On Aug. 14, Donald Trump and 18 co-defendants were named in a wide-ranging indictment that included racketeering by a grand jury in Fulton County, Georgia. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis asked for a trial date in March 2024.
But last week, one of Trump’s co-defendants, attorney Kenneth Chesebro, asked for a speedy trial under a Georgia law that allows defendants to request a trial within weeks of indictment. In response to this request, Fulton County Judge Scott McAfee set a trial date for Chesebro on Oct. 23. Soon after this, former Trump attorney Sidney Powell filed a similar request. Attorney John Eastman, who was instrumental in designing the legal argument that led to the Jan. 6 insurrection, is expected to do the same.
Now Willis is trying her best to keep all the trials together, as her basketful of deplorable defendants try to pull her case apart.
In other cases where Trump has been indicted, his attorneys have tried to argue that the trial shouldn’t begin until well after the next election. So far, that argument hasn’t been doing well with judges. As soon as Chesebro requested his speedy trial, Trump’s legal team moved to sever Trump’s trial from Chesebro’s to avoid being dragged into the early date. Willis immediately filed a motion to have all the cases placed on a fast track to keep them together, but that motion hasn’t yet been considered.
With Trump’s former attorneys lining up to go early, and other defendants like former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows appealing to have their cases moved to federal court, there’s a strong possibility that Willis’ case will fragment into multiple trials. That would make it harder to prosecute the central RICO charge, and to use the mandatory sentence associated with it as leverage to persuade some of the defendants to testify against Trump.
The indictment against Trump & Co. includes descriptions of 161 acts made in support of the racketeering operation, and 41 additional felony charges resulting from those acts. Telling the story of how it all fits together is far easier if the trial involves a single, coherent story showing how the defendants acted in concert, rather than being broken into a series of small, apparently unrelated incidents.
For Willis, the best scenario would be to keep the whole circus under one tent. With 19 defendants, that has always been unlikely. However, the fewer sideshows, the better when it comes to a RICO case. (You might try asking Rudy Giuliani, but he’s probably sweating hair dye at the moment as he tries to decide whether he dares ask to go to the front of the line.)
There are reasons that Chesebro, Powell, and Eastman want to get ahead of the rest of the pack. As The New York Times points out, one factor is simply cash. A trial that begins sooner is likely to come with a smaller price tag in terms of legal bills, travel costs, and life disruption, than the same trial dragged out over years.
The Washington Post also suggests that Chesebro, always a believer that he’s the smartest person in any room, simply hoped to catch Willis napping. Only … that doesn’t seem to be the case and Willis may find herself starting with “a clean shot at a single defendant against whom there is replete evidence.”
Former federal prosecutor Glenn Kirschner suggests that Trump may be unhappy about the speedy trial requests because they open the door for these first-movers to toss the boss under the nearest bus.
“You know what the co-defendants in the first trial will do?” Kirschner said. “They will point the finger at the empty chair and say, ‘Those are the bad guys, Trump and [Rudy] Giuliani and [Mark] Meadows. It’s not us.’ So this could break really bad for Donald Trump.”
Nice as that sounds, there’s also a possibility that isolating their trial from that of Trump may make it easier for one, or all, of those going early to later restrict their testimony in Trump’s trial under claims of lawyer-client privilege.
All of which makes the motion from Willis to either pull Chesebro’s trial date back or move everyone else’s forward more interesting—and more important. It’s just one of the ways she’s attempting to apply some glue to this rapidly fragmenting pot. For example, despite requesting, and being granted, an early date, Chesebro apparently never formally asked that his case be severed from the rest, leaving it up to everyone else to make a request.
Accordingly, the State of Georgia respectfully seeks clarification from the Court as to whether the Court’s intention was to sever Defendant Chesebro’s trial from the other Defendants … if the Court’s intention indeed was to sever Defendant Chesebro’s trial from the other Defendants, because Defendant Chesebro has not filed a motion to sever and because the Court has held no hearing on a motion to sever, the State of Georgia respectfully requests that the Court set aside its Case Specific Scheduling Order entered on August 24, 2023
In other words, since Chesebro didn’t ask to go it alone, the court shouldn’t provide him a solo court date. And if it does give him a date, then everyone else who doesn’t hustle forward with a request to cut themselves free from Chesebro should be stuck going at the same time.
It’s going to be difficult for Willis to force other defendants into court at the date already awarded to Chesebro, so the most likely outcome is going to be that the rest line up to request that they be cut loose from Chesebro, as Trump has done already. If Eastman and Powell really want to go early, they can always just not sever their cases, and tag along with Chesebro. But putting all three of them behind a defendant’s table together—Ms. Kraken and the Jan. 6 power duo—is going to make a big chunk of the scheme obvious, even if the actions of the other 16 defendants don’t get full air time.
Chesebro wants to go it alone. So do Powell and Eastman. Having their case heard in a vacuum is probably their best chance but, for any of these three, that chance is still not very good.
But if Chesebro is sitting at a table by himself, ahead of all other cases, a jury might be challenged to convict on the charge that really matters—the RICO indictment that guarantees time in jail. Maybe Chesebro is gambling that this is his best chance at evading that conviction. He may even be right.
For Willis, all of this has to be terribly frustrating, but probably not unexpected. Keeping the whole set of 19 defendants together was always unlikely. It may now be impossible.
Author: Mark Sumner