How Trump’s Fourth Indictment Differs From The First Three

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

maya (Maya Sweedler, senior editor): Former President Donald Trump was indicted in Fulton County, Georgia, Monday night on charges related to his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in the state. The sprawling case includes charges under Georgia’s racketeering laws, running through 19 defendants, more than two dozen unnamed co-conspirators and the group’s actions in over a half-dozen jurisdictions.

As we have with the three previous indictments Trump has faced this year, we’re going to have a little chat about the case, its implications and where Trump’s presidential campaign goes from here. Let’s start with the specifics of the Fulton County case. What stood out to each of you, in terms of what you learned about the efforts in Georgia to overturn the election? 

ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior reporter): This indictment is, if anything, even more sprawling than the federal charges that were released earlier this month, also focusing on Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The breadth of the alleged conspiracy here is pretty stunning, ranging from hearings before the Georgia legislature in December 2020 to efforts to assemble a false pro-Trump slate of electors to attempts to harass an election worker and steal voter data. There’s … a lot here.

Monica Potts (Monica Potts, senior politics reporter): I agree, Amelia. What’s so surprising to me about this one is how wide-ranging it is. It covers actions from before Election Day to after Jan. 6, 2021, and includes everything from Trump’s tweets to already well-known phone calls. And Trevian C. Kutti, Kanye West’s former publicist, visiting Atlanta! 

gelliottmorris (G. Elliott Morris, editorial director of data analytics): Given the nature of the racketeering charges (something of a speciality of the Fulton County DA), the Georgia indictment also involves many more indicted individuals than the federal indictment of Trump alone that special counsel Jack Smith’s team handed down two weeks ago. And the purpose of the case is different, too: The federal case seeks to prove that Trump knowingly conspired to defraud the U.S. government and rights of voters (among other things), whereas this case seeks to prove he participated in a broader criminal enterprise to violate Georgia law. That, perhaps, makes it easier to prove wrongdoing. 

ameliatd: Right, there’s a difference in strategy between the two cases. The federal case is tightly focused on Trump, although it’s clear that many of the same people were involved — they’re just named as unindicted co-conspirators and you have to Google a bit to figure out who they are. One advantage of focusing so closely on Trump is that it makes for a quicker process. Fani Willis, the district attorney, said she’s going to attempt to try all 19 co-defendants in the Georgia case together, which is going to be a massive logistical challenge. But the potential advantage of what she’s doing is that the people who were smaller players in the alleged conspiracy — like Kutti — are facing potential jail time and so may have more of an incentive to flip and cooperate with prosecutors.

maya: Yeah, one thing that really struck me as I scrolled through the indictment … and scrolled … is how many names were included and how wide-ranging their roles in and experiences of the post-election period were. Did any names surprise you?

gelliottmorris: Well, just to the point of how deep the RICO charges go, the indictment includes the name of an elections supervisor for Coffee County, Georgia — a county 200 miles from Fulton County — who allowed other indictees to copy sensitive voter information for their own personal use. And then there’s Kutti, a Chicago-based publicist (working at one time for Kanye West and R. Kelly), who flew to Georgia allegedly to harass poll workers there. 

ameliatd: There are definitely some people in that indictment who aren’t household names, and an additional 30 unindicted co-conspirators, which yet again emphasizes the breadth of the conspiracy that’s being alleged here. Several of the fake electors who cast fraudulent votes in support of Trump also are being charged. And yes, Elliott, this was a multistate effort! Another defendant is Stephen Lee, an Illinois-based pastor who also came to Georgia to allegedly harass an election worker.

Again, this is typical of a RICO prosecution — it’s bringing together a bunch of fairly disparate people to argue that they were working toward a common goal (in this case, changing the outcome of the 2020 election). Small fish as well as big fish here! 

maya: We had an inkling that there could be a racketeering component to this case, due to information that leaked out over the course of this investigation. Are there any analogues in previous cases for the application of such charges in Georgia?

gelliottmorris: Interesting you should ask that, Maya. The longest and most expensive criminal trial in Georgia history is a big RICO case targeting employees of the Atlanta public school district, alleging they conspired to cheat or help students cheat on standardized tests. Prosecution for that case has been ongoing since 2013! 

ameliatd: Another high-profile Georgia RICO case that’s ongoing involves Atlanta rapper Young Thug. Prosecutors are alleging that he co-founded a “criminal street gang” called Young Slime Life (YSL), which is also the same acronym as his label, Young Stoner Life. The YSL case is pretty different because it involves violent crime and theft, but it is a window into how long the process could take. Jury selection in the YSL case began in January and still hasn’t ended yet.

maya: So it’s not like this legal strategy is completely novel to the state. How is the man at the center responding to this latest indictment?

Monica Potts: Maya, Trump has responded like he’s responded to his previous indictments, which he’s called politically motivated “witch hunts.” In this case, a statement from the Trump campaign called Willis a “rabid partisan” who is trying to interfere with the 2024 election. Trump is planning a press conference Monday, the day before Willis has said she expects him to surrender, and says he has a report proving election interference in Georgia. False claims of election fraud in Georgia are the very subject of the indictment, so it will be interesting to see if he repeats the same disproven charges.

ameliatd: But it is worth noting that the Georgia case poses a unique kind of threat to Trump, even if he manages to win back the presidency in 2024, since state crimes aren’t subject to the presidential pardon power. So there’s no question about whether Trump could try to self-pardon his way out of a conviction here — he can’t. 

maya: Let’s talk about Trump winning back the presidency. One of the first questions we’ve dug into, after each indictment, is whether it will affect the former president’s chances at winning (a) the Republican primary, and (b) the general election. What have we learned in the last four months about this, and is there any reason to expect this latest indictment will diverge from this pattern?

gelliottmorris: That does seem to be the question people are asking. In a piece we published on Tuesday (good timing, everyone!), I looked at how Trump’s standing in the primary and his favorability ratings changed after each of his three criminal indictments before this one in Georgia. The upshot is that Republicans seemed to reward him after his first indictment for covering up hush-money payments he made to an adult film actress in the lead-up to the 2016 election, but among both Republicans and all adults, his popularity took a hit after his second indictment for mishandling classified documents, in which he was accused of illegally retaining classified materials after he left the White House and obstructing efforts to get them back. 

Since his indictment by D.C. prosecutors on Aug. 1, however, opinion toward Trump has not changed significantly. Maybe people know too much about these events so it’s not changing their view of him — or maybe the true cost of his actions have yet to hit the polls. 

ameliatd: Yeah, Elliott, Trump is currently leading the rest of the GOP field by almost 40 percentage points — which is pretty extraordinary given the massive storm of legal issues he’s facing. Maybe it’s because most of his Republican opponents haven’t used the indictments to attack him? 

maya: Or those who are are fighting for such a small piece of the anti-Trump pie that it’s not making any dents in his support.

Monica Potts: It’s one of the biggest differences between Republicans and the rest of Americans: Overall, three-quarters think Trump did something wrong and a majority want him to drop out. But it’s remarkable how popular he still is with Republicans, who want him to be president again. And the Republican opponents who’ve criticized Trump, like former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, are not winning over many votes.

ameliatd: Elliott made the point in his story on Tuesday that the classified documents indictment might be most disturbing to Republicans because they care a lot about national security. If that’s true, then maybe that’s the case with the most potential to hurt him. On the other hand, whenever the Georgia case goes to trial, it will likely be televised. So that adds a whole new dimension to how Americans will absorb those allegations.

maya: Is there any reason to suspect that the most recent two indictments, which both deal with efforts to overturn the 2020 election, carry more weight among either the Republican or broader electorate? There was pretty striking evidence that the majority of Republicans didn’t believe President Biden legitimately won the presidency in 2020, but more recent polls have found the numbers somewhat softening

Monica Potts: Our colleague Nathaniel Rakich has written that Americans take the Jan. 6 charges very seriously, but there’s some evidence Republicans view them less so. As you said, Maya, many Republicans still believe Trump legitimately won in 2020, despite all evidence to the contrary. 

gelliottmorris: And maybe they think the elections-related charges are serious, but they aren’t factoring that into their choices in the primary. 

ameliatd: Honestly at this point, Maya, I think we need to wait for the trials to see the full impact. After all, these indictments are only the prosecutors’ side of the story — Trump’s lawyers will spend months digging into the opposition’s evidence and forming their own case. These are going to be long, detailed trials with lots of witnesses and evidence, where arguments are presented in a courtroom, a place where politics isn’t supposed to apply. Of course, that doesn’t mean the trials will substantively change people’s minds, but it’s going to be a different experience than, say, the 2019 impeachment hearings or last year’s congressional hearings into what happened at the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

gelliottmorris: Trial of the century!

ameliatd: And of course, several trials could be happening concurrently with the GOP primary and/or major events (like the parties’ conventions).

… Can it be the trial of the century if it’s four trials?

A question we may find ourselves contemplating.

Monica Potts: As you’ve written, Amelia, it’s hard to imagine how Trump can fit campaigning in.

maya: To be honest, I’m sort of struggling to keep all these timelines and dates straight! Can we run through what we know about each of these four trials in terms of proposed timelines, realistic timelines and how that fits into the 2024 primary schedule?

ameliatd: It’s hard to keep track of! Right now, two of the trials —the New York state case involving hush-money payments to an adult film actress and the federal case in Florida involving classified documents — have been scheduled. The New York case is scheduled for March 2024 and the Florida case is scheduled for May 2024. Prosecutors in the federal case about efforts to overturn the 2020 election have asked for a trial to start in early January, which would be a very aggressive schedule given that it’s less than five months away. The judge in that case still has to decide whether to accept the prosecutors’ trial date (and Trump’s lawyers will propose their own date soon), but we should have a sense of what timing she thinks is reasonable by the end of the month

Then, of course, there’s the Georgia case. Willis said in a news conference on Monday night that she’ll push for a trial within six months and that she wants to try all 19 co-defendants together, as I mentioned earlier. That’s going to be a tall order given the extreme complexity of a case involving so many co-defendants and the fact that the Fulton County court system is already backlogged. And of course, the trial dates could still shift — there’s a lot of legal sparring that happens before a trial kicks off.

But right now, to answer your question succinctly, Maya, we’re looking at one trial just after Super Tuesday and another trial in May when the GOP primary is likely to be wrapping up. If prosecutors get their way in the federal 2020 election case — and there’s no guarantee they will — it would divide Trump’s attention between court and the earliest stages of the GOP primary, since this could be a weeks-long trial

gelliottmorris: Broadly, Amelia, I think the trials will be a hefty ball and chain for Trump in his 2024 campaign.

First, in the general election, assuming Trump is the GOP nominee, I think the trials would (a) remind voters why they rejected Trump last time and (b) distract him from campaigning effectively. The effect of that is to suppress his odds of winning — not by a whole lot, probably, but by enough to be meaningful.

The question in the primary, then, is whether GOP voters agree and take that analysis to heart. Today, Brian Kemp, the governor of Georgia who won by 7 points in 2022 (beating his benchmark based on the national popular vote, which would have been around R+2), sent a tweet defending the integrity of the state’s elections and saying the 2024 election “must be our focus.” 

I read that as an implicit call to Republicans to move on from Trump and choose a different nominee. Other Republican politicians have not been successful with such a message. But, as always, this time could be different! 

ameliatd: I’ve heard a counterargument, Elliott, which is basically that for Trump, any publicity is good publicity. That has been true for him to a rather extraordinary extent in the past — but a series of criminal trials is really going to test the limits of that aphorism. That’s especially true if he ends up testifying in any of the trials. But obviously, if he comes out of any of the trials with an acquittal before the election, that could be a big political win for him.

Monica Potts: I agree with all of that, Elliott and Amelia. Almost nothing has shaken the loyalty of the most die-hard Trump supporters, but that doesn’t mean Trump’s support is growing. Even his first win in 2016 was based on a very narrow advantage in three states. It’s hard not to imagine all of these indictments affecting 2024, and the cases will keep events like Jan. 6 in the news and in front of voters. The question is whether it wears down voters, or if it mobilizes support for or against him.

ameliatd: I also talked to a criminal defense attorney who said that having a client out on the campaign trail, constantly making public statements that may or may not line up with the image you want to present in court, is kind of a nightmare scenario when you’re building a defense. And I’m sure the opposite is true for a political campaign director — you don’t want your candidate testifying under penalty of perjury! So the demands of campaigning and not being convicted of a crime will be in tension as long as Trump is a candidate and these legal cases are ongoing. 

gelliottmorris: So … if either of y’all want to take the over on Trump at a 28 percent chance to win the White House in 2024 (sound familiar?), here’s the link.

ameliatd: I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!

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