Trump allies are finally admitting election lies were all made up. But the conspiracies still fuel US politics

Lawyers who tried to overturn 2020 results knew they were wrong. They will have to testify against the former president, but their conspiracy theories are still fuelling Republican politics, legal experts tell Alex Woodward

Tuesday 31 October 2023 10:02 GMT
(Getty Images)

They were some of the most prominent personalities at the heart of a campaign to toss out millions of Americans’ votes.

Sidney Powell promoted debunked conspiracy theories about voting machines flipping votes for Donald Trump. Kenneth Chesebro pushed a scheme to replace electors with Trump loyalists. Jenna Ellis joined a failed legal effort to overturn election results in states he lost.

In quick succession this month, all three pleaded guilty to crimes connected to a sprawling investigation in Georgia targeting the former president and 18 others who joined an alleged criminal enterprise to illegally reject the state’s presidential election results in 2020.

Their plea deals – among the first from the former president’s one-time inner circle of attorneys – could shape the trajectory of his upcoming criminal trial in the state. All three defendants have agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and testify.

Those former Trump-allied attorneys also admitted that the dubious and conspiracy theory-fuelled legal arguments at the heart of their efforts were wrong.

That campaign may have fallen apart, but the lies behind it are still alive.

“The dam hasn’t broken yet on election denialism,” according to Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. “I think that will be part of American politics, and there are going to be people wedded to that idea – despite the fact that some of the key players in the case are publicly admitting, under legal duress, that they made this all up.”

Former Trump attorney Jenna Ellis cries as she pleads guilty to election crimes

Nearly three years after 2020 elections, a movement amplifying conspiracy theories and false narratives supported by Mr Trump and his allies continues to fuel Republican politics and campaigns for political offices that run the nation’s elections.

That movement failed to gain any new ground in 2022, but it’s percolating in 2024 elections and has reached a seat of power only second in line for the White House.

Mike Johnson, the newly elected Speaker of the House of Representatives, corralled dozens of House Republicans to pressure the US Supreme Court to join a Texas lawsuit that would overturn President Joe Biden’s victories in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in 2020.

Jeff Landry, the next governor of Louisiana, also rounded up a coalition of Republican attorneys general to join the Texas lawsuit.

Since 2020, an election denier has run for at least one of the top three statewide offices that oversee elections in at least 42 states, according to an analysis from States United Action.

At least 23 candidates who have denied the outcome of the 2020 election or have elected conspiracy theories about elections are serving as either governor, attorney general or secretary of state in 17 states, the report found.

Republican-led legislation to rewrite the rules of election administration to protect GOP officials continues to surface in state legislatures across the country, motivated by an “election integrity” campaign driven by false claims that the 2020 election didn’t have any.

Guilty pleas and potential testimony from three attorneys who elevated those claims could punch holes in the former president’s defence, but “there just hasn’t been enough contrition and full acknowledgement of what was wrong,” Ms Gillespie told The Independent.

“You have lawyers who were involved in the case in the rooms where it happened, planning this dubious legal strategy to try to overturn the results of the 2022 election,” she added, “and then you also have a new Speaker of the House who was on the record questioning the results of the election, and who helped craft a brief of a failed legal attempt to try to overturn the results.”

‘Damaging the narrative’

Nearly three years later, candidates gripping on to election conspiracy theories in the aftermath of 2020 “are more interested in protecting their power than our democracy,” according to Xakota Espinoza, director of strategic communications for Georgia-based voting rights organisation Fair Fight.

“Donald Trump led a criminal conspiracy to rob Georgia voters of their voice in our democracy. Now, he and those who joined in that conspiracy have to answer for it in court,” she told The Independent.

Mr Trump, meanwhile, continues to raise millions of dollars for his campaign by elevating a corrosive narrative that casts himself as a victim of political persecution.

But “that whole idea rests in large part on the assumption that everybody on the other side of the defendants’ column … agrees that they all did nothing wrong,” Georgia State University law professor Anthony Michael Kreis told The Independent.

Jenna Ellis reacts with her lawyers after reading a statement pleading guilty to a felony connected to Georgia election interference case on 24 October
Jenna Ellis reacts with her lawyers after reading a statement pleading guilty to a felony connected to Georgia election interference case on 24 October (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Instead, Chesebro, Ellis and Powell now are “on the record admitting that they did something unlawful, admitting that they were part of a criminal conspiracy, and admitting that the things that they were engaged in in Georgia are worthy of an apology that they voluntarily proffered,” he added.

Their admission is “damaging to the narrative that this is all made up, that it’s not legitimate, that it’s just a partisan power grab,” Mr Kreis said.

That those admissions came from three lawyers “is important for the material facts of the case and the prosecution,” which can now put them on the stand to testify to the alleged conspiracy at the centre of the case, Ms Gillespie said.

Mr Kreis said that it remains unclear what impacts the admissions from Ellis and others will have among Republican voters and conspiracy theorists who insist that the election was stolen, but their potential testimonies during a televised, closely watched trial could resonate outside the courtroom.

Kenneth Chesebro speaks to Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee during a plea hearing in Atlanta, Georgia on 20 October
Kenneth Chesebro speaks to Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee during a plea hearing in Atlanta, Georgia on 20 October (EPA)

“That could be of tremendous political importance in terms of the national conversation and debate about what happened in 2020 and in the wake of the forces that have been continuing to gain strength and live on,” he told The Independent.

“We can see how these developments in Georgia and Washington DC might very well be important for safeguarding democratic values, but they might play a role in gaining steam and continuing the momentum for candidates who are going to see democracy as a core in campaigning,” he said. “It shows just how delicate things are right now, and to what extent can these developments in Georgia and potentially in Washington DC in the special counsel’s trial … make it harder for election deniers to gain political traction.”

‘Nailing the big fish’

Through tears, Jenna Ellis told a judge she would have declined to represent the former president if she “knew then what I know now.”

“As an attorney who is also a Christian, I take my responsibilities as a lawyer very seriously,” Ellis told Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee on 24 October.

“I endeavored to represent my client to the best of my ability,” she added. “What I did not do ... was ensure the facts ... were, in fact, true.”

At least six other defendants are reportedly speaking with prosecutors with the office of Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis about potential plea agreements – except Mr Trump, Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman.

The plea agreements with Chesebro, Ellis and Powell potentially saved them from facing several years in prison and tens of thousands of dollars in fines, if they were convicted by a jury at trial.

Attorneys for Mr Trump have argued that the cases were flimsy to begin with, with plea deals dropping the central racketeering charge that faced all of the defendants and tied them together under a sweeping RICO statute.

Courtroom testimony from former Trump-linked attorneys – not their pleas – is a more potent and compelling piece of evidence against those bigger fish, according to legal experts.

Ultimately, prosecutors “want cooperation, they want testimony, and above everything else, the DA did not want to have two different trials,” Mr Kreis told The Independent.

Chesebro and Powell were set to be tried together separately from the other defendants in the case, but prosecutors were likely going to rely on the same mountains of evidence and witness testimony.

Now, prosecutors are staring at a leaner list of defendants with that same arsenal of arguments against them.

“I think what they wanted to do was winnow down the number of defendants … with the exception of the big fish they want to truly nail,” Mr Kreis said.

“Think about that conspiracy as a wheel. There are various conspiracies that make up the spokes,” he added. “When you put it together, it shows how the broader racketeering enterprise was formed.”

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