Trump Won’t Be on Trial in Georgia Case This Fall, but His Presence Will Be Felt

Within weeks, jury selection in Fulton County, Ga. will be underway. Cameras will be in the courtroom. And prosecutors will present their case alleging a sprawling conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election results in the state.

But the star defendant — former President Donald J. Trump — won’t be there.

Instead, the defendants in the first trial in the racketeering case against Mr. Trump and 18 of his allies, scheduled to begin on Oct. 23, will be two of the lawyers who tried to keep him in power after the election: Kenneth Chesebro and Sidney Powell, who were the only ones to seek speedy trials, as Georgia allows.

The former president will loom over the courtroom, though, even if he is not in it. That has much to do with how racketeering cases work.

“It is absolutely the trial of Donald Trump,” said Keith Adams, an Atlanta defense lawyer and former prosecutor. “Everyone else — they’re not extras, necessarily, but they’re bit characters.”

Mr. Trump and the other defendants are moving more slowly, potentially going to trial in the second half of next year or even later, though Atlanta prosecutors have been seeking plea deals with some of the accused. Scott Hall, a Georgia bail bondsman, accepted a deal last week in which he pleaded guilty to five misdemeanors and was sentenced to five years of probation.

A lawyer for another defendant, Michael Roman, a former Trump campaign staffer, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week that he rejected a plea offer.

The two heading to trial later this month — weeks after the start of a civil fraud trial against Mr. Trump in New York — could not be more different. Ms. Powell is a voluble Texan who spouted conspiracy theories and courted cameras after the 2020 election, promising to “release the kraken,” or a trove of evidence proving that Mr. Trump had won. Mr. Chesebro, a quiet Harvard Law graduate from Wisconsin, worked behind the scenes, devising the legal theory that drove the recruitment of bogus electors in swing states lost by Mr. Trump.

Prosecutors will not focus solely on the accusations against the pair; rather, they will lay out what they have described in charging documents as a far-reaching “criminal organization” that committed computer theft and perjury, filed false documents, impersonated public officers and carried out other crimes, with the common goal of changing the election outcome to favor Mr. Trump.

Mr. Adams, who is representing the rapper known as Young Thug in another high-profile racketeering case in Atlanta, said that by delving into the alleged misdeeds of Mr. Trump and other co-defendants, prosecutors would be making things harder for Mr. Chesebro and Ms. Powell.

In a racketeering case, he said, “every defendant becomes responsible, and is drawn into the conspiracy, based not just on their own actions, but based upon the actions of other individuals who may or not be there in a courtroom with them.”

Steven Sadow, a lawyer for former President Donald J. Trump, at the Atlanta airport on the day Mr. Trump was booked at the Fulton County Jail in August.Credit…Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The first trial may also provide clues as to how the former president will fare when his turn before a jury comes. And Mr. Trump’s Atlanta lawyer, Steven H. Sadow, will be watching closely.

Mr. Sadow has been a regular presence at pretrial hearings for other defendants, observing from the back of the courtroom and occasionally cracking wise. During a recent hearing, Mr. Sadow, wearing ostrich-skin cowboy boots, remarked on lapel pins worn by the prosecution team and joked that perhaps the defense could fashion some pins bearing the widely distributed mug shot of the former president.

The indictment describes various strands of a broad effort to keep Mr. Trump in power, including appeals the former president made to Georgia’s Republican leaders to help him “find” nearly 12,000 votes, or enough to overturn his defeat in the state. There were also efforts to harass rank-and-file election workers that Mr. Trump and his allies had accused of fraud, and efforts by a Trump ally at the Justice Department to advance false claims about the election.

Mr. Chesebro and Ms. Powell each had a major role in other phases of the operation. Ms. Powell coordinated a successful effort by other Trump allies to infiltrate a rural Georgia county’s elections office, where they copied sensitive and proprietary software used in voting machines throughout the state in a fruitless hunt for ballot fraud.

As Mr. Hall said in a recorded phone call, the team that visited the office in early January 2021 “scanned all the equipment, imaged all the hard drives and scanned every single ballot.” His plea deal is not good news for Ms. Powell, who has asserted in legal filings that she did nothing wrong because the group was invited into the office by the local elections administrator, Misty Hampton, who is also a defendant. “Nothing was done without authorization,” Ms. Powell’s lawyer, Brian T. Rafferty, wrote in a recent filing.

But Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, subsequently replaced the voting machines and has referred to what took place as “the unauthorized access to the equipment that former Coffee County election officials allowed in violation of Georgia law.”

Filings from Ms. Powell say that she did not “plan or organize” the data breach. But email traffic between Ms. Powell and SullivanStrickler, the company hired to help carry out the work, shows that she was kept informed of what was taking place. Her nonprofit, Defending the Republic, paid the company.

“She is right in the thick of it,” said David D. Cross, a lawyer for a nonprofit group that is suing over perceived security vulnerabilities in Georgia’s voting system, adding, “she’s on emails with the SullivanStrickler firm in real time.”

Scott Grubman, left, is representing Kenneth Chesebro in the election interference case.Credit…Miguel Martinez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Chesebro was a key architect of the plan to deploy fake electors in swing states that Mr. Trump had lost. His lawyers have argued that his work was shielded by the First Amendment and that he “acted within his capacity as a lawyer” by offering his legal opinion to his client, the Trump campaign.

Prosecutors have taken issue with the fact that the fake electors called themselves “duly elected and qualified” in documents they sent to Washington. By that time, Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia had signed paperwork officially awarding the state’s 16 electoral votes to Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Mr. Chesebro’s lawyers have said that in calling themselves “duly elected and qualified,” the Trump electors meant “qualified and elected by the Republican Party.”

For Mr. Trump, this is just the beginning. He has also been indicted in a criminal case in Manhattan, on state charges stemming from hush money paid to a pornographic film actress. And he has been indicted in a pair of federal cases — one in Washington, related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election nationally, and one in Florida, over his handling of sensitive government documents after leaving office.

But the prosecutions in Atlanta will stand out for targeting not just the former president, but also many of his former advisers. And unlike in the other criminal trials, they will provide a televised window into the historic prosecutions of a former president and his associates.

There is still a chance that the trial scheduled to start this month won’t take place — several defendants have sought to move the proceedings to federal court — or that the timing could shift. But the so-called removal efforts were dealt a blow when Judge Steve C. Jones of the Northern District of Georgia rejected an effort by Mark Meadows, Mr. Trump’s former White House chief of staff, to move his case. Mr. Meadows has appealed the decision.

Mr. Adams said that in cases with many defendants and staggered trials, defense lawyers like him have the advantage of getting a preview, in the first trial, of the prosecution’s strategies.

“I’m sitting in the back of the courtroom, I can see what’s presented, I can see what the witnesses have said, I can see what their arguments are,” he said. “I get to tailor my defense and my arguments for when we strike up trial No. 2.”

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