Trump’s Georgia indictment opens rifts between him and his co-defendants

The former president seeks to delay his trial as long as possible and have his case separated from the rest, while some of the other 18 defendants prefer speedy trials

Donald Trump
Former U.S. President Donald Trump and the rest of those indicted for attempted election interference in the state of Georgia.FULTON COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE (via REUTERS)
Macarena Vidal Liy

Speedy or slow trial for Donald Trump and his 18 fellow defendants? Joint or separate trials? In local or federal court? The indictment in Georgia against the former president and 18 of his aides and supporters for organizing to interfere with election results in the state is one of the most legally complicated of the four cases facing the current leading Republican candidate. In addition to being complex, this process, which began immediately after Trump and his associates were booked this week, has already begun to open rifts among the group of alleged conspirators.

The 19 defendants are accused of creating a mafia-like association to manipulate the results of the 2020 elections in Georgia, where Trump lost by less than 12,000 votes, and to ensure that the then-president remained in the White House. Trump himself is charged with 13 counts.

The defendants are a heterogeneous group with only loyalty to the former president in common. They include former staffers, political consultants, Georgia Republican activists, lawyers of various stripes, and even a former PR man for rapper Kanye West and a Protestant minister. Each with different priorities, different financial capabilities and different legal strategies advised by their respective cohorts of lawyers.

This variety of circumstances and tactics opens the door to the possibility that instead of one big trial against the 19, as the Fulton County prosecutor in charge of the case, Fani Willis, wanted, several separate trials could be held.

One of the defendants, attorney Kenneth Chesebro, has already requested a speedy trial. Willis and the judge in charge of the case, Scott McAffee, have granted his wish: it will begin on October 23. Willis had proposed to prosecute all 19 jointly, but the magistrate has specified that the date only affects this suspect. Two other defendants, attorney Sidney Powell and former state legislator Jenna Ellis, have also asked for an expedited hearing.

It is unclear what legal benefit they may gain from this measure: if the idea is to prevent Willis from adequately preparing for trial, the prosecutor has stressed that, after a two-and-a-half-year investigation, she is ready to present her case now. One reason may be economic: the longer the delay, the more lawyers’ fees. And not all of them have the means or the fundraising facilities of the Republican presidential candidate.

Harvey Silverglate, a lawyer for defendant John Eastman - who has also indicated his interest in a trial as soon as possible - told The New York Times that his client doesn’t have the contributions that the tycoon can count on.

But efforts to speed up the case clash with Trump’s own strategy. He wants to delay as long as possible his trial in Georgia and the three others awaiting him in New York, Miami and Washington, while the elections are held next year to see if he will return to the White House. The former president’s lawyers have already made it clear that they will ask that his trial be heard separately from the rest.

Trump’s legal team is also considering requesting a change of jurisdiction in the case, so that it is handled by a federal court and not a state court, as is currently planned. Five other co-defendants, including former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, have already taken that step, which is possible for officials who argue that their alleged crimes were committed in the performance of their government duties and manage to convince a judge of that.

In search of favorable jurors for Trump

This change offers obvious advantages for the defendants. If things continue as they are, the hearing would be held in Fulton, a majority Democratic district. A jury there would likely be tough on the former president and his associates. If the trial were held in federal court, the jury would be drawn from a much wider area within Georgia, including pro-Trump districts. For the former president, this strategy would have an additional benefit: if he were to return to the White House, he would be able to pardon himself in his federal cases, something not allowed in state cases.

Meadows’ request will be heard Monday, the same day Judge Tanya Chutkan will hear arguments in Washington from the defense and prosecution in the federal case over attempts to falsify the 2020 election results and is expected to set a date for that trial.

In filing their motion for a change of court, Meadows’ lawyers argued Friday that he intervened in efforts to change the election outcome in Georgia as part of his White House duties. “As chief of staff, Mr. Meadows did not stop assisting the president just because the president was doing something personal or political,” the petition notes. “One would not say that the pilot of the presidential jet Air Force One stops being military when he takes the president to an unofficial event. The same goes for the chief of staff. They don’t suspend their status as a civil servant just because the president suspends his” by participating in an unofficial event, they argue.

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