"They want them to squirm": Experts say Fulton DA not offering plea deals signals bad news for Trump

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has discussed plea talks or has left open the possibility of talks with all other co-defendants involved in efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia except for former President Donald Trump, former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Trump’s former lawyer Rudy Giuliani, according to The Guardian.

The DA has no plans to extend plea deals to the three defendants in the case, two people familiar with the matter told The Guardian. Instead, the prosecutors are opting to proceed to trial, compelling the individuals to face the charges in court.

Her hope is to encourage other co-defendants to consider the option of becoming cooperating witnesses in the case against the former president, sources told The Guardian. While the decision hasn’t been “communicated formally,” it remains subject to potential changes, especially if there is a shift in the prosecutors’ strategy, the news outlet reported.

But typically with organized crime and racketeering conspiracies, there is either “one or a couple big fish” who pose “enduring risks” if they are not convicted, Nathan Chapman, a professor of law at the University of Georgia, told Salon. The big fish remain “insulated” by little fish who do the “dirty work.”

In this case, Trump’s alleged conspiracy to keep himself in power by any means makes him the mastermind behind the effort to overturn election results in Georgia. By getting lower-level defendants in the criminal enterprise to cooperate, the DA can unravel the intricate web of activities orchestrated by the mastermind.

“It is easier to get direct evidence against the little fish than the big fish, so you ‘flip’ the little fish to testify against the big fish in exchange for a reduced sentence,” Chapman said. “The risk of not convicting the big fish is that he’ll go back to his old ways with new little fish, this time more carefully.”

In August, Trump and 18 co-defendants initially pleaded not guilty to a comprehensive indictment, which charged them with violating the RICO statute in an effort to overturn his 2020 election loss in Georgia. The charges included promoting false Trump electors and tampering with voting machines.

But prosecutors quickly secured plea deals with lawyers Sidney Powell, Jenna Ellis, Kenneth Chesebro and local bail bondsman Scott Hall. The four of them agreed to plead guilty to reduced charges and avoid jail time in exchange for their cooperation in the case.

The district attorney’s office prefers persuading as many of Trump’s co-defendants as possible to cooperate, one source told The Guardian. Prosecutors have formally requested Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee to extend the final deadline for plea deals, proposing a deadline as late as June 2024.

The lack of a plea deal for Meadows and Giuliani illustrates that they are either “fairly significant” within the conspiracy or “not credible enough” to seek out as witnesses, Atlanta defense attorney Andrew Fleischman told Salon.

Another possibility could include the prosecutors potentially building evidence against the two co-defendants until they have an “air-tight case” to get them to plead in exchange for testifying against Trump, Chapman said.

“There are probably several reasons to not offer a plea deal—so far—to the biggest fish in this case: the prosecutors are still building their evidence against them,” he added. “They want them to squirm or even proffer a plea deal on their own…”

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It is also more politically advantageous for Trump to not accept any plea deal prosecutors are willing to offer since the “whole political benefit of the case is trying the thing and getting national media coverage,” Fleischman said.

The most obvious explanation is that the former president won’t take a deal before the election, Chapman pointed out, suggesting Trump is using the prosecution to “fire up his base” and continues to deny any responsibility. He would lose both of those if he pleaded guilty.

“Trump wants to avoid any criminal liability, and certainly prison, and he probably believes that his best path forward is to win the general election and allow ‘the people’ to exonerate him,” Chapman said. “So, it would be a waste of time to offer a plea deal to him. Meanwhile, if they wait long enough, there is always the chance he will give them more evidence because he has a very hard time keeping his mouth shut.”

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