For the third time in less than week, a lawyer who worked for Donald Trump has pleaded guilty in the Fulton County, Ga., election interference case. Jenna Ellis on Tuesday joined Sidney Powell and Kenneth Chesebro in cutting a deal that will require her to testify truthfully about the other defendants, including presumably Trump himself.
Her centrality to the case, relative to the others, is debatable. Ellis often served more as a spokesperson than an actual practicing lawyer, though certain actions clearly involved legal strategizing and proximity to Trump. But her plea came with something the others did not: a tearful statement to the court that suggested she is prepared to cast blame up the chain. Whether and how much that includes Trump is a big question. But it would seem to be bad news for Rudy Giuliani and potentially, by extension, for Trump himself.
Ellis pleaded guilty to illegally conspiring to overturn the 2020 election loss of Trump in Georgia. Specifically, she admitted to aiding and abetting false statements and writings, a felony that will result in three to five years probation and other penalties. The deal cited false claims from Giuliani, her frequent traveling companion as they worked to overturn the election results, and a Trump campaign lawyer in Georgia, Ray Smith. Both were indicted alongside Trump, Ellis and the others.
Then Ellis spoke, driving the point home. “I relied on others, including lawyers with many more years of experience than I, to provide me with true and reliable information, especially since my role involved speaking to the media and to legislators in various states,” she said, adding, “What I did not do, but should have done, your honor, was to make sure that the facts the other lawyers alleged to be true were, in fact, true. In the frenetic pace of attempting to raise challenges to the election in several states including Georgia, I failed to do my due diligence.”
That statement was particularly notable because Ellis elected to deliver it. Before she did so, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee reminded her that she was “not required” to make a statement “in any way.” Ellis, like others who pleaded guilty, was required to apologize in writing to the people of Georgia, and she had to acknowledge promoting specific false claims from Giuliani and Smith as part of her deal. But her statement went further than that.
One way to read it is that Ellis was trying to salvage her own reputation. By blaming others for the bad information, she was casting herself more as a negligent junior participant than a full-fledged leader of a criminal plot to subvert democracy.
Ellis has walked this fine line before. This is the second legal proceeding in which she has admitted to spreading disinformation about the election results, with the first being a March deal she cut to avoid disbarment in Colorado. That deal labeled the false claims “misrepresentations,” and Ellis soon clarified, “Lying requires INTENTIONALLY making a false statement. I never did that, nor did I stipulate to or admit that.”
After she cut that deal, she more or less suggested that she had been forced to do so because of legal pressure. “This is and always was political lawfare to intimidate lawyers from representing Trump or Republicans [sic] candidates,” she said in a statement.
In a criminal case, Ellis will not be able to water down her admission so easily. She is barred from discussing the case publicly. But more than that, she will be required to testify, at which point she will presumably expound upon her claim of having fallen victim to disinformation. A valid question is how much she might blame the others, in other words, whether she will indicate the more senior defendants must have known better or had the kind of nefarious intentions she claims she did not.
Giuliani has cast doubt on the idea that Ellis was just along for the ride. He said this summer, “There is no one who was more zealous about the fact that this was a stolen election than Jenna Ellis, and I think that anyone on that team would testify to that.” It is also possible that the Trump legal team could cite Ellis saying she did not know better to argue that Trump fell victim to bad lawyering.
But when it comes to defendants put in the spotlight by her plea, one stands out: Giuliani. Ellis traveled the country with Giuliani after the 2020 election, speaking to legislators in hopes of getting states to overturn their results. She also participated in other meetings and phone calls with Giuliani and key state figures, as well as the infamous Nov. 19, 2020, news conference with Giuliani and Powell.
In the 91-page indictment, she is mentioned in 12 of the 161 overt acts in the alleged racketeering conspiracy, the count for which she did not plead guilty. In 10 of those 12 overt acts, she is mentioned alongside Giuliani. The only instances in which Ellis is mentioned without Giuliani are a pair of memos she allegedly wrote ahead of Jan. 6, 2021, strategizing how Vice President Mike Pence could participate in overturning the results in Congress that day.
Those memos, like others written by another Trump lawyer, John Eastman, will figure in the case ahead. But it has become evident in recent days that the case of Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis (D) relies heavily, for now, on flipping people up the chain of command. In addition to the three lawyers, another defendant has previously pleaded guilty, bringing the total to four of 19 defendants.
And the plea by Ellis is particularly ominous for the Trump team, even aside from her close work with Giuliani. For one, she has in recent months criticized Trump and largely aligned herself with the campaign of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
The second reason is timing. The pleas by Powell and Chesebro made sense, given they were slated to face trial this week. But Ellis was not so obviously under the gun, as she did not request a speedy trial. She cut a deal anyway, and then elected to publicly and vocally point the finger at others whom Willis is prosecuting and could also try to flip as she pursues a conspiracy case with Trump at the very top.
There is no evidence yet that Ellis has gone full Michael Cohen, the first of the Trump lawyers to plead guilty and who, as it happens, testified against Trump in his New York civil fraud trial on Tuesday. But it is never a good sign when your own lawyer flips and then goes above and beyond to gesture at those above her.