Since the summer, Donald Trump’s legal teams have been wracked by one abiding fear: betrayal.
On one front, the former president’s inner circle has fretted about how many co-defendants in the Fulton County criminal case — or co-conspirators in the special counsel probes — might turn against him, accept a plea deal, and cooperate with the prosecutors. But lingering beneath the fear of disloyalty lies another, darker fear about whether anyone anyone still working in, or close to, Trump’s inner orbit could already secretly be working with prosecutors.
For months, Trump, his lawyers, and advisers have been preparing for a potential onslaught of co-defendants flipping on him ahead of trial in the Georgia case. In the last week alone, three prominent co-defendants — Jenna Ellis, Kenneth Chesebro, and Sidney Powell — have all struck plea deals with the district attorney, and the former president and his team are expecting more to come.
According to two sources familiar with the situation, and another two people briefed on it, the former president and his inner sanctum have tried for months to ascertain which imperiled Trump allies have been inching towards cutting deals. When Trump has sent his advisers and attorneys on these so-called “fact-finding” missions this year, they have routinely come up empty — unable to satisfy the former president’s demands to know who is preparing to snitch.
In the face of this uncertainty, several of Trump’s attorneys have been briefing the ex-president on what one source calls “threat and [potential] damage assessments.” These assessments have explained to Trump which co-defendants the lawyers believe are likeliest to cut a deal, and which ones prosecutors likely believe could do the most damage to Trump, if called to testify, according to the sources.
As part of this effort, the former president’s team has also been digging into troves of past communications and private documents related to some of these co-defendants, targeting those deemed likely to cooperate with prosecutors. The purpose of the research, according to the sources with knowledge of the matter, has been to unearth materials that Trump attorneys could use to undermine the credibility of these would-be witnesses.
People with knowledge of the matter say that Trump’s legal team has quietly carried out research along these lines into former Trump campaign attorney Ellis, Chesebro, who helped the campaign design the fake electors scheme, and Trump’s own former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, among others.
It is still unclear what Meadows will ultimately do in these cases — but some of his, and his lawyer’s, moves have given Team Trump reason to sweat.
On Tuesday, ABC News reported that Meadows spoke at least three times with prosecutors from the special counsel’s office investigating Trump’s attempts to overturn the election and told them he had warned Trump, in late 2020, that his election fraud claims were baseless. Trump advisers and attorneys have long suspected that Meadows may end up cooperating with prosecutors and had even spitefully used the rat emoji when discussing the former top Trump aide in text communications.
Meadows has also prompted speculation that he may look to avoid liability in the Fulton County case by highlighting Trump’s potential culpability. As Politico noted in September, a lawyer for Meadows stated in a pre-trial hearing that the infamous phone call between Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger contained “a lot of statements by Mr. Trump” but included no demands to “change the vote totals” from Meadows.
The relatively lenient deals for Ellis, Cheseboro, and Powell — who received probation and fines — have given some of Trump’s co-defendants an opportunity to end at least part of their election-related legal headaches without jail time and to save on the expensive legal bills that have weighed on Trump’s fellow accused. A fourth defendant in the Georgia case, bail bondsman Scott Hall, pleaded guilty to conspiring to access voting machine data. But it is unclear whether other defendants could take up similar offers.
“For the fourth time, Fani Willis and her prosecution team have dismissed the [racketeering and conspiracy] charge in return for a plea to probation,” Trump attorney Steven Sadow said in a statement responding to Ellis’s plea agreement on Tuesday, calling the charges against Trump’s co-defendants “nothing more than a bargaining chip for DA Willis.”
On Tuesday, Trump’s attorneys offered a glimpse of what could await those who do end up testifying against him. Former Trump attorney Michael Cohen took the stand in the New York civil fraud case against Trump, and received an onslaught of accusations and insults from Trump’s legal team. Attorneys Chris Kise and Alina Habba underscored Cohen’s 2018 guilty plea for fraud and making false statements, blasting him as a “serial liar” who “lied to his wife” and called him a “completely out of control” witness for the prosecution.
Elsewhere, though, Trump’s legal advisers are grappling with another recurring problem this year: chronic distrust and petty feuds in their own ranks. Some of this drama has already exploded into public view, and cost Trump the services of some of his leading defense attorneys.
The level of distrust among Trump’s current lawyers has reached a point where some of them have privately spread rumors or speculation this year that other Trump attorneys are secretly cooperating with federal or Fulton County prosecutors, according to two people with direct knowledge of the matter.
The sources add that this has hampered the multiple legal teams’ work defending Trump, because it has on occasion limited what these lawyers think they should say in the presence of the Trump attorneys they don’t trust.
Trump is tentatively scheduled to stand trial in Fulton County in early 2024.