina Habba had asked this for, maybe the fifth time, he said asked and answered, and another lawyer, Charles Kise, stood up and said, “Your Honor, this witness is out of control.
He is not allowed to be his own lawyer. He is not allowed to make objections.” And that is how it went.
So what they were saying is there wasn’t this sort of big break, what they were trying to argue with there wasn’t a big break with Mr. Cohen where he was a liar when he was on Team Trump and then has been telling the truth ever since. They tried to say, look, the man is not to be trusted.
And one of the interesting things is that in the courtroom, you didn’t just see the sort of Attorney General and the press, there was the entire team for the upcoming hush money case, the criminal case, from the DA side. And from Trump’s side, and that case, which is a criminal case in New York, will also be relying a great deal on the testimony of Michael Cohen, and I think both sides went for instructions on how that criminal case will go.
BERNSTEIN: And also, I do think that the Trump team was making an argument, yelling at the ref for the next call. They were trying to make an argument about Mr. Cohen for the upcoming trial, criminal trial in New York.
CHAKRABARTI: I got it. Now, just very quickly, Andrea, since you did mention the former president’s lawyer, Alina Habba, there was a flurry of news earlier this month about why there is no jury in this trial, right? As you pointed out, the judge will be making the decisions and there was some reporting about how Alina Habba may have not requested a jury trial. Where has all that landed?
BERNSTEIN: The judge pointed out on day one that no one requested a jury trial.
CHAKRABARTI: No one.
BERNSTEIN: But he also pointed out that had they requested it, given the nature of the kind of trial and the determination that has to be made about, as you mentioned, disgorgement, which is a legal term that I haven’t heard of before this trial, but has to do basically means how much money Mr. Trump will have to pay.
CHAKRABARTI: Literally coughing it up.
BERNSTEIN: Yes. That because of the nature that the judge seemed to suggest that had anyone asked, he would have said no, because it is not consistent with New York law. But, in any event, it was not tested. Mr. Trump’s team, which is Alina Habba and Charles Kise and a few other lawyers didn’t ask for it, and so there is just this judge.
Now, I say just, I was also in the E. Jean Carroll case and that verdict in a civil case came back so fast that many of us had barely been able to finish our lunch before we were called back to the courtroom. So I don’t know whether a jury would be finding any differently than this judge.
It’s a counterfactual that is impossible to speculate about.
CHAKRABARTI: Understood. Okay, so let’s listen to a little bit of comment to the press that Alina Habba has made following a day in court. This is from October 17th.
ALINA HABBA: We have heard numerous witnesses come in and out of this court, wasting taxpayer dollars, wasting numerous taxpayer dollars in a city that has fallen apart. Because they don’t want to believe that any business in New York can conduct themselves without the Attorney General sticking her nose in your business with a statute that has never been used against an individual.
This is a scary precedent legally for any business in New York.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, Paula, I don’t want to give short shrift to all that’s happening in Georgia, but help us make the connection, if any, what impact could this civil financial fraud case currently going on in New York have on, other cases?
Specifically, I’m thinking of the federal ones, pending against the former president.
REID: The New York case is really separate and apart from what is happening at the federal level. Cause the federal case is brought by the special counsel. You have a January 6th prosecution. You have the Mar-a-Lago documents prosecution down in Fulton County, have the January 6th case.
In some ways we’re getting a sense of how Trump is testing the gag order. He has one in New York. He now has one in D.C. As for Alina Habba, her speech there, that is something we’re going to see, which is the idea that all of these prosecutions, this is a civil case she’s referring to, but the other criminal cases, that everything is a partisan pursuit.
And the former president is the victim of partisan animus. That is something that will be consistent, but otherwise, I believe the New York case is mostly contained unto itself.
CHAKRABARTI: Got it. Okay. Had to ask though, because when there’s so many litigating balls up in the air, I just want to be sure that we’re understanding potentially the impact of where any one of them could land. Okay.
BERNSTEIN: I might just add —
CHAKRABARTI: Oh yeah, go ahead, Andrea.
BERNSTEIN: I might just add to that, that not to disagree with Paula, but I do think that you see this continuity, that on the day that Cohen was testifying was the day that Jenna Ellis pleaded guilty, and they are both former lawyers to Mr. Trump, who Mr. Trump did not pay their legal bills, and who then, as a result, began to, as they say, testify truthfully against him.
So you do see this pattern across the country of Trump’s legal team, people who feel that they were betrayed by Mr. Trump, now speaking out and being witnesses for, in Georgia, the prosecutor in New York in the civil case against Mr. Trump.
CHAKRABARTI: Let’s take that and move to Georgia then, where Tamar Hallerman joins us.
She’s senior reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, covering the Fulton County investigation into whether former President Donald Trump or his allies interfered in Georgia’s 2020 elections. And by the way, she’s also co-host of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Breakdown podcast. Tamar, welcome.
TAMAR HALLERMAN: Hi, Meghna.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so we just got a couple minutes before we have to take our next break. So give us the quick summary of what it’s been like in the courtroom, as I just asked Andrea about New York, especially as these three guilty pleas from three of the former president’s lawyers have come through in Georgia.
HALLERMAN: We’ve sat through a ton of procedural hearings over the last couple of weeks. We were expecting a speedy trial to begin with Ken Chesebro and Sidney Powell, two of the attorneys who were representing Trump in the aftermath of the election, but then in very rapid succession in the hours before jury selection was about to begin, these plea deals popped up out of nowhere.
In Georgia, we have the benefit of having all of our court proceedings streamed on YouTube, which has been really great as a journalist trying to cover all of this in real time. But also, we’ve gotten very little notice, only of a couple minutes that these plea deals were about to emerge.
And that’s exactly how we found out about Jenna Ellis last week about Sydney Powell and about Ken Chesebro.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And specifically, we’ve got a minute before our break now. What are they pleading, or have they pleaded guilty to?
HALLERMAN: They’ve each pleaded guilty to different charges. Sidney Powell was a series of misdemeanors.
Ken Chesebro and Jenna Ellis each pleaded guilty to a felony having to do with whatever different parts of the alleged conspiracy in Georgia that they were involved in. So Jenna Ellis, for example, pleaded guilty to one felony count of aiding and abetting false statements in writings for her role in testifying before Georgia legislators in December of 2020.
I see. Okay. So with that, we’re going to take a pause here because there’s a lot of detail to sort through in terms of what’s been happening in Georgia. And when we come back from the break, we’ll be doing that.
CHAKRABARTI: Today we’re talking about the current cases in court against former President Donald Trump and trying to get a roundup of what’s been happening, which is a lot in recent weeks. So let’s hear from a moment from when Jenna Ellis, the former president’s former lawyer, became another defendant in Fulton County, Georgia to take a plea deal.
JENNA ELLIS: In the wake of the 2020 presidential election, I believed that challenging the results on behalf of President Trump should be pursued in a just and legal way. I endeavored to represent my client to the best of my ability. 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.
What I did not do, but should have done, Your Honor, was to make sure that the facts the other lawyers alleged to be true were in fact true. In the frenetic pace of attempting to raise challenges to the election in several states, including Georgia, I failed to do my due diligence.
CHAKRABARTI: Tamar Hallerman from the AJC there, there’s the thought about, as Andrea said very accurately, regarding the sense of betrayal that Trump’s former lawyers may be feeling towards the former president.
But also, do these plea deals indicate a couple of other things? The strength of maybe the state’s case and potentially the fact that there was willingness by, or is willingness by Ellis and others to potentially provide evidence or even testify against Trump in Georgia?
HALLERMAN: Meghna, I have been reporting a lot recently about Georgia’s really sprawling racketeering law, and as I’ve talked to a lot of legal experts and academics about this, they’ve described a traditional racketeering case as a pyramid, and prosecutors are working their way up more and more to the top.
They’re trying to get, use the little fish to get to the big fish by striking all of these plea deals. A lot of the analysts I’ve spoken to have been very surprised at how quickly DA Fani Willis has been able to even get to the medium sized fish or even larger fish, folks who have had individua relationships with the former president.
Somebody like Jenna Ellis was part of the Trump campaign. Not only did she have a relationship with the former president, but folks, I think, are surprised at how quickly the DA has gotten to those people.
CHAKRABARTI: Now Andrea, I know we only have you for a little bit more time, so I would love to hear your thoughts on all of these guilty pleas in rapid succession that we’re seeing in Georgia.
BERNSTEIN: They’re not good news for the former president and I think it also simplifies the case. Otherwise, we would be in the middle of a four, five-month trial now in Georgia. I think what is interesting, in particular about Jenna Ellis, is that she is not someone who was just a lawyer for Trump, but she was part of his message machine, both during his 2020 campaign prior to the events of January 6th and then after January 6th.
And so she had both the role of giving legal advice, but also presenting an image, presenting a view of Mr. Trump’s world and was quite close to Rudy Giuliani. And I think that is the person who is probably most destabilized by her guilty plea, which a contains a clause that she has to continue to cooperate basically, whenever the prosecutors want to hear from her.
So yes. This case is gathering speed. Yes, having these three former individuals who while not maybe as central as Rudy Giuliani or Mark Meadows to the alleged, or John Eastman, to the alleged conspiracy in Georgia, know a lot. And it was just one testimony, Michael Cohen, a sort of problematic known lawyer who has brought a heap of trouble on Mr. Trump in New York. Now there are at least three of them in Georgia who are willing to testify at trial.
CHAKRABARTI: Andrea Bernstein, author of American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power. Also co-host of the podcast, “Will Be Wild” and “Trump, Inc.” and your most recent podcast is “We Don’t Talk About Leonard.”
That’s coming to the public along with On the Media and ProPublica. Andrea, thank you so much for joining us today.
BERNSTEIN: Thank you. It’s always great to talk to you.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So Paula and Tamar, stick with me because there’s a lot more about Georgia I want to dig into here. And Paula, first of all, talk about Jenna Ellis and Sidney Powell for a second.
We’re gonna dig a little bit more into the Ken Chesebro piece in a minute. But, other than infamously saying that she was going to release the Kraken in order to convince the public that Trump had won the 2020 election, what do you see as the significance of Powell pleading guilty?
REID: Probably the most significant guilty plea, the most significant deal that Fani Willis has secured so far because Sidney Powell was one of the most forward-facing members of the legal team perpetuating these lies about the election. Now she and Chesebro were scheduled to go to trial this month and anyone who watched these hearings could see, it was pretty clear.
Prosecutors weren’t willing to bring this case. So there was an incentive for both sides, lawyers to the defendants and prosecutors, to strike a deal. And both Sidney Powell and Ken Chesebro got pretty damn good deals, right? They’re going to keep out of jail. If they follow a certain terms, their probation, they won’t have a record and both of them will likely be able to possibly keep their law licenses in certain jurisdictions.
So these were wins both for the defendants and for prosecutors. But the fact that they have cooperation from Sidney Powell is significant and something that we’re watching at the federal level at the January 6th trial is whether Sidney Powell would also potentially cooperate with the special counsel.
She has not been charged, but she is a co-conspirator. So we’re watching very closely, because she could be because of the meeting she was in, she was at the White House. She was in the room where it happened. Although they did eventually push her off the legal team. She would be a significant cooperator for any prosecutor.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, so I was also remembering what Andrea was saying about when Cohen was on the stand in New York last week, that both defense and prosecutor teams for a subsequent trial were watching to see how, you know, how Cohen testified. Because as people take the stand, what they’re saying becomes very public, or as trials unfold.
In this case, though, Paula, what I’m wondering about is now, as you pointed out, there will be no trial of Powell, Ellis or Chesbrough. Does that serve to the advantage or the disadvantage of the former president, that all the evidence that would have been brought against those three is now essentially going to be kept under wraps.
REID: Yeah, his lawyers. He told me they believe that the biggest problem isn’t even these plea deals, is that they’re not going to get a preview of Fani Willis’s case. That’s what they had hoped to get out of the trial for the two defendants. They’re not terribly worried, again, about these cooperation deals.
I don’t think it’s likely that there’ll be any Fulton County trial for former President Trump before the 2024 election. This is a case that is expected to take over four years. And if you look at the calendar next year, you already have two federal cases on the calendar. One of them will likely go. The other it’s unclear.
There’s just no room for this case. So it’s going to be a while before the former president’s defense attorneys will get a chance to really understand exactly how much cooperation prosecutors have and get a better sense of their case.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Tamar, remind me, because I’m going to be perfectly honest, it’s very hard to keep all the activities that happened specifically in Georgia after November of 2020 straight in my head.
But Ken Chesebro, in particular. If memory serves, his guilty plea is particularly notable because he was one of the key architects of the false elector’s scheme. As well, that was part of the Big Lie essentially after 2020. Is that right?
HALLERMAN: Exactly. He was viewed as one of the principal authors of that plan.
He wrote a series of memos suggesting that the general assembly in Georgia and many other swing states as well as Congress could name Trump the winner of those states, even though Joe Biden won. And so that’s a crucial kind of leg of this alleged conspiracy in RICO. And if you really look at this indictment in Georgia, it really is alleging maybe four or five different alleged conspiracies that kind of all worked toward the same goal of keeping Donald Trump in power.
So one was the Trump elector plan. One was the breach of election data in Coffee County in South Georgia. One was spreading lies and myths, mistruths about the vote count in Georgia. One was the harassment of poll worker Ruby Freeman, and another was phone calls made to pressure Georgia elections officials. So as you look at these different plea deals that are taking place, you can see that DA Willis has been able to secure cooperation with people involved in several of these different legs of the stool, if you will.
Ken Chesebro can speak to the electors. Jenna Ellis can speak to misinformation to state legislators, Sidney Powell can talk about the Coffee County elections data copying, that whole saga. So it’s interesting to see how the DA is building that case already and how she already has cooperating witnesses.
CHAKRABARTI: Fascinating. Okay. Now it may not be meaningful in terms of evidence in a court of law, but when you mentioned the call to former Secretary of State Raffensperger that Trump made infamously in the recording, you hear Trump saying, “You just got to find me 11, 000 votes,” right? It reminded me of what Andrea said that when Michael Cohen testified last week in New York about that the former president doesn’t ever say, explicitly do X. That he speaks in a certain way that sort of gets people’s attention or guides them as to what he wants them to do.
Is that a similarity that you’re seeing in Georgia?
HALLERMAN: Sure. And as you talk to legal experts, some of them said that the phone call, the call with Brad Raffensperger, wasn’t going to be enough to prosecute Donald Trump. Because you’re right. The verb, “Find me 11, 780 votes.” That can be interpreted in any number of ways.
And for a jury to convict, you have to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. There can’t be any other reasonable explanation for somebody’s actions. And so that’s why I think the DA really broadened this case, to show that this was one of many legs in all of this alleged criminal scheme.
CHAKRABARTI: Tamar Hallerman, a senior reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and co-host of the AJC’s Breakdown podcast.
Thank you so much for joining us, and I hope you’ll consider joining us again in the future as things continue to move forward in Georgia.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So Paula, got about four minutes left here and we need to see how many of these strings we can pull together regarding the impact of the cases that Jack Smith has brought against the former president.
How would you read that?
REID: So I think what last week we saw, some pretty good writing by the screenwriters here, because you have Michael Cohen, the original flipper, the original lawyer or consigliere turned Trump antagonist coming face to face in the courtroom with his former boss to testify against him.
And that is something that we are going to see playing out again and again and again. Likely first off in the January 6th case, we’ve learned that his former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, not just a witness, the witness, has given some testimony to the special counsel, has cooperated, though it’s unclear if he has a formal deal. But he’s given testimony that completely contradicts Trump’s public narrative that the election was stolen.
He has reportedly told prosecutors that he told Trump, that look, they lost, and he hasn’t seen any evidence to suggest that Trump won. That’s incredibly damning to the former president and a critical witness for the prosecution. Then eventually in Fulton County, you’re going to see at least three of his former lawyers likely testify against him.
So I think that’s what you’re seeing tying all of these cases together. Last week, you have Michael Cohen testifying in the New York civil case. The New York criminal case, lawyers watching. Because he’ll be critical there eventually, when that case goes. Knowing what’s happening with Mark Meadows watching this all unfold in Fulton County It’s the same theme and something you’re going to see, these courtroom reunions between Trump, and his former lawyers again and again, over the next few years.
CHAKRABARTI: The next few years Okay, then that answered my question. Because I was about to ask that it’s guaranteed then that these cases or some of them will be continuing on through the election next year.
REID: So the January 6th case is scheduled for March. The Manhattan case is scheduled for early next year, the Hush Money case, I expect that will move. The January 6th case, the Judge Chutkan said, Judge Tonya Chutkan said something that federal judges rarely say, which is this case is not moving. They’re usually not that certain. That case will likely go forward. The Mar-a-Lago documents case is scheduled for May, but I think there’s a chance that could get moved.
It’s very complicated. It can take lawyers a long time. And like I said before, it’s hard to see where you find four months to vote Fulton County on next year. And the justice department historically has not wanted to do things that could impact an election. It’s unclear if that will apply to federal prosecutions, but it’s just hard to see that Merrick Garland, the attorney general, would want Trump in a criminal court room in September or October, that close to the election.
So I think you’ll see at least one criminal case next year. If the former president is reelected, he could make any remaining federal prosecutions through his attorney general go away and the Fulton County case, the New York cases would just hang out there until after he was done with his second term.
So it’s unclear how long it’s going to take for all these cases to go forward, if all of them will eventually go forward, but it’s going to be a while and it’s not all going to be wrapped up next year.
CHAKRABARTI: Huh. So finally, Paula, then, just tell us how remarkable you feel like this moment is because the list of cases, the list of indictments and the fact that we’re talking about a former president who’s running again, I don’t think we’ve ever been here before.
REID: No. And we say that all the time, right? Over my past decade of covering Trump, we’re always talking about these legal problems.
We’ve never been here before, but it’s true. And I think the biggest news last week was getting an answer on what’s going on with Mark Meadows, because he was very quiet. The Trump team doesn’t know what he’s up to and he’s very duplicitous in terms of what he said publicly. He published a whole book insisting that the election was stolen, but then to learn he’s telling prosecutors something different. That is significant, both in the narrative of January 6th and election subversion, but also one of the most damaging things to happen to the former president in a long time.
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