Trump’s Georgia case: Large cast of characters portends complex trial

Trump’s Georgia case: Large cast of characters portends complex trial

The people who allegedly helped then-President Donald Trump try to overturn the 2020 election constituted a large, loosely linked, and surprisingly diverse group.

According to prosecutors in Fulton County, Georgia, those involved in Mr. Trump’s efforts to “find” enough votes to change Georgia’s results include Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor – but also lesser-known defendants such as Scott Hall, a Georgia bail bondsman, and Stephen Lee, a pastor from Illinois.

Why We Wrote This

The Georgia case against Donald Trump and his 18 co-defendants, all of whom have pleaded not guilty, is massive and complex. Each individual’s legal strategy has the potential to impact the rest.

In a way, the sprawling Georgia case could be seen as just one piece of a larger picture. According to the federal indictment filed by special counsel Jack Smith, the Trump team pressured officials in at least six other key states to help it block President Joe Biden’s election.

Mr. Trump’s false charges of Democratic election fraud implied a vast national conspiracy for which no evidence has emerged. In the Georgia and federal election cases, prosecutors will in essence assert that the conspiracy was on the other side.

“If the facts are true as reported, this was a pretty wide-reaching, many-tentacled operation that was trying through any means possible to prevent certification of the presidential election, or reverse its outcome,” says Caren Morrison, an associate professor at Georgia State University’s College of Law.

It was not just Donald Trump. The people who allegedly helped the then-president try to overturn the results of the 2020 election constituted a large, loosely linked, and surprisingly diverse army of longtime allies and newly minted supporters.

That’s reflected in the state election interference charges in Fulton County, Georgia. According to prosecutors, those involved in Mr. Trump’s efforts to “find” enough votes to change Georgia’s results include Rudy Giuliani, the famous former mayor of New York – but also lesser-known defendants such as Scott Hall, a Georgia bail bondsman, and Stephen Lee, a pastor from Illinois.

Mark Meadows, Mr. Trump’s former chief of staff, is one of those indicted. So are Trevian Kutti, a former publicist for rapper Kanye West (who now goes by Ye), and Harrison Floyd, an ex-Marine active in the group Black Voices for Trump.

Why We Wrote This

The Georgia case against Donald Trump and his 18 co-defendants, all of whom have pleaded not guilty, is massive and complex. Each individual’s legal strategy has the potential to impact the rest.

The sheer scale of the Georgia case against Mr. Trump and his 18 co-defendants, all of whom have pleaded not guilty, will likely tax both prosecutors and defense attorneys, say legal experts. That’s perhaps why special counsel Jack Smith streamlined his federal election case, charging only Mr. Trump and leaving six alleged co-conspirators unindicted.

But in a way, the sprawling Georgia case could be seen as just one piece of a larger picture. According to the federal indictment, the Trump team pressured officials in at least six other key states – Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – to help it block Joe Biden’s election as president.

Pastor Stephen Lee, an alleged co-conspirator related to the harassment of election workers in Georgia, stands for a portrait outside Living Word Lutheran Church in Orland Park, Illinois, Aug. 27, 2023.

Mr. Trump’s false charges of Democratic election fraud in 2020 implied a vast national conspiracy for which no evidence has emerged. In the Georgia and federal election cases, prosecutors will in essence assert that the conspiracy was on the other side.

“If the facts are true as reported, this was a pretty wide-reaching, many-tentacled operation that was trying through any means possible to prevent certification of the presidential election, or reverse its outcome,” says Caren Morrison, a former assistant U.S. attorney and associate professor at Georgia State University’s College of Law.

One case, 19 defendants, disparate charges

The 19 Georgia election interference defendants were scheduled for a Wednesday arraignment, in which they enter a plea before a judge and are told the charges against them. State law allows defendants to waive their right to appear in person, however, and all opted to enter their “not guilty” pleas remotely, thus avoiding televised courtroom appearances.

Mr. Trump and other top defendants are charged with multiple offenses. The former president and Mr. Giuliani both face 13 felony counts in the Georgia case.

Among other things, Mr. Trump participated in a recorded phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in which the then-president falsely claimed he had won the state by “hundreds of thousands of votes.” 

Meanwhile, Mr. Giuliani claimed that Georgia’s voting machines had been rigged. He falsely charged that two state election workers, Ruby Freeman and Wandrea “Shaye” Moss, had been caught on tape participating in election fraud. In a separate case last month, Mr. Giuliani conceded that he had made defamatory statements about the two women.

Rudy Giuliani speaks at the Fulton County Jail, Aug. 23, 2023, in Atlanta. Mr. Giuliani surrendered to Georgia authorities to face an indictment alleging he acted as former President Donald Trump’s chief co-conspirator in a plot to subvert the 2020 election.

Other defendants were charged for one or two particular actions. Trevian Kutti flew to Atlanta from her Chicago home on Jan. 4, 2021, and allegedly tried to get Ms. Freeman to confess to election fraud. At a meeting in an Atlanta police precinct, she told Ms. Freeman she “needed protection and purported to offer her help,” according to the indictment. 

Mr. Floyd allegedly helped recruit Ms. Kutti to talk to Ms. Freeman. According to the indictment, he joined in the conversation via phone.

Mr. Lee also traveled to Ms. Freeman’s home to pressure her, according to prosecutors. They said Mr. Hall was involved in an effort to illegally access voting machines in Coffee County, Georgia, to check them for alleged fraud.

Three other defendants were charged with participating in a scheme to replace Georgia’s 16 presidential electors with an unauthorized, unelected pro-Trump slate.

Similar groups of fake electors were organized in six other states. In a Tuesday court filing, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis compared such efforts to claiming that “a homemade badge” could turn someone into “a genuine United States Marshal with all the powers afforded that position.”

Will some defendants be tried separately? 

The federal case filed by special counsel Smith has only one charged defendant: Mr. Trump. Legal experts say it is designed for speed – speed to trial, speed in the courtroom, perhaps a quick verdict prior to the 2024 presidential election.

The Georgia case isn’t like that. With its cast of characters and interweaving plotlines, it recounts a lengthy story. This may reflect Georgia’s expansive racketeering law, which Ms. Willis has often used to bring charges against what she deems to be organized criminal enterprises.

“By its very nature, the Georgia case is sprawling,” says Daniel Urman, a law professor at Northeastern University.

Trying a case with 19 defendants can be challenging for prosecutors. At a Sept. 6 hearing, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee sounded highly skeptical of such an all-inclusive approach, saying it sounded “unrealistic.”

At the same time, Judge McAfee denied a request from former Trump lawyers Kenneth Chesebro and Sidney Powell to sever their cases from each other, for now.

If defendants do split into groups, those scheduled for later might have the advantage of getting an early look into the prosecution’s case and courtroom methods.

“It’s almost like you’re a football team and you get to see your opponent in preseason games,” says Professor Urman.

But if the prosecution gets an early conviction, the pressure on the remaining defendants might increase. Should they cut a plea deal and testify against the others? If they don’t, will someone else turn against them?

In such a situation, “there’s a really great incentive for [co-defendants] to provide evidence, strike deals, and get out from under these charges,” says Anthony Michael Kreis, an assistant professor at Georgia State University’s College of Law.

The legal strategies of the defendants are already beginning to diverge, in ways that could perhaps damage the person at the top. The three Georgia defendants charged with serving as fake electors now say they did so because they were acting upon the instructions of then-President Trump. An attorney for Mr. Meadows has intimated that his client may similarly point at Mr. Trump as the primary force behind the Georgia effort.

Former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows (center, below arrow) walks out of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, where a hearing on his petition to move the Fulton County case to federal court in the 2020 election case took place, in Atlanta, Aug. 28, 2023.

A busy legal calendar … and a coming election

At the least, the complications of the Georgia prosecution and the various other court cases Mr. Trump will face in coming months are likely to produce a frenzied period of legal motions, disputes, countermotions, and hearings that could steal voter attention away from U.S. politics.

The first major court date will come in early October, with the beginning of New York Attorney General Letitia James’ civil suit against Mr. Trump, his business, and family members for allegedly fraudulently inflating the value of their assets by billions of dollars.

Trials will then ramp up through 2024, beginning in January with a second defamation case against Mr. Trump filed by writer E. Jean Carroll. The federal election interference case is currently scheduled to begin in March, and the federal trial on illegal retention of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago is scheduled to start in May.

Given the legal competition and the size of the case, the trial of Mr. Trump in Georgia could wind up being pushed back past next November, says Professor Morrison.

“I think it will be hard to get it done before the election,” she says.

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