Throughout the criminal investigations of Donald Trump, the former president has expected his co-defendants, alleged co-conspirators, and potential witnesses for the prosecution to stay fiercely loyal to him. This has included — according to people who’ve discussed the matter with him — his belief that some of his former lieutenants should risk jail time rather than turn on him.
As he’s faced an array of criminal charges, Trump’s demands for aides and lawyers to martyr themselves for him hasn’t saved him. If anything, it’s done the opposite, driving several possible key witnesses to consider throwing Trump under the bus before he gets the chance to do it to them.
That’s because, as is often the case with the former president, the notion of extreme loyalty only goes one way. Rolling Stone spoke to seven potential witnesses, former Trump confidants ensnared in the Fulton County, Georgia, and federal criminal probes, their legal advisers, and other sources familiar with the situation. All of them say that Trump’s willingness to hang them out to dry has fueled legal strategies focused on self-preservation.
Three of these sources say that Team Trump’s comically unsubtle search for patsies and fall guys — MAGA die-hards who would take the blame and possible prison sentences in lieu of Trump — drove a larger wedge between the ex-president and many of his former fellow travelers.
“If I went to jail for Donald Trump, if I did that, what would that do for me and my family?” says a former Trump administration official who has been interviewed by special counsel Jack Smith’s office. “I don’t think he would even give us lifetime Mar-a-Lago memberships if I did that for him.”
Lawyer Sidney Powell, for example, put her adulation of Trump to work in the aftermath of the election by filing bogus lawsuits and making bizarre false claims against voting-machine company Dominion Voting Systems. The moves got her sanctioned by a Michigan court, sued for a billion dollars by Dominion, and charged alongside Trump in Fulton County.
But her legal ordeal has brought her no meaningful help from the former president. Trump has gone out of his way to claim publicly that Powell was never his attorney while other Trump allies have worked to try to pin the blame for any criminal wrongdoing after the election on her. She has since also taken a plea deal this month, a move that shocked a number of top Trump lawyers and loyalists. Trump’s communications aide Liz Harrington has recently claimed the former president was “confused” by his allies’ plea deals because, in his apparent belief, “there’s no crimes here.” Powell, for her part, is still trying to have it both ways, portraying herself as a victim of a zealous prosecution and as a stalwart defender of Trump’s election lies.
But as some contemplate potentially cooperating with authorities, others have already publicly flipped, a decision that Trump now associates with “weaklings” who betray him.
Jenna Ellis, an attorney for the Trump campaign charged in the Fulton County election-subversion case, has been vocal about her disappointment in the former president’s abandonment of his co-defendants. Ellis wrote on X (formerly Twitter) in August that she had been “reliably informed Trump isn’t funding any of us who are indicted,” and wondered “why isn’t [the pro-Trump Super Pac] MAGA, Inc. funding everyone’s defense?”
After an attempt at crowdfunding her legal fees, Ellis accepted a plea deal from prosecutors last week. “If I knew then what I know now, I would have declined to represent Donald Trump in these post-election challenges,” a tearful Ellis said in a courtroom speech accepting responsibility for making false statements about the election that President Joe Biden clearly won.
For much of this year, Trump attorneys had been concerned that Kenneth Chesebro, one of the legal theorists behind the fake-electors scheme, would end up cooperating with prosecutors. The attorney accepted a plea deal in Fulton County and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to file false documents, but his attorney, Scott Grubman, denied any suggestion that his client was turning against Trump. “I don’t think he implicated anyone but himself,” Grubman told CNN earlier this month. Still, Chesebro and his legal team have been dropping hints for months that the blame and criminal exposure lay elsewhere in Trumpland, not with him.
“Whether the campaign relied upon that advice as Mr. Chesebro intended,” Grubman told Rolling Stone in August, “will have to remain a question to be resolved in court.” He continued: “We hope that the Fulton DA and the special counsel fully recognize these issues before deciding who, if anyone, to charge.”
These public statements came months after some of Trump’s closest allies and legal counselors began amassing informal lists of the best possible fall guys in the Jan. 6 riot-related probes and the Mar-a-Lago documents case. John Eastman, Rudy Giuliani, Mark Meadows, Powell, and Chesebro were indeed among the names. The lawyers, such as Chesebro, were easy scapegoats for Team Trump, who have openly signaled that the former president’s courtroom strategy will lean on an “advice of counsel” defense.
Asked if Chesebro could tell how much of Trumpland wanted him to take the fall to help insulate Trump, a lawyer who’s known Chesebro for years, and has spoken to him about this matter, simply tells Rolling Stone, “Of course.”
In private, Trump reserves some of his harshest words for one-time loyalists who are willing to cut deals with prosecutors, securing light sentences in exchange for likely testifying against Trump and others. However, the 2024 Republican presidential front-runner’s fury often extends to his lieutenants who don’t have formal cooperation agreements — but are simply willing, or legally bound, to answer prosecutors’ questions.
According to people close to Trump, the mere act of talking to federal investigators can sometimes be enough to get you branded a traitor or a snitch in the former president’s mind. This is because, his longtime associates say, Trump often doesn’t see a meaningful difference between witnesses who have formal cooperation agreements (to flip, in other words) and those who happen to tell investigators useful information during interviews.
Further, Trump and several of his closest advisers have been trying for months to find out how generous his former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has been with prosecutors lately. In June, The New York Times revealed that Meadows had testified before grand juries in both the special counsel’s Mar-a-Lago classified-documents case and its investigation into Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election. This has fueled suspicions among Trump’s inner orbit this year, with some advisers now simply referring to Meadows in private communications by using the rat emoji.
Last week, ABC News reported that Meadows was “granted immunity” by the special counsel in order to spill potentially damaging details about Trump and the aftermath of the 2020 election. Meadows’ lawyer has since disputed much of the report as “inaccurate,” though he refused to say what in the story supposedly wasn’t correct.
In the days since that news broke, a few of Trump’s political and legal advisers have tried to assure him that the ABC story doesn’t mean that Meadows has “flipped,” and that he is just doing what he is legally compelled to do in these conversations with federal investigators.
And yet, Trump isn’t entirely buying it. In the past week, the ex-president has asked confidants, with clear annoyance in his voice, why his former chief of staff would be telling prosecutors anything about Trump’s activities “at all,” two people familiar with the situation tell Rolling Stone. The former president’s position is that Meadows should invoke claims of executive privilege in these cases — the doctrine that some communications with a president should be shielded from outside scrutiny in certain circumstances.
It’s a similar move to what former Trump administration official Peter Navarro attempted in defying a congressional subpoena from the Jan. 6 committee, landing him a conviction for contempt of Congress.
If Meadows and other witnesses indulged Trump’s demands for a blanket defiance of prosecutors, Trump’s ex-chief could also risk jail time. Trump’s attorneys had attempted to block Meadows from testifying before a federal grand jury investigating the effort to overturn the election, citing executive-privilege claims. But in March, Judge Beryl Howell rejected the argument.
Navarro, a former top trade aide in the Trump White House, stonewalled a subpoena from the congressional Jan. 6 inquiry demanding he appear before the panel and turn over documents related to its investigation of the 2021 insurrection. Navarro’s defiance earned him a criminal referral and a conviction on contempt of Congress charges in September. Steve Bannon, Trump’s former White House chief strategist and campaign aide, also defied a subpoena from the Jan. 6 House committee and earned a conviction for contempt of Congress. Both men have appealed their convictions.
Trump’s lack of loyalty to allies facing legal jeopardy for allegedly assisting him in various crimes has landed him in difficult spots in a number of cases.
“Trump’s view of loyalty is one way, and that one way benefits only him. Donald has a history of using and abusing his associates, and he has shown no hesitation in throwing them under the bus when it suits his needs,” Michael Cohen, a former Trump fixer and attorney who experienced that lack of reciprocal loyalty firsthand, said. “This is not the kind of person that people are willing to or should sacrifice their freedom for.”