Oct 25, 2023

Trump's associates plead guilty in Georgia.

Trump's associates plead guilty in Georgia.
Shutterstock/Trevor Bexon

Are his former allies flipping?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

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Several former Trump associates and lawyers have pleaded guilty in Georgia. Are they flipping? Plus, a reader question about the 2017 tax cuts.

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Quick hits.

  1. House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-MN) abruptly dropped out of the Speaker race just hours after becoming the nominee. House GOP Vice Chair Mike Johnson (R-LA) was nominated to replace him Tuesday night. (The race)
  2. Dozens of state attorneys general sued Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, for lying about how addictive and damaging their products were for children and teenagers. (The lawsuit)
  3. The total number of legal abortions in the U.S. increased in the year after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, though they decreased sharply in states with bans or strict limits. (The estimates)
  4. Eight people were killed and 68 were injured when a "superfog" led to a 168-car pileup on an interstate in Louisiana. (The accidents)
  5. Israel carried out an estimated 400 airstrikes in Gaza yesterday while a planned ground invasion is reportedly being delayed to negotiate more hostage releases. (The strikes)

Today's topic.

The guilty pleas in Georgia. In less than a week, three of Trump’s former associates have agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in the Georgia election interference case and pleaded guilty to charges brought by District Attorney Fani Willis.

Reminder: In August, Willis indicted former President Donald Trump and 18 co-conspirators for allegedly participating in a conspiracy to unlawfully change the outcome of an election. The 98-page indictment detailed 41 counts of criminal charges including conspiracy to commit forgery, influencing witnesses, computer theft, and filing false documents. She used Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) statute as the foundation of the indictment.

The first of Trump’s lawyers to file a guilty plea was Sidney Powell, who helped spread baseless claims about the election being stolen via Dominion Voting Systems machines. She pleaded guilty to six misdemeanor counts last week, accepting a sentence of six years of probation for six counts of conspiracy to commit intentional interference with performance of election duties. 

Two days later, Kenneth Chesebro, who helped plan the effort to deploy fake Trump electors in Georgia and other swing states, pleaded guilty to a single felony charge of conspiracy and was sentenced to five years of probation in exchange for his cooperation. He had been charged with seven felonies, including a state racketeering charge. Both would have faced lengthy prison sentences if found guilty.

Then, on Tuesday, high-profile former Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis, who claimed she was part of the "elite strike force team" that was going to overturn the election, pleaded guilty to a felony charge of aiding and abetting false statements and writings. She was sentenced to five years of probation, $5,000 in restitution and 100 hours of community service. In a tearful statement to the court, she apologized for her conduct.

"If I knew then what I know now, I would have declined to represent Donald Trump in these post election challenges," Ellis said. "I look back on this experience with deep remorse. For those failures of mine, your honor, I’ve taken responsibility already before the Colorado Bar, who censured me, and I now take responsibility before this court and apologize to the people of Georgia."

Scott Hall, a bail bondsman charged with helping Powell breach voting equipment and data at a Georgia election office in , also pleaded guilty in the case last month.

Powell, Chesebro, and Ellis pleading guilty marks a major turning point in the case, and opens the door for Willis to access Trump's inner circle in a way that court-watchers were unsure she’d be able to.

After Powell pleaded guilty, Trump claimed she was “never” his attorney, despite the fact she served on his legal team in 2020 (Trump announced her addition to the team in a public social media post on November 15, 2020). Powell and Trump both maintain that she never signed an engagement agreement to be his attorney. Trump said Ellis’s plea deal was “too bad” but he didn’t know anything about it, and emphasized “we’re totally innocent of everything, that’s political persecution is all it is.” His lawyers said the plea deal was evidence Willis was using the RICO charges, which carry a five-year minimum sentence, as a “bargaining chip” to force people into plea deals.

Today, we’re going to examine some reactions to the plea deals from the right and left, then my take.


What the right is saying.

  • The right is mixed in their reactions to the multiple plea deals, with some acknowledging it is ominous for Trump and others arguing it points to a weak case.
  • Some suggest the testimony from Ellis, Chesebro, and Powell could deal a fatal blow to Trump’s defense in the case.
  • Others criticize DA Willis for overcharging defendants to compel them to flip on Trump.

In National Review, Andrew C. McCarthy said these plea bargains point to a "wildly overcharged" case.

Fani Willis has "hyped her prosecution" of Donald Trump and 17 others "as a racketeering-conspiracy case, depicting the former president as the head of an organized-crime enterprise," McCarthy said. "I have contended that Willis does not have a RICO case under Georgia’s analogue to the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1971. The throng Willis has indicted did not function as an identifiable criminal 'enterprise' as defined in RICO, and she lacks a single criminal objective as to which she can say all 19 defendants agreed."

"Because all four guilty-plea defendants are now cooperating with the state, the lack of a RICO plea is telling: Ordinarily, prosecutors require the first cooperators in a major case to plead guilty to the major charges, offering them sentencing leniency in exchange for their testimony against other defendants," McCarthy said. “But not only have none of Willis’s cooperators conceded that there was a RICO conspiracy, much less pled guilty to it; none of them faces even a single day of imprisonment."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote about “the Trumpian tragedy of Jenna Ellis.”  

“The press is playing up the legal significance of the plea deals, as if Ms. Ellis can now release the Kraken on Mr. Trump, to steal Ms. Powell’s indelible 2020 catchphrase. But it’s difficult to know how much dirt these attorneys really have on the former President, and some of his potential defenses are legal, not factual,” the board said. DA Willis’s “legal theories remain untested, and if she overcharged her case, it could redound to Mr. Trump’s political benefit, which is what he most cares about.”

“The plea deals by his former loyalists underscore how Mr. Trump’s tantrum after the 2020 election harmed everyone who has been associated with it. That includes the country in more poisonous politics, the Republican Party in lost elections, media hosts in lost reputations, and the many former advisers who find themselves in the legal dock. The tragedy of Ms. Ellis is that she followed Mr. Trump’s pied-piper claims and now finds her career ruined, while the man she believed in uses what she now admits are falsehoods to march again to the White House.”

In The Federalist, Margot Cleveland argued Powell’s plea deal proves DA Willis “went nuclear to get Trump.”

“Willis basically extorted a guilty plea from Powell by charging her with seven serious felonies… With a jury culled from deep-blue Fulton County, the risk of a conviction on even one of the felony counts, and the consequential loss of her law license, would be just too great of a chance for any defendant to take — especially when the plea only involved misdemeanors that would be discharged from Powell’s record following probation. Under these circumstances, it would have been lunacy for Powell to have rejected the plea offer.

“But what reason would Willis have to offer such a favorable deal? None, if Willis truly believed Powell committed the felonies for which she was charged and Willis had the evidence to prove them,” Cleveland wrote. “The answer seems clear: Powell hadn’t committed the felonies, and Willis never thought she had. But she overcharged Powell to add gravitas to the supposed election conspiracy claims and to make an offer for a first-offender misdemeanor plea deal an offer too good to refuse.”


What the left is saying.

  • The left believes the plea deals are a sign that Trump is losing the case in Georgia. 
  • Some celebrate that Ellis, Chesebro, and Powell are finally admitting to the falsehoods they pushed about the 2020 election.
  • Others expect more defendants in the case to take similar deals as their trial dates near.

In the Washington Post, Philip Bump explored the “layers of falsehoods” that led to Ellis’s deal.

“The fundamental failure of Donald Trump’s effort to subvert the results of the 2020 presidential election was that it was predicated on complete nonsense. Trump and his attorneys… seized upon any allegation of fraud or any analysis that presented an opportunity for skepticism about the results and offered them up as valid. Even, in many cases, after it had been made obvious that the claims were not valid,” Bump said. “What’s important to recognize, though, is that this credulousness almost certainly wasn’t limited to rank-and-file Trump voters. It clearly extended in most cases to Trump himself, to Giuliani and to Ellis.”

As Trump attempted to contest the 2020 election result, “dubious claims from unreliable actors were used to amplify questions about fraud; those questions were then used to present those and subsequent claims as reliable. Ellis was simply one spigot for the misinformation, one who now claims that she did so unconsciously. In representing Trump, she helped add layers to this house of cards. The core problem, again, was that it was almost all nonsense, that almost none of it was credible. But credibility wasn’t the goal, utility was.”

In the Los Angeles Times, Dennis Aftergut said Chesebro and Powell’s deals are “dire for Donald Trump.”

“The two pleas show Willis’ strategy is unfolding precisely as designed — working up the ladder with testimony from the lesser participants to the top defendants in the alleged conspiracy,” Aftergut wrote. “The plea deals for Chesebro and Powell matter for two main reasons. First, both lawyers stood on high rungs of the ladder, very close to the top. Second, avoiding a trial for either is a win for Willis.”

“Powell has firsthand testimony to give about Giuliani,” while “Chesebro worked with both Eastman and Giuliani, each of whom worked intimately with Trump.”  With these deals, “Chesebro and Powell seem destined to testify against Trump, and the odds that Eastman and Giuliani plead skyrocket. If that happens, Trump’s prospects of escaping a conviction could dim considerably.” Chesebro and Powell will face personal consequences for pleading guilty, but their deals are “even worse news for Giuliani, Eastman and Trump.”

In Slate, Robert Katzberg suggested the plea deals will “torch Trump’s planned defense.”

“Now that both Chesebro and Powell are cooperating witnesses, the pressure on Giuliani and Eastman to plead and cooperate is exponentially higher. That the significant cooperation under discussion involves four of Trump’s attorneys underscores the reality that the former president’s regularly touted defense that he was relying on the good-faith guidance of his attorneys during the attempted coup was, and is, nothing more than self-serving fantasy.” Katzberg wrote. 

“Long before the Powell and Chesebro deals were announced, the absurdity of expecting any Trump attorney’s testimony to be anything but harmful to his cause was made crystal clear by Michael Cohen. More recently, when Trump lawyer Evan Corcoran was forced to testify against the former president based on the ‘crime fraud’ exception to the attorney-client privilege, the testimony he gave and the internal memos he was compelled to produce, proved not to be shields for the former president, but swords to be wielded against him—as it is with Powell and Chesebro, and so it will be with others.”


My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • For me, a lot of this is personal — and gratifying.
  • It is important to understand that Powell, Ellis, and Chesebro played a major role in spreading lies about election fraud.
  • However, this may not be the major breakthrough in this case people think it is.

I have to admit that part of this is gratifying.

Just as a big chunk of you recently found my work through my writing on the attacks in Israel, many of you found Tangle through some of my reporting and tweeting about claims of election fraud. I started tracking allegations of fraud before the first vote was cast in the 2020 election, and I kept up with it through the election in real time. I went on radio shows offering cash rewards to guests who could call in and "prove" election fraud to me. I wrote several Tangle newsletters about claims of election fraud — from the immediate claims in the days after the election all the way up to the 2,000 Mules documentary. I've debated the issue on stage and continue to track new claims as they pop up.

Throughout that time, I've taken a tremendous amount of heat. Not just from Jenna Ellis, who once mocked me on X/Twitter when I fact-checked her claims about fraud, but also Sidney Powell, whose baseless allegations about voter fraud were so persuasive to so many Tangle readers that I lost hundreds of subscribers when I explained how I knew they were false. Some of our readers left because of Ellis's and Powell's lies. It was, without question, one of the most difficult times of my career. I knew what was true and what wasn't, and I tried to communicate it to my conservative readers who trusted my opinion but desperately wanted me to be wrong. I convinced some. I didn’t convince others, who still stuck around. But I lost many.

So, seeing Ellis apologize in court nearly three years after trying to publicly drag me for my claims feels good. Doubly so for Powell, who has now admitted in various ways that her claims were false, and whose story has been undermined by news outlets like Fox News that were forced to concede in court they knew her claims were false.

But much more important than scoring the past is soberly considering the future implications. To that end, I thought Andrew McCarthy's observations (under "What the right is saying") were astute. Jenna Ellis’s plea is chin-scratching. She did not plead guilty to the crime she was initially charged for, and Willis instead introduced a new single-count charge accusing her of aiding and abetting false statements and writings (that is, she assisted more senior counsel in providing false information to state officials). This is a condemnable act, but it is an ocean away from a RICO charge.

This kind of development lends credence to what many conservatives said early on about this massive indictment: That Willis reached for more serious crimes than she could prosecute as a cudgel to force some people to "flip" with the aim of doing legal and political damage to Trump. So while it was satisfying to see Ellis admit to lying (or not doing "due diligence," as she evasively put it in court), I think McCarthy is also right that it's "wishful thinking" that the cooperation of Ellis, Powell, and Chesebro is sure to sink Trump. "Again," he noted, "none of the defendants has pled guilty to racketeering nor provided any indication that Trump and his remaining co-defendants violated RICO."

However, this isn’t exactly good news for Trump. We know from other reporting that Powell was the one who suggested the ridiculous idea to seize voting machines, an idea Trump rejected in a December 2020 meeting. But what else was discussed? What other conversations was she privy to? What ideas did she suggest that Trump and his team actually acted on? If she had that kind of access a month after the election — in the heat of the fight to overturn the results — prosecutors are likely to find more out with her cooperation. Chesebro appears to have had even more access, and while Ellis was less integral to the team she was certainly involved. Their information and testimony is a real threat.

The public revelation that three lawyers close to Trump are now conceding some kind of wrongdoing and admitting to false statements about the election should (but probably won't) convince some of the 69% of Republicans who still think Biden's win was not legitimate. Regardless of what happens to Trump, I remain hopeful this case will clear some of the fog about the claims this election was stolen.

For now, though, I still have many of the same questions I had two months ago. Some of the charges in the indictment seem obviously criminal to me, while others do not. These plea deals further complicate that reality. Logistically, I have no idea how Willis will navigate the case in election season, or get all these people in court. And don't forget: Trump promised that part of his defense would be proof the election was actually stolen, a defense he has yet to reveal (and almost assuredly won't attempt to use). There is a lot more to come before we know where this is headed, so I’ll remain patient on any prognostication. For now. 


Your questions, answered.

Q: Were the results of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act effective? Did it cost the government money or did it return more than it paid out in tax reduction?

— HPM from Kingsport, TN

Tangle: I’ll give you the simple answer first: the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) did not pay for itself.

Here’s what the TCJA did do: It reduced the tax rate in almost all income brackets. It lowered the average federal tax rate from 20.8% to 19.3% for all filers, from 1.2% to 0% for the bottom 20% of earners, and from 31.7% to 30.2% for the top 1%. It also eliminated personal exemptions and the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), increased the child tax credit, simplified business filings, created incentives for new small business development, and a host of other things to decrease taxation and encourage more investment in business. 

The TCJA was successful in cutting levels of taxation across the board, but was criticized as disproportionately favoring the wealthy. Critics point to a few features of the reform to make this claim: It lowered the income threshold for deducting medical expenses and allowed anyone at any income level to itemize their deductions, which made refunds more favorable for high earners. It also raised the floor for the alternative minimum tax and raised the threshold for the estate tax, both of which benefit higher income earners. But it didn’t only benefit the rich. Personally, I was making about $60,000 per year when the cuts were passed, and I saw an immediate increase in my take-home pay (which made me a fan).

All of these changes, except for the elimination of the ACA’s individual mandate, are set to expire by 2025, which means that more holistic answers will be available (and probably more widely published) by then. However, we have enough data to draw a reasonable conclusion now.

According to the Brookings Institution, the TCJA ended up raising less tax revenue than the administration projected and stimulated the economy less than expected. “Despite the tax cut, a multi-hundred billion dollar budget deal in 2018, and favorable movements in oil prices and oil-related investments, GDP growth in 2018 was only 2.5 percent, below the Administration’s estimate of 3 percent,” according to Brookings.

And while the Brookings Institution has a reputation for generally unbiased reports, you don’t have to take their word for it. You can take the Wall Street Journal’s. “The bottom line: It seems clear the tax cuts contributed to economic growth—but not enough to pay for themselves, as many backers promised,” according to their 2020 report

Does this mean it was “bad policy” or not worth it? That's a different question. For plenty of people, the upside is still there. I could make a case it was still a net positive as a piece of legislation. But I think it is fair to say it was not “effective” in the sense that it didn’t do exactly what its backers said it would, and the data seems clear it did not return more than it paid out in tax reduction.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


Under the radar.

Hong Kong is planning to give $2,500 stipends to new parents and cut taxes on home purchases to encourage more children for its shrinking population. Hong Kong has the lowest fertility rate in the world. 140,000 working age people fled between 2020 and 2022 (its total population is 7.4 million). The decision to give government handouts to encourage more childbirth and stimulate the economy could be a preview of how other nations — including the United States, where fertility rates have also declined — navigate the same issue. Semafor has the story.


Numbers.

  • 10,000. The number of dead people Rudy Giuliani alleged voted in Georgia, a false statement that Jenna Ellis was charged with aiding and abetting.
  • 66,000. The number of people under the age of 18 Rudy Giuliani alleged voted in Georgia, a false statement that Jenna Ellis was charged with aiding and abetting.
  • 39%. The percentage of Republican-aligned adults who say there is solid evidence proving the election was not legitimate.
  • 30%. The percentage of Republican-aligned adults who say it is merely their suspicion that the election was not legitimate.
  • 29%. The percentage of Republican-aligned adults who say Biden legitimately won the election.
  • 58%. The percentage of all Americans who say that they are just a little or not at all confident that elections will reflect the public's will.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we covered the court challenge to student debt cancellation.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was Bill O'Reilly's Tangle shoutout. "It's pretty good."
  • Read My Lips: 921 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking what the one most effective way to decrease the deficit is, with 37% saying to increase tax revenue. 20% said eliminate federal departments, 11% said cut/reform Social Security, 10% said cut/reform the military budget, 3% said cut/reform Medicare, and 1% were unsure or had no opinion. 17% selected “Other (please do not combine responses),” with almost every answer being either to collect taxes (which was covered by tax revenue), cut spending in general (which ignored the prompt), or all of the above (which was prohibited). We anxiously await some of your self-corrections!
  • Nothing to do with politics: The great library map.
  • Take the poll. How do you think the latest guilty pleas will affect Trump? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

Heman Bekele, a 9th grader at W.T. Woodson High School in Annandale, Virginia, was awarded a $25,000 grand prize for winning the 2023 3M Young Scientist Challenge. His winning submission? A treatment for melanoma in the form of a bar of soap. Bekele said he was inspired to study accessible skin cancer treatments when he discovered that the recovery rate of melanoma in the U.S. compared to sub-Saharan Africa is 99% to 20%. By combining simple compounds in the soap that kept costs low, he was able to create a product that stimulates the activity of dendritic cells which act as protectors of skin cells. Bekele’s innovative solution has won him the country’s premier middle school science contest, according him the prestigious title of “America’s Top Young Scientist.” Good News Network has the story.


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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.