What’s the Deal with the Plea Deals?

Jenna Ellis reads a statement after pleading guilty to a felony count of aiding and abetting false statements and writings, inside Fulton Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee's courtroom on October 24, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by John Bazemore-Pool/Getty Images)

Welcome back to The Collision. It’s been quite a week, and we’re not even talking about all the machinations within the House Republican conference to finally (finally!) select a new speaker of the House. On tap today: plea deals, immunity deals, and a couple of remarkable moments in Donald Trump’s civil trial in New York. Let’s dive in.

The Docket

  • As his trial was beginning last Friday, Kenneth Chesebro—a former Trump campaign lawyer—reached a plea deal with Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis that was similar to the deal Willis made one day earlier with his co-defendant, Sidney Powell. Chesebro admitted to one felony count of conspiring to put forth a slate of Trump electors from Georgia despite Joe Biden winning the state. Trump and another attorney, John Eastman, are among the co-defendants in the case who have pleaded not guilty.
  • Another Trump lawyer indicted in Fulton County, Jenna Ellis, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to a felony charge of “aiding and abetting false statements and writings” as part of the effort to change the outcome of the election in Georgia. A tearful Ellis offered a statement during her plea entry in the Atlanta courthouse, telling the judge she regretted her actions.
  • Moving to the federal case involving Trump’s election interference, ABC News reported this week that Mark Meadows, Trump’s final and perhaps most loyal White House chief of staff, had been granted immunity in order to testify before a grand jury earlier this year. George Terwilliger, an attorney for Meadows, told CBS News that the ABC News story was “largely inaccurate” but has not otherwise commented. Meadows was also among those Trump associates indicted in Fulton County, where he has pleaded not guilty.
  • Proceedings in Trump’s civil trial in New York ended on Wednesday with Trump reportedly “storming out” of the courtroom following testimony of his former attorney, Michael Cohen. That was just the climax of a wild day, which also saw Trump take the stand for the first time in a special hearing convened to determine whether the former president violated a limited gag order imposed by Judge Arthur Engoron. 
  • At one point during a break in the trial, Trump made a comment to the cameras outside the courtroom about a “partisan” sitting beside Engoron that the judge interpreted as a possible swipe at his clerk, in violation of the gag order. When Trump claimed he was talking about Cohen, Engoron didn’t seem to buy it, fining Trump $10,000 and refusing to budge when Trump’s attorneys asked him to reconsider. “I’ve reconsidered, the ruling stands,” Engoron said. “Don’t do it again or it’ll be worse.”
  • Speaking of, Judge Tanya Chutkan temporarily paused her own gag order in Trump’s election interference case—which barred Trump from speaking out against the judge, potential witnesses, and court workers—as the Trump legal team appeals it. Special counsel Jack Smith filed a request on Wednesday to reinstate the order. (Check out Sarah and David’s conversation about the gag order on a recent episode of Advisory Opinions.)

Please Plea Me

In the days since Sidney Powell, Kenneth Chesebro, and Jenna Ellis entered their guilty pleas in Fulton County, there’s been plenty of commentary about what it means that three lawyers in Trump’s orbit have agreed to testify against the former president.

On the one hand, Team Exploding Fireball will tell you that this is proof that Donald Trump is about to go down. His co-defendants, after all, keep pleading guilty to crimes that prosecutors have linked to Trump himself. Of course, members of Team Exploding Fireball are usually the same people who treated every development in the Mueller investigation as evidence that the special counsel was about to release proof that Trump had illegally colluded with the Russians to influence the 2016 election. 

On the other hand, Team Dud will tell you that the guilty pleas in Georgia are proof that Fani Willis’ case is incredibly weak. After all, she did charge these people with a zillion felonies worth 20 or more years in prison, and now they’re writing an apology letter with no prison time. That said, it can be hard to see so many guilty pleas and think it’s all good news for the former president. 

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