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With the frightening Israel-Hamas war and a major spoke of the US government – the House of Representatives – unsolvably speakerless and in a state of paralysis, a pair of guilty pleas in a Georgia courtroom almost feels like Page 2 news.
But these particular guilty pleas this week come from two of former President Donald Trump’s co-defendants, the second and third such admissions of guilt in the criminal case brought against him for trying to overturn Georgia’s 2020 presidential election result.
- Sidney Powell, a public face of Trump’s attempts to challenge the election results in 2020 and 2021, pleaded guilty Thursday. The former Trump attorney will avoid jail time but agreed to testify as a witness and pleaded guilty to six misdemeanors for conspiracy to commit intentional interference, downgraded from felony charges she had faced.
- Kenneth Chesebro, a less public face of the effort, was an attorney who helped engineer the fake electors plot. He pleaded guilty Friday to a single felony, conspiracy to commit filing false documents. He’s also likely to avoid jail time.
- Scott Hall, a bail bondsman, pleaded guilty last month after being accused of conspiring to unlawfully access voter data and ballot-counting machines at the Coffee County election office on January 7, 2021.
That leaves Trump and 15 other co-defendants awaiting trial in the case. Trial dates have not been set, and Trump has pleaded not guilty.
Along with the three other upcoming criminal trials in New York, Washington, DC, and Florida and the ongoing civil trial in New York, the Georgia proceedings are part of a complicated web of legal problems percolating beneath the 2024 election.
Chesebro admitted to entering into a conspiracy specifically with Trump to create a slate of fake electors in Georgia, along with two other attorneys, Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman.
CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor Elliot Williams noted that the Georgia case, brought by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, has had its detractors, because it included 18 co-defendants along with Trump, which could make it seem politically motivated.
But guilty pleas, Williams said, are now evidence that crimes were committed as Trump tried to make Joe Biden’s 2020 victory disappear.
“This ought to pour cold water on the notion that this was just a partisan witch hunt to target the president and his allies,” Williams told Jim Sciutto on CNN Max.
CNN’s report on his guilty plea notes that “Chesebro acknowledged in the plea that he ‘created and distributed false Electoral College documents’ to Trump operatives in Georgia and other states, and that he worked ‘in coordination with’ the Trump campaign.”
All but one charge against Chesebro was dropped, and he has agreed to testify at trial.
Just because Powell’s plea agreement did not mention Trump does not mean she might not be asked about him under oath, as CNN’s Marshall Cohen notes:
Most notably, Powell attended a White House meeting on December 18, 2020, where some of Trump’s most extreme supporters encouraged him to name her as a special counsel to investigate supposed voter fraud, to consider declaring martial law and to sign executive orders that would direct the military to seize voting machines.
Cohen adds that whatever Powell tells Georgia prosecutors could be used in the federal election subversion case brought by special counsel Jack Smith.
One gag order was issued by Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing the federal 2020 election subversion case in Washington, DC. Trump is appealing, arguing she “took away my right to speak,” and on Friday Chutkan put a temporary freeze on the order.
Chutkan has been insistent that the federal case get underway on schedule, in March, at the pinnacle of primary season.
Trump made those comments about his freedom of speech as he entered a courtroom in New York, where he faces a civil fraud trial brought by the state attorney general. He is also under a gag order in that case, and that judge, Arthur Engoron, fined Trump $5,000 on Friday for violating the gag order after a social media post targeting a court employee was left up on Trump’s campaign website.
Engoron said future violations could even ultimately lead him to imprison Trump.
The court developments are an important reminder that as Trump cruises toward the Republican presidential nomination, at least according to public opinion polls, he is also in very real legal peril – something Trump acknowledged, before the gag-order-related threat from Engoron in New York, when the former president talked about the prospect of prison during an event in Clive, Iowa.
“What they don’t understand is that I am willing to go to jail if that’s what it takes for our country to win and become a democracy again,” Trump said at the rally.
There is some bizarre irony in the comments since he’s charged in connection with trying to subvert an election, one of the fundamental pillars of democracy.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is among those challenging Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, said on CNN that he doesn’t believe Trump is willing to go to jail.
“The last place he wants to spend five minutes is in jail,” Christie said. He complained that Trump has failed to appear at Republican presidential debates.
“Donald Trump doesn’t want any legitimate debate or discussion about his conduct,” Christie said.
Republicans like Christie are running out of time and opportunity to challenge Trump. Another debate is scheduled for November 8 in Miami, but Christie has not yet qualified. NBC is sponsoring the debate, along with the right-wing outlets Salem Radio Network and Rumble.
Oliver Darcy, CNN’s senior media reporter, argues the arrangement creates strange bedfellows.
“It’s no surprise that the GOP, which veered sharply to the right during Donald Trump’s presidency, would select Salem and Rumble as partners,” Darcy writes, “but it is striking that NBC News would agree to link arms with such organizations.”
Anti-Trump Republicans want some of the candidates challenging him to drop out of the race so that the opposition can coalesce around an individual alternative. The debate stage November 8 is expected to be much smaller, perhaps with only a few people.
But don’t expect the former president to show. Trump is planning a rally nearby to draw attention away from his rivals.