Fani Willis proves the skeptics wrong: 18 co-defendants is a big problem for Donald Trump

Yes, a RICO case is tangled and difficult, but one big advantage is emerging: Defendants are fighting each other

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published August 29, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

District Attorney of Fulton County, Georgia, Fani Willis poses for photos in her chambers at the Fulton County Court House in Atlanta, Georgia on Tuesday, August 8, 2023. (Megan Varner for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
District Attorney of Fulton County, Georgia, Fani Willis poses for photos in her chambers at the Fulton County Court House in Atlanta, Georgia on Tuesday, August 8, 2023. (Megan Varner for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

As soon as it became apparent that Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis was likely to charge Donald Trump under RICO statutes for his efforts to steal the 2020 presidential election in Georgia, the hand-wringing began. Many observers feared that charging a whole bunch of people — in this case, 19! — for an alleged conspiracy typically described as "sprawling" would make things needlessly complicated, creating multiple legal pitfalls and potential failure points. 

"Willis might want to consider a simple rule of thumb for all prosecutors: Less is more," wrote Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post before the 98-page Fulton County indictment came down. Rubin worried that Willis was "heading for an overstuffed case that would take far longer than any of the other Trump indictments (or frankly, all indictments combined) to get to trial and then to a verdict."

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These fears are reasonable. Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith indicted Trump on similar charges on a federal level, but went in the opposite direction: Limiting the indictment to four charges and keeping the focus on Trump, with his alleged co-conspirators unindicted, at least for now. Legal experts applauded this decision, arguing that the case would move faster. Indeed, it is now set to go to trial on March 4, 2024. Meanwhile, Willis' own experience shows that RICO cases can sometimes drag on forever: Her prosecution of an alleged organized crime group in Atlanta kicked off in January, and jury selection hasn't even started. 

Yet recent developments suggest that Willis knew what she was doing in the Trump case, and may be wilier than her critics assume. Her long experience with RICO seems to have taught her another lesson, one which is already manifesting within the ranks of the Georgia 19: A conspiracy is only as strong as its weakest members. Yes, Trump and most of his fellow coup plotters tried to put on brave faces for their mug shots, hoping to raise funds for their criminal defense. But these people are not hardened criminals, prepared to go to prison rather than flip on the boss. This is a well-heeled and coddled crowd, distinctly unfamiliar with facing serious consequences for their behavior. The scarier this gets for them, the more they're going to consider the possibility that going to prison on behalf of Donald J. Trump is not a good use of their one wild and precious life. 

Already, cracks are forming in the Georgia 19's alliance. It didn't take long for some of the lower level people in the alleged "criminal enterprise" to start pointing fingers at Trump. David Shafer, the former chair of Georgia's Republican Party, has already filed documents alleging that he was just acting on Trump's orders when he tried to interfere in the election. Two other defendants quickly followed suit, blaming the former president for their alleged or apparent misdeeds. While those people haven't yet become prosecution witnesses, it sure sounds like they're warming to the idea. Add to this the number of people who are angry they have to pay for their own lawyers because their notoriously cheap ex-boss won't do it, and you've got a rapidly thickening baseline of discontent toward the conspiracy's head honcho. 

Things have gotten even more complicated than that. Two of the lawyers involved in the "fake elector" scheme, Kenneth Chesebro and Sidney Powell, have insisted on their right to a speedy trial, which Willis says is just fine. Chesebro has already had his trial date set for Oct. 23. This directly conflicts with Trump's well-known strategy of trying to delay every legal proceeding as long as possible, until it becomes moot. Chesebro has already gotten his case severed from Trump's with this request, but that will create pressure to move the rest of the cases along. 

Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows has requested that his case be moved to federal court, in a motion argued before a judge on Monday. In a Washington Post analysis, Aaron Blake argues that this, along with the demands for speedy trials, creates a whole new set of headaches for Trump. For one thing, all these early trials and hearings will put a lot more evidence out in public, further underscoring how strong the case against Trump is. Other defendants may well decide they have to throw Trump under the bus to save themselves. If either Chesebro or Powell (or both) is convicted, that could well scare other defendants into trying to cut a deal. 

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And all this is just the tip of the iceberg. In innumerable ways, the Georgia 19 face a "hang together or hang separately" situation. Even if no one starts out by seeking a deal, self-interest will inevitably pit them against each other as their various defense attorneys argue that their client is the innocent one who got caught up in another conspirator's evil plans. It's hard to imagine that any of these folks are cut out for this situation. Trump is already complaining that these court proceedings are interfering with his golf schedule. Wait till he and the other 18 find out that you can't play golf in prison! Some are bound to start feeling the need to sing upon learning that information. 

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Of course, what is especially critical is how many of these defendants will wise up and listen to Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen. "Donald doesn't care about you," he warned recently on MSNBC. "He will use you as the scapegoat," he added, explaining that he would know, since he personally did prison time after taking the fall for an earlier Trump crime. Admittedly, Trump has a knack for convincing people that somehow they'll be the exception to the "Trump doesn't care about you" rule. But with this many people in the mix, it's very likely that friends, family members and competent attorneys can convince them that it's unwise to risk your future on a man who literally doesn't care whether you live or die. 

None of which is to say that Jack Smith made a poor decision by limiting his federal indictment to just Trump, for now. Although they deal with the same set of crimes, the Georgia case and the D.C. case are very different, and even serve different purposes. The federal case is more explicitly about protecting civil rights, right down to the law Trump is being tried for breaking, which was written in the 19th century to stop the KKK. Under the circumstances, Smith has good reasons to want his case against Trump to be quick and uncomplicated, and to go to trial relatively soon. 

But Willis is also playing an important part, and not just against Trump but also against anyone who wants to conspire against democracy. From reading both all the reporting on the coup conspiracy and all the evidence in the indictments, you get the impression that many of Trump's lackeys got involved because they had a romantic view of participating in a coup, which sounded full of clever intrigue and derring-do. Now they're being exposed as a bunch of clowns, whose fantasies of a populist insurrection didn't match up with the uglier realities. For others who might be considering their own seditious schemes, watching these rodents scramble trying to save themselves, is likely an instructive image. The Republican Party has long made a virtue out of selfishness, after all. This crew is likely to default to the core GOP message of "screw other people and save yourself."


By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary Donald Trump Fani Willis Fulton County Georgia Indictment Jack Smith