When Jenna Ellis last week became the most recent lawyer to join in an accelerating series of guilty pleas in the Fulton County, Ga., prosecution of Donald Trump and his co-conspirators, she offered a powerful repudiation of the “Big Lie” that could potentially cut the legs out from under Donald Trump’s defense, make her a star witness for prosecutors and a potent weapon against the former president’s political ambitions.
Ms. Ellis admitted that the allegations of election fraud she peddled as an advocate for the effort to overturn the 2020 election were false. Two other plea deals, from Kenneth Chesebro and Sidney Powell, have been important, but Ms. Ellis is in a unique position to aid prosecutors in the Georgia case and possibly even the parallel federal one — as well as Mr. Trump’s opponents in the court of public opinion.
Ms. Ellis pleaded guilty to a felony count of aiding and abetting the false statements made by co-defendants (including Rudy Giuliani) to the Georgia Senate about supposed voting fraud in the 2020 presidential election. These included that “10,315 or more dead people voted” in Georgia, “at least 96,000 mail-in ballots were counted” erroneously and “2,506 felons voted illegally.”
These lies were at the cutting edge of Mr. Trump’s assault on the election. Both the state and federal criminal prosecutions allege that Mr. Trump and his co-conspirators knowingly deployed falsehoods like these in their schemes to overturn the election.
Ms. Ellis emerged from her plea hearing as a likely star witness for prosecutors, starting with the one who secured her cooperation, the Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis. Unlike Mr. Chesebro and Ms. Powell, in pleading guilty Ms. Ellis spoke in detail about her “responsibilities as a lawyer.” Tearing up, she talked about the due diligence that “I did not do but should have done” and her “deep remorse for those failures of mine.” The judge, a tough former prosecutor, thanked her for sharing that and noted how unusual it was for a defendant to do so.
Trials are about the evidence and the law. But they are also theater, and the jury is the audience. In this case, the jury is not the only audience — the Georgia trials will be televised, so many Americans will also be tuned in. Ms. Ellis is poised to be a potent weapon against Mr. Trump in the courtroom and on TVs.
That is bad news for her former co-defendants — above all, Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Trump. Ms. Ellis was most closely associated with Mr. Giuliani, appearing by his side in Georgia and across the country. If her court appearance last week is any indication, she will be a compelling guide to his alleged misconduct. She will also add to what is known about it; she and Mr. Giuliani undoubtedly had many conversations that are not yet public and that will inform the jury. And because Mr. Giuliani was the senior lawyer on the case, her pointed statement that she was misled by attorneys “with many more years of experience” hits him directly.
Ms. Ellis’s likely trial testimony will also hit Mr. Trump hard. She has now effectively repudiated his claims that he won the election — an argument that is expected to be a centerpiece of his trial defense. Coming from a formerly outspoken MAGA champion, her disagreement has the potential to resonate with jurors.
It also builds on substantial other evidence against the former president, which includes voluminous witness testimony collected by the House Jan. 6 committee indicating that many advisers told him the election was not stolen — and that in private he repeatedly admitted as much.
Ms. Ellis’s testimony may also compromise one of Mr. Trump’s main defenses. He has made clear he intends to claim he relied on advice of counsel. But that defense is available only if the lawyers are not part of the alleged crimes. Ms. Ellis’s plea puts her squarely within the conspiracy, as do those of Mr. Chesebro and Ms. Powell. That will hamper Mr. Trump’s effort to present a reliance-on-counsel defense.
In comparing Ms. Ellis to the two other lawyers who pleaded guilty, it is also critical to note that she is promising full cooperation with Ms. Willis. Mr. Chesebro and Ms. Powell have important contributions to make to the prosecution, but they merely agreed to provide documents, preview their testimony and testify truthfully if called.
Ms. Ellis took the additional step of also agreeing “to fully cooperate with prosecutors,” which could include doing interviews with prosecutors, “appearing for evidentiary hearings, and assisting in pretrial matters.”
To our knowledge, Ms. Ellis is not yet cooperating with prosecutors in the federal case led by the special counsel Jack Smith, but if she does, she would have a comparative advantage for the prosecution over Mr. Chesebro and Ms. Powell: They are identified as unindicted co-conspirators in that case and would be more problematic for Mr. Smith to deal with. He may not, for example, be willing to immunize them should they assert their privilege against self-incrimination, since that would hamper prosecuting them. But because he has not named Ms. Ellis among Mr. Trump’s alleged federal co-conspirators, he may feel more free to extend immunity to secure her valuable testimony. (He has reportedly done just that with Mark Meadows, a former Trump White House chief of staff.)
Ms. Ellis’s guilty plea may also have political reverberations. It is riveting to see a MAGA champion who helped lead the election assault tearfully admitting she and that effort misled the American people. Her court appearance was live-streamed and repeated in a loop on television and social media.
Looking ahead in the Georgia case, the judge just got back the five months that he had set aside for the Chesebro and Powell trial. Even if Mr. Trump manages to postpone appearing before a Georgia jury during that window, the trial of other defendants could begin within it — and certainly during 2024. That means Ms. Ellis and other existing and potential witnesses against Mr. Trump will likely be critical not only in the legal arena, but the political one.
With Mr. Trump showing no signs of backing down from his claims of 2020 election fraud and a new election upon us, Ms. Ellis’s plea — like the televised Jan. 6 committee testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson, another Trump insider who turned on him with powerful effect — could be a potential turning point in the court of public opinion. When Mr. Trump’s lies are repeated in the future, in whatever venue, expect to see Ms. Ellis often.
Norman Eisen was special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the first impeachment of Donald Trump. Amy Lee Copeland, a former federal prosecutor, is a criminal defense and appellate lawyer in Savannah, Ga.
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