Donald Trump’s Wealth, power and fame acted like a magnet for new employees who wanted to enter his sphere of influence. But now key figures who wanted a share of his reflected glory are turning against him to save themselves.
The ex-president suffered three blows on Tuesday that deepened his legal jeopardy and underscored that the 2024 election – in which he is the front-runner for the GOP nomination – will play out in the courts rather than on traditional campaign grounds.
In the most significant development, ABC News reported that Trump’s former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, had met several times with federal prosecutors and categorically undermined the ex-president’s narrative of a stolen election. Meadows was the Oval Office gatekeeper during the critical days when Trump allegedly plotted to steal the 2020 election after voters rejected his bid for a second term. CNN has reached out to Meadows’ attorney for comment.
In another damaging twist, former Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis, who falsely claimed on network television after President Joe Biden’s victory that he was elected because of fraud, reached a plea deal with Georgia prosecutors. Ellis tearfully confessed Tuesday to the crime of aiding and abetting false statements that she and other attorneys gave to Peach State lawmakers. She was the third former Trump supporter to agree to testify against the ex-president and others this week. The election fraud lawsuit brought by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis now follows the classic pattern of a racketeering case, with smaller fish being taken off for reduced sentences in order to secure their testimony against the alleged ringleader.
“If I had known then what I knew now, I would have declined to represent Donald Trump in these post-election challenges. I look back on this experience with deep regret,” Ellis said.
Ellis was a relatively recent figure in Trump’s plans to overturn the election, although there is reason to believe she attended critical meetings of interest to prosecutors. Her admission of guilt also appears to be terrible news for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who also served as Trump’s lawyer after the election and with whom Ellis worked closely.
Her denial of her own behavior is an ominous omen for Trump because it shows that while falsehoods about voter fraud are still a powerful political force in the Republican Party and the conservative media, the truth matters in court. Under the legal system, the former president could face a level of accountability that the U.S. political system, still reeling under his influence, cannot match.
One of Trump’s former aides felt no remorse as he appeared in court in New York on Tuesday and tried to undermine another Trump legal defense. The former president’s longtime mastermind, Michael Cohen, faced his ex-boss for the first time in five years as he took the stand in a civil trial in which prosecutors are seeking to end Trump’s ability to conduct business in the state. Cohen has already gone to prison for tax fraud, making false statements to Congress and campaign finance violations – some related to his work for Trump before he launched his political career. Cohen once vowed to take a bullet for his former boss, but left no doubt that he had been itching to testify against him for months. While his own conviction raises questions about the credibility of his testimony, Cohen blamed Trump on Tuesday, saying his former boss directed him to inflate his net worth based on financial reports.
“A hell of a reunion,” Cohen told reporters after testifying under Trump’s gaze.
Trump feels the growing legal tension
Each of Tuesday’s legal dramas threatened to undermine Trump’s position in individual cases in which he has pleaded not guilty, underscoring that the Republican front-runner’s bid to retake the White House will be overshadowed by his criminal liability.
And for someone who has the exaggerated sense of loyalty that Trump has — albeit mostly one-way — the spectacle of three former staffers turning against him will be particularly galling.
While the barrage of lawsuits weighing on him has not diminished his dominance in the Republican presidential race, there are growing signs that courtroom pressure is on a former president whose life is full of business, personal and political disputes is gradually increasing, has made it an art form to evade responsibility.
In a stream of consciousness filled with rage, Trump lashed out on his Truth Social network on Tuesday evening the ABC report about Meadows.
“I don’t think Mark Meadows would lie about the 2020 presidential election being rigged and studded just because he won immunity from prosecution (PROSECTION!),” the former president wrote.
“Some people would do that deal, but they are weaklings and cowards and so bad for the future of our failing nation.” I don’t think Mark Meadows is one of them, but who really knows? Make America Great Again!!!”
This happened, absurdly, just one day after Trump compared himself to Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison – much of it in a tiny cell on Robben Island – and endured hard labor in a quarry for speaking out against South Africa’s racist apartheid system. After his release, the Nobel Peace Prize winner restored his divided nation as president and became a symbol of unity, humility, racial healing and forgiveness – qualities Trump rarely displayed.
“I don’t mind being Nelson Mandela because I do it for a reason,” the former president told his supporters in New Hampshire.
However, Trump’s persecution complex is revealing. The former president portrays himself as a bulwark against a government he believes is being used as a weapon against him and his supporters. The idea that he is a political martyr unfairly targeted by the Biden administration — despite 91 counts in his four criminal indictments — may be his only credible campaign tactic. After all, he could be a convicted felon come Election Day in less than 13 months. While this prospect does not appear to worry Republican primary voters, it could pose a serious vulnerability to a broader electorate.
The Significance of the Meadows Developments
Legal observers in Washington have speculated for months about the activities of Meadows, a former North Carolina congressman who became the final chief of staff during Trump’s turbulent tenure in the White House.
During his testimony before a federal grand jury, Meadows was also questioned about efforts to overturn the election and Trump’s handling of classified documents. CNN previously reported.
But if, as ABC News reported, he was granted immunity by special counsel Jack Smith and met with federal prosecutors multiple times, then that’s the overused term “bombshell.”
Meadows is also a key figure in the investigation in Fulton County, Georgia, where he made a failed attempt to take his case to federal court after unsuccessfully arguing that his actions at the behest of Trump’s election-intervention efforts fell within his official duties.
Meadows, who met Smith’s team at least three times this year, told investigators he did not believe the election was stolen and that Trump was “dishonest” when he claimed victory shortly after polls closed in 2020, according to ABC.
The agreement is the first publicly known in the special counsel’s investigation into the events of January 6, 2021. The exact terms of Meadows’ deal with prosecutors are not clear, but such agreements often allow a person with valuable information about an investigation Immunity from prosecution in exchange for full cooperation.
The reported details of Meadows’ testimony could be enormously damaging to Trump, since a key part of the ex-president’s defense rests on the idea that he sincerely believed that the election was stolen and that his actions were therefore not criminal because they were an exercise was his right to freedom of expression.
It has long been the case that Trump’s business and political environment often gets into deep legal trouble, but he escapes free. The apparent choices made by Meadows, Ellis and Cohen — along with the multitude of legal threats the former president now faces — suggest that the charmed life is facing its biggest challenge yet.
For more CNN news and newsletters, create an account at CNN.com