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Trump Legal News: The Cheese Stands Alone

Boy howdy, was there a lot of big news yesterday; it's not often that a major Trump-related legal development would be relegated to the third slot on the page. But that's the kind of day Thursday was.

As most readers will have heard by now, Sidney Powell has copped a plea in Trump's Georgia election case. She has already recorded a statement of her guilt, and will provide information and testimony as needed for the prosecution. In exchange, Fulton County DA Fani Willis will recommend 6 years' probation, a fine, and the writing of a letter of apology to the people of Georgia.

It is not terribly surprising that Powell flipped. Clearly, she did not have the stomach for a long, drawn-out trial process, which is why she and Kenneth Chesebro exercised their right to a very speedy trial. Now, the Cheese is all on his lonesome. We suspect that Powell also does not have the financial means to mount a defense, especially since she's got legal problems and exposure in other states, like Michigan. In any event, she's the second person to turn state's evidence in the Georgia case, after bail bondsman Scott Hall. But she's the first to be truly scary to Trump, as she knows a whole lot more than Hall does about where the bodies are buried.

Reader (and lawyer) A.R. in Los Angeles, CA, was able to write up a brief assessment of the situation for us:

After Powell's attorney tried the usual pre-trial maneuvers of trying to get the charges thrown out or reduced, which were easily dispatched by Judge Scott McAfee, she did the only sensible and rational thing (words I never thought I'd use in connection with her) and pleaded guilty. The details of the plea further reveal the brilliance of Willis. First, consider the charges that Powell was facing—they only involved the breach of the voting equipment in Coffee County—fairly low-level considering her extensive involvement in every aspect of Donald Trump's effort to stay in power. Prosecutors clearly had their sights set on her from the beginning and banked, correctly as it turned out, that she would be the most likely to cooperate. They also know that maybe only Rudy Giuliani knows more than she does about where all the bodies are buried—she's got the goods on Trump, so prosecutors were prepared to give her a pretty sweet deal. And I'm guessing Willis was not disappointed. Powell has already given a recorded statement and it must have been a doozy. Consider the terms of this deal: no jail time, only 6 years probation, $6,000 fine, $2,700 in restitution, and an apology letter. And here's an additional sweetener—the deal is under the Georgia First Offender Act, which means that if she complies with the terms of her plea, she will have no criminal record. As the prosecutor put it: "She can honestly say she has never been convicted of these charges."

What does that mean for Trump? In legalese, it's very bad news. Powell is obligated to testify truthfully against all the other defendants in the Georgia case and, as required whenever a defendant enters a plea, she had the following colloquy with the judge: "Are you pleading guilty today because you agree that there is a sufficient factual basis, that there are enough facts that support this plea of guilty?" McAfee asked. "I do," Powell said. Why is this significant? Because she is an unnamed co-conspirator in the Special Counsel Jack Smith's criminal conspiracy case against Trump. All of this testimony is admissible in the federal case. And her admission that the alleged facts in this case are true means she can't testify differently in any other case. If the facts underlying the charges against her are true in the Georgia case, that bolsters the allegations in the federal election interference case.

It'll be interesting to see if Chesebro pleads guilty next. Jury selection is scheduled to begin tomorrow, with the trial starting next week. But since he wasn't first, and it's good to be first, I doubt he'll get the same sweet terms.

Just about anyone with relevant expertise who has weighed in agrees with A.R.'s assessment. That includes former U.S. Attorney (and, of course, current Trump rival) Chris Christie, The New York Times' Maggie Haberman, The Bulwark's Kim Wehle, CNN's Elie Honig and The Washington Post's Aaron Blake. But if you're only going to read one piece, perhaps for schadenfreude purposes, then you probably want this one from Slate's Jeremy Stahl, headlined "Sidney Powell's Plea Deal Is So, So Bad for Donald Trump." He emphasizes, in particular, that her plea is likely to cause others to flip, and also that she's entirely boxed in, because if she doesn't abide by the terms of her deal to a judge's satisfaction, then that 6 years' probation will become 6 years' jail.

The only folks with a significantly different take are the right-wing legal types, like Jonathan Turley and The National Review's Andrew McCarthy. Both of their pieces (and others) focus, laser-like, on the fact that Powell did not plead guilty to racketeering. This ostensibly implies that the case against Trump is weak, and that the charges against him are not likely to stick. We are not legal experts, of course, but this seems like wishcasting to us. The Georgia RICO law is pretty harsh, and it's not easy to turn a RICO plea into probation (possible, but not easy). Further, the "this is good news for Trump" crowd seem to be forgetting that there are plenty of non-RICO charges against him that also carry stiff sentences (especially for a 77-year-old), and also that the main goal of a prosecutor is to get as many fishes, and as big of fishes, as is possible. Letting a small fish off the hook in service of netting a dozen much larger fishes sounds like a pretty good trade to us. Anyhow, we're obviously not buying the right-wing, pooh-pooh pieces, but we pass them along so as to give a more well-rounded view of the response to Powell's plea. Perhaps readers will click on them and find their arguments more compelling than we did.

If you look at the reader comments in many of the news stories about the deal, you will see that many readers are incensed, as in: "She helped try to overthrow the government of the United States and all she has to do is say she's sorry." These readers don't understand the game Fani Willis is playing, and playing well. You let the little fish get away with stuff if that makes it much easier to snare the big fish.

And now, it's your move, Mr. Chesebro. (Z)

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