May 29, 2024
Plans to try all 19 defendants together prompts some skepticism from attorneys

Those eager to see Donald Trump and his allies brought to justice should welcome the Atlanta indictments of the former president and 18 others in what District Attorney Fani Willis called “a criminal racketeering enterprise” to overturn the 2020 Georgia election result.

The sprawling indictment encompasses not only Trump’s well-publicized direct efforts to pressure Georgia and federal elections officials to reverse the verdict of Georgia’s voters but such related events as the recruitment of phony electors, a smear campaign against voter registrars and the break-in to steal election equipment at a county voting office.

However, the scope of Monday night’s indictment, which follows more than two years of investigations, may demonstrate the wisdom of the U.S. Justice Department’s special counsel, Jack Smith, in limiting charges against Trump in Washington to a narrowly drawn four-count indictment naming only the former president but including six unnamed co-conspirators.

Both Willis and Smith say they are eager to bring their cases promptly to trial, presumably before voting starts in the Republican primaries in which polls show Trump is leading the GOP field. Smith has sought a Jan. 2 trial date, and Willis said she hoped to bring her case to trial within six months.

But it would seem far easier to bring Smith’s tightly drawn four-count case to trial against a single defendant, the former president, than Willis’ array of 41 counts against 19 defendants (13 against Trump) that are somewhat intertwined.

And Willis’ statement that she plans to try all 19 defendants together prompted some skepticism in the legal community.

“There’s no courtroom that can hold that,” CNN legal analyst Elie Honig said Tuesday, noting that each of the 19 defendants could have several lawyers allowed to cross-examine witnesses. “The trial would take forever.”

The Washington indictment, which detailed Trump’s efforts to overturn the election while knowing his claims of fraud were false, accused him of conspiracy to defraud the United States by dishonestly impeding the counting and certifying of election results, conspiracy to obstruct the Jan. 6 official proceeding at which the results were certified, and conspiracy against the rights of voters to have their votes counted.

Two obstruction counts centered on Trump’s efforts to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to violate the law that provides for him to supervise the counting of electoral votes by claiming falsely that Pence could reject them.

In Georgia, the counts against Trump include two of conspiracy, three each of solicitation of violation of oath and making false statements, and one each of racketeering, forgery and impersonating a public officer.

These counts include 10 other defendants, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer during the election challenges; former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows; and four other lawyers, who, along with Giuliani, are believed to be among the six unindicted co-conspirators in the Washington indictment.

All 19 defendants are accused of engaging in a criminal enterprise under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corruptions (RICO) Act, a state counterpart of the federal law often used against crime syndicates by federal attorneys, such as Giuliani was in the 1980s. The indictment cites 161 individual acts of which the best known is Trump’s phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger seeking to change the Georgia result.

Others in which Trump is involved include pressuring Georgia’s legislative leaders to call special sessions to change the state’s results, the organization of the false electors to replace the duly chosen ones, the court filing of false fraud claims and urging Raffensperger to violate his oath.

One potential complication is the fact that, in all these charges, there are multiple defendants, sometimes including Trump and sometimes not. This could lead to inevitable complications, especially if any of the defendants chooses to cooperate with the prosecutors.

The trial schedule will inevitably overlap with the GOP primary process, which starts with the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses, prompting repeated claims from Trump that the Biden administration is trying to affect the GOP’s choice of an opponent for President Joe Biden.

The real impact – if any – will come if, and when, the former president actually goes on trial and, especially, if he is convicted.

In one sense, the Atlanta indictment is important politically as well as legally in that – like the earlier Washington indictment — it provides a highly detailed factual account of Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results, including some after he left office.

But it may actually have complicated matters by producing a legal case that is so complicated and involves so many people that any trial will be difficult to conduct.

Carl Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. ©2023 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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