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Why guilty pleas in Georgia 2020 election interference case pose significant risk to Donald Trump

Breaking down Jenna Ellis' guilty plea
Breaking down Jenna Ellis' guilty plea in Georgia election case 05:49

The first defectors from Donald Trump's Georgia criminal case pose significant risk to the former president because they include "senior participants" in the alleged scheme to overthrow the 2020 election, experts say.

Former Trump attorney Jenna Ellis was the latest to agree to testify in any trials related to the case, which revolves around efforts to thwart Georgia's 2020 election after Trump lost. Trump and 18 others were charged Aug. 15 by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, and accused of operating a "criminal enterprise" that conspired to overturn the election.

Now, four members of that alleged racket have agreed to cooperate against the other 15. 

Two other lawyers involved with the effort, Sidney Powell and Kenneth Chesebro, and a bail bondsman named Scott Hall, also entered guilty pleas in recent weeks.

Attorney Norm Eisen described the lawyers as "senior participants" in two different facets of the alleged crimes: the effort to portray Trump as the winner, and the effort to have former Vice President Mike Pence use false electors to certify Trump as the winner. 

"With the pleas of the three lawyers, the rug is pulled out from under both of those legs," said Eisen, a co-founder of States United Democracy Center, a nonpartisan advocacy organization focused on elections. "That's because Powell and Ellis were two of the primary pushers of the false facts, and Chesebro of the false legal theory."

Ellis said at her sentencing Tuesday that "I failed to do my due diligence" in agreeing to work on Trump's behalf in 2020.

"If I knew then what I know now, I would have declined to represent Donald Trump in these post-election challenges. I look back on this whole experience with deep remorse," Ellis said.

Georgia State University law professor Anthony Michael Kreis said Ellis' and other confessions are "a huge boon for the D.A. when this goes to trial as prosecutors work to secure convictions."

"It also makes the case harder to attack politically as individuals are now on the record about their culpability in the scheme to overturn the election," Kreis said.

Dominoes falling toward Trump

Ellis, Powell, Chesebro and Hall all struck deals that included probation, but no jail time. Eisen said Willis' history in major racketeering cases shows she pushes guilty plea dominoes toward high-profile or senior defendants.

As those pieces begin falling, other defendants often feel pressure to pursue deals of their own, he said.

"I would expect more dominoes at any time," said Eisen, who served as special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during Trump's first impeachment. "The deals get less good, because the reality is the prosecution doesn't need more people to say the same thing."

But guilty pleas involve more than just dealmaking. Prosecutors need good evidence to convince defendants they're at risk of conviction, according to Noah Pines, a defense attorney in Georgia. Willis' office began its investigation into Trump soon after the release of an infamous recorded phone call, in which he could be heard telling Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger he wanted "to find 11,780 votes," the amount Trump needed to win the state.

In 2022, a special purpose grand jury spent months interviewing 75 witnesses and subpoenaing documents from more. It recommended charges against 39 people in January, and 19 were charged in August.

Now there are four former defendants who have agreed to bolster the evidence Willis' office already compiled over more than two years of investigation. Pines said that may speak to the strength of the case.

"I would say the evidence is working more than a strategy," Pines said, adding, "I don't think that the D.A.'s office is giving away cases."

Asked about the case's plea deals on Oct. 25, Trump reiterated his claim that the election was stolen and said, "they're taking deals. But from what I understand, they're saying nothing bad about me at all, but they're taking deals."

Trump has denied wrongdoing and accused Willis of pursuing him for political gain. On Oct. 25 he said Willis' office has "gone after people that have been trying to find out who rigged" the election.

Pines said he expects more defendants will enter guilty pleas, strengthening the case not only against Trump, but other defendants who have yet to be offered deals.

"In the end, I think only a handful of defendants will be left," Pines said.

Risks to other prominent defendants

While Trump is at the absolute center of the case — the most prominent defendant and the person whose words sparked the investigation — there are other defendants near him on "the food chain," according to Eisen and Kreis. 

"After the former president it is Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman who are in the most peril here," said Eisen, adding that they're "on par" with former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows "in overall culpability."

Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who was Trump's personal attorney at the time, spearheaded the effort to thwart the election nationally, and Eastman was a key contributor, according to prosecutors.

An attorney whose firm represents Giuliani, Arthur Aidala, told CBS News on Oct. 24 that prosecutors have not made any plea agreement offers. 

George Terwilliger, an attorney for Meadows, was unequivocal when asked on Oct. 3.

"You must be kidding, or smoking something very weird," Terwilliger said in an email. He has not responded to more recent follow-ups.

Buddy Parker, an attorney who represents Eastman, said prosecutors have not reached out. Parker acknowledged that Eastman is likely one of the higher-end targets in the case.

"They identified him ranking in the indictment as third, so that's generally an indication of the view of significance or culpability or responsibility, or whatever the characterization one might want to place," Parker said.

Parker said he doesn't have "ill will" for the defendants who have entered guilty pleas.

"I don't have any comments other than they made individual decisions about what they thought would be in their best interests," Parker said.

At least one defendant has received an offer, but turned it down, according to her attorney.

Misty Hampton, a former elections supervisor for Coffee County, Georgia, maintains her innocence, said her lawyer, Jonathan Miller III. Hampton is accused of allowing two unnamed co-conspirators to enter non-public areas of the Coffee County Board of Elections and Registration office and facilitating their access to voting equipment.

Miller said when prosecutors verbally conveyed a plea offer, Hampton rejected it. He claimed special prosecutor Nathan Wade then said they "look forward to trying her."

A spokesperson for the district attorney did not reply to a request for comment.

It remains to be seen whether other defendants follow Hampton's lead, or those of Ellis, Powell, Chesebro and Hall. 

If the list of guilty pleas grows, it could mean big problems for Trump.

"That would be a very troubling development for Donald Trump, who will likely have to face multiple self-admitted co-conspirators on the witness stand testifying about his role," Kreis said.

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