Trump’s co-defendants in Georgia face massive court costs

  • Former President Donald Trump’s co-defendants in the Georgia election case could easily face more than $1 million in court costs to defend themselves against the sprawling RICO indictment.
  • So far, Trump and his political machine have refused to help draft legislation, forcing his one-time allies to seek other sources of funding.
  • After decades of paying legal bills for people loyal to him, Trump’s decision to abandon his alleged co-conspirators could strain the loyalty of his former allies.

Republican presidential candidate and former US President Donald Trump speaks during his campaign at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, USA, August 12, 2023.

Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

As former President Donald Trump and his army of lawyers prepare for his formal surrender on Thursday, a harsh new reality is emerging for his co-defendants prosecuted alongside him in Georgia: Their legal fees will skyrocket, and it seems that there is no help The way of Trump.

“I have been reliably informed that Trump is not funding any of us defendants,” attorney and co-defendant Jenna Ellis said Friday in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Ellis is one of 19 people indicted Aug. 14 in a massive indictment by a Fulton County grand jury following an investigation by District Attorney Fani Willis. The defendants are accused of engaging in a criminal attempt on behalf of then-candidate Trump to interfere in the state’s results in the 2020 presidential election.

Trump has paid at least some of his allies for legal advice in the past. According to a report by OpenSecrets, his entire political network, including his joint fundraising committees, collectively spent over $70 million on legal fees from the beginning of 2020 to the end of 2022.

People familiar with the big bills in the Georgia case told CNBC that many involved in the case do not expect help from the Trump political network. Another person said he didn’t want any help from Team Trump. Those who declined to be named in this story did so in order to speak freely about private conversations.

A spokesman for Trump did not respond to a request for comment.

A new legal defense fund called the Patriot Legal Defense Fund, founded in July by two Trump confidants, aims to raise money to help Trump advisers and associates with their legal fees, according to a business filing reviewed by CNBC. As of Tuesday, there were no public nonprofit records showing that donations had been collected, let alone money distributed. Michael Glassner, co-founder of the fund, declined to comment.

With Trump and his millions completely out of reach, co-defendants, alleged co-conspirators and witnesses in the Georgia case are turning to their own online legal defense funds to pay their lawyers, whose fees are expected to skyrocket now that the trial is finally getting underway .

Trump co-defendants can expect to pay their lawyers “seven figures if it’s a dollar,” or at least $1 million, said Randy Zelin, a veteran lawyer who specializes in white-collar crimes.

One of the reasons legal fees in Trump lawsuits are so high is because representing a Trump-affiliated client is potentially fraught with pitfalls for a lawyer, including potentially defending the former president’s false claim that he has a choice Won in 2020, said Zelin.

“You have to do and say what the former president says and does,” Zelin said.

Still, he said, there are two ways a customer could pay less than the going rate. The first is when an attorney is willing to handle the publicity rather than cover at least a portion of the fees, he said.

The second option, he said, is for the lawyer’s client to “surrender” one or more co-defendants.

By hiring their own lawyers and paying them separately from Trump, the 18 co-defendants in Georgia also created a major new legal risk for the former president, Zelin said.

Trump has long used joint defense agreements (JDAs), where Trump can help choose counsel and pay the bills. One of the most memorable JDAs Trump entered into was with his 2016 presidential campaign manager, Paul Manafort, during the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. But as Manafort’s own legal problems mounted, so did the pressure on him to cooperate, which he eventually did, according to the New York Times.

“Whoever has the gold rules. If I pay your lawyer, I don’t expect you to hurt me,” Zelin said.

“A joint defense agreement … contributes to this, and the agreement is standard when co-defendants work together, allowing them to share information without having to stab in the back,” Zelin wrote in an email.

But instead of creating a mutual understanding in which his co-defendants band together to isolate Trump, the former president, by not helping them with their bills or making joint defense agreements, could create a dilemma in which co-defendants fight with authorities could cooperate with him, said Zelin.

“You want to make sure your co-defendants have a top-notch attorney who can work with your attorney — and, oh yeah, not encourage the client to flip!” he said.

Several of the most high-profile defendants have launched their own legal defense funds, effectively raising money from donors to fill the void left by Trump’s refusal to get involved.

They include Ellis and pro-Trump lawyer John Eastman, who faces nine criminal charges and is widely seen as the father of the so-called “fake electors” system at the center of the case.

Eastman has raised nearly $500,000 over two years of crowdfunding, according to data from its fundraising website. But he said in a recent post on his website that the money was almost completely gone.

“Most of the funds previously raised have already been exhausted or tied up,” Eastman wrote in an August 18 update. Eastman told reporters Tuesday outside the Atlanta jail where he turned himself in that he was paying his own legal fees. His lawyers did not respond to requests for comment but previously said he was not interested in settling.

The former president and his lawyers now appear ready to bring Eastman to justice.

Just days after the indictment in Georgia, Trump’s lawyers signaled in interviews that they wanted to hold Eastman responsible for giving Trump bad legal advice about overturning the election. They also want to argue that Trump was merely acting on Eastman’s advice when Trump urged then-Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to certify the 2020 results.

Ellis recently moved away from Trump and is now supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the GOP primary. She has become a harsh critic of the former president and expressed frustration with Trump’s refusal to help his co-defendants in Georgia.

“Why doesn’t MAGA, Inc. fund everyone’s defense?” she wrote Friday on X. A lawyer representing Ellis in the Georgia case did not respond to a request for comment on whether his client would accept a deal if one was offered would.

Unlike Ellis, Jeffrey Clark, a former Justice Department official, has remained firmly in Trump’s circle, according to Clark’s tweets.

Clark is among Trump co-defendants who also turned to his own legal defense fund for help. According to the defense fund’s website, over $30,000 has been raised so far, with a goal of bringing in $100,000.

A spokeswoman for a nonprofit organization run by Clark did not respond to questions about whether he would accept a plea deal if it meant cooperating with authorities in the case against Trump. Instead, she pointed CNBC to Clark’s legal defense fund and did not answer further questions.

Cathy Latham, a former Republican Party chairwoman in rural Coffee County, Georgia, and a fake Trump voter, is also accused of tampering with voting machines in a sweeping 11-count indictment. Latham’s crowdfunding page emphasizes that she is a “retired public school teacher” who “lives on a teacher’s pension.”

Meanwhile, lawyers for Ellis, Eastman, Clark and Latham have not received any payments from companies in Trump’s extensive political network since the House Select Committee’s investigation into the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Robert Sinners led the 2020 Trump Election Day political operation in Georgia. Today, according to The Daily Beast, he is an unnamed alleged co-conspirator, referred to only as “Person 4” in the Georgia indictment. Sinners were not accused of crimes.

Sinners represent a third category within Trump’s legal universe: former allies who have been burned by their proximity to Trump and who no longer want anything to do with the 2024 Republican presidential candidate or his political operation.

“It would be shockingly foolish to rely on a supposedly corrupt organization when that same organization has such disregard for one’s own well-being in the first place,” Sinners said in an email to CNBC about how he funded his legal fees.