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Plea deals pose threat to Trump in election case

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

We toss around the word unprecedented a lot when we talk about former President Donald Trump. And when you say something so many times, it starts to blur and to lose its effect. But it always needs to be said, because no other president has been impeached twice. No other president has faced criminal charges, let alone criminal charges tied to an effort to overturn a presidential election and stay in power. And no other president, with all of that, has still positioned himself as a frontrunner to once again win a presidential nomination.

All of this is playing out right now in federal and state courtrooms, and sometimes it is really hard to follow the flow and figure out what matters in the bigger picture and what's more incremental. So we're going to take a few minutes today to try to make sense of the big news surrounding Trump on trial this week. And we will start in Georgia. Trump and 18 others faced racketeering and conspiracy charges to overturn the 2020 election. This week, two of his former lawyers, Sidney Powell and Kenneth Chesebro, pleaded guilty to reduced charges.

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SCOTT MCAFEE: And 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?

KENNETH CHESEBRO: I do.

DETROW: So what does their plea deal mean for their former co-defendant, Donald Trump? I am joined by my colleague, senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: And former federal prosecutor and current Georgetown law professor Paul Butler. Hey, Paul.

PAUL BUTLER: Hi, Scott.

DETROW: So let's start with this guilty plea. And, Domenico, remind us about Sidney Powell, especially in the role that she played in Trump's attempts to overturn the election.

MONTANARO: Well, Sidney Powell was an attorney for Donald Trump. You know, she helped really orchestrate his legal efforts to try to overturn the 2020 election, which Trump lost and then decided to say that, hey, he - this thing was rigged, which there's absolutely no evidence of. In fact, there's proof that it wasn't because it went to court over 60 times. They lost over 60 times. And Powell was really at the center of a lot of this spreading, baseless claims of widespread election fraud and - that just didn't exist.

DETROW: The two moments you need to remember about Sidney Powell to tell you a lot about her role was, first of all, she was standing next to Rudy Giuliani at that November press conference when he had the - it probably was hair dye, we don't know for sure, dripping down his face. One of her quotes was, "this is a massive influence of communist money through Venezuela, Cuba and likely China and the interference with our elections" - just spinning this massive global conspiracy. She was also in the Oval Office for a December meeting where people talked about, with President Trump, possibly seizing voting machines through the federal government. This is something that, of course, did not happen and would have created a massive constitutional crisis. But those were the roles that she played in all of this.

Paul, given all of that, were you surprised by the fact that she pleaded guilty?

BUTLER: Guilty pleas are really common in conspiracies with a lot of defendants like this case. These are two high-level attorneys in Donald Trump's orbit. If they'd been convicted of the racketeering charges, they would have faced minimum sentences of five to 20 years. Now they're both getting off with probation. Two advantages for prosecutors here. First, both of these witnesses have agreed to testify truthfully against the remaining 16 defendants. The other advantage for the prosecutors is that if these cases had gone to trial as scheduled next week, a lot of the prosecutors' evidence and strategy would have been revealed to the other co-defendants. And prosecutors don't like to show their hand until they absolutely have to, which now won't be until the remaining defendants go on trial.

MONTANARO: And them testifying really is a key portion of a lot of this, because this is what a RICO case is essentially built on. The idea is to go from the bottom up to get to the top. And once you can get all the people on the bottom, it's like a house of cards that just sort of collapses. And you can kind of have a net that takes in everybody. And that person at the top right now is Donald Trump, the former president who's running for the Republican nomination, is the frontrunner for that. And we have this collision of the political and legal calendar that we've never seen before.

DETROW: And, Paul, is there any sense - I mean, we're talking about the Georgia trial, which is broadly about the effort to deny and overturn the election. There's, of course, a separate federal trial about the same topic. Does a plea deal in the state-level case affect in any way the parallel federal case?

BUTLER: Their guilty pleas in Georgia almost certainly incriminate them in a potential federal prosecution. So it's likely that soon their lawyers will be in discussion with the special counsel, Jack Smith, to see if there's a deal to be made.

DETROW: OK. So that's Georgia. Let's head up the East Coast now to New York, where a civil fraud trial is already underway. This focus is on Trump's real estate empire, and it threatens his ability to keep doing business in New York. As a refresher, in a pre-trial decision last month, the judge in the case has already ruled that Trump and his company had fraudulently inflated the value of their assets. And I'll note that Trump was hit this week with a $5,000 fine by the judge in this case for violating a gag order and attacking on social media a court staffer. But next week, in this case, Michael Cohen is going to be testifying.

Domenico, I feel like Michael Cohen is somebody, in some sense, we don't need a reminder of.

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

DETROW: But it's been so long, and so many things have happened. Remind us who Michael Cohen is, why he matters.

MONTANARO: This is somebody who was essentially Donald Trump's fixer, his consigliere, if you will. He was somebody who wound up flipping on Trump when the heat started to come on him because of Trump essentially pushing money through Cohen to pay women who Trump was allegedly having an affair with, including the adult film actress Stormy Daniels.

DETROW: Which, of course, became one of the other criminal trials that Trump is facing right now.

MONTANARO: Right. I mean, there's just a handful of stuff that Michael Cohen has been at the center of, including testifying before the January 6 Select Committee on Capitol Hill.

DETROW: Paul, what do you think? What are you expecting to hear from Cohen next week, and why do you think it matters?

BUTLER: His testimony could help the New York attorney general rebut Trump's defense in the fraud case, which is focused on blaming subordinates like accountants and appraisers for any issues with how the properties were valued. So Cohen could testify as to how involved Trump was in preparing the documents that prosecutors say were fraudulent.

DETROW: What do you think is at stake here for Trump, and how, if at all, does it connect to the other cases we're talking about?

BUTLER: The New York attorney general's office is asking for $250 million. Trump might actually have to pay that, along with the other co-defendants. That would mean that he has to liquidate a lot of his assets in New York, including possibly Trump Tower. So it would have a huge impact on his brand and on his pocketbook.

MONTANARO: You know, the question for me is, are we going to see the smoking gun, the evidence that Trump was calling the shots? Because he's been famous for trying not to keep a paper trail or an electronic trail. And I'm really curious to see in discovery, in all the evidence that's brought forward, do we have a real clean connection that says Trump knew and Trump was calling the shots?

DETROW: That's Georgetown law professor, former federal prosecutor Paul Butler, as well as senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Thanks to both of you.

BUTLER: Always a pleasure.

MONTANARO: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.