Opinion | What Makes the Georgia Indictment So Satisfying Also Makes It Vulnerable

By assembling a sprawling, 19-defendant RICO indictment with 41 counts, District Attorney Fani Willis of Fulton County has brought the sort of charging instrument that has typically led to monthslong trials, complicated appeals and exhaustion for the participating attorneys. Now, as some co-defendants seek federal removal while others demand speedy trials in state court, we are starting to see the costs of complexity.

In federal and state cases, Donald Trump’s legal game plan has always been the same: delay often and everywhere with the goal of winning the 2024 election and hoping the charges go away. Special Counsel Jack Smith’s election interference indictment — just four counts brought solely against Mr. Trump — makes that difficult. On Monday, the judge set the trial for March 4, 2024.

By contrast, the Georgia indictment is a sprawling account of a conspiracy among the former president, his closest advisers and state and local Republican officials to change the outcome of the 2020 Georgia election through an escalating series of falsehoods. For many, it is a satisfying political document. But as a legal instrument, its ambitious scope will provide the co-defendants with many opportunities for delay, appeals, and constitutional challenges.

And even though Fulton might very will win in the end, a simpler, more direct approach would likely lead to a better result, faster, here’s why.

Much of the Georgia indictment is about how Mr. Trump and others tried to get public officials to do implausible things to hand him the election — things like asking state senators to appoint an alternate slate of electors, calling a special session of the General Assembly or asking the secretary of state to “find” the votes Mr. Trump needed to win.

The state chose to charge this conduct in two ways. One of them is strong and simple: Team Trump lied to elected officials and tried to forge documents.

The other — that they were aware of the officials’ oaths of office and were hoping specifically to get them to violate it — is unusual and hard to prove.

Solicitation requires you to ask someone else to commit a felony intentionally. In this case, the oath of office the defendants were being asked to violate was a promise to follow the Constitution and do what’s best for their constituents. It is indeed a crime in Georgia for a public officer to “willfully and intentionally” violate the terms of his oath.

Here’s the problem: It’s hard enough to prove that Mr. Trump’s request violates the Constitution, since the Constitution allows states to figure out how to select electors. But then the state must also prove that Mr. Trump knew this would violate the electors’ oath of office.

It seems possible that Mr. Trump had no idea what these officials’ oath of office was, maybe even no idea that they swore an oath at all. Under Georgia’s “mistake of fact” affirmative defense, if Mr. Trump has some evidence that he was operating under a “misapprehension of fact” that would justify his actions, the state must disprove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

There are a few reasons this could be a strong defense. First, Mr. Trump surrounded himself with individuals who told him what he was doing was legal. Georgia does not normally have an “advice of counsel” defense, but in this context it seems relevant that people he apparently trusted were not telling him this would violate any oath of office.

And to put it gently, Mr. Trump is plausibly ignorant on a variety of subjects, ranging from how hurricanes are formed to whether it’s a good idea to use or inject disinfectants as a possible Covid cure. Even if prosecutors can meet the burden of showing that what he requested was unconstitutional — not necessarily an easy thing to establish with a jury of non-lawyers — it may be difficult to prove that Donald Trump knew, or cared, what the Constitution had to say on the subject.

Then there’s the Hawaii precedent. Mr. Trump’s advisers were relying on an incident from the 1960 presidential election, when Richard Nixon looked as though he had won the state of Hawaii by a few dozen votes. But the results were so uncertain that three Democrats submitted their Electoral College votes just in case, and when, after a recount, it looked like John F. Kennedy was the actual winner, the Senate (headed by Nixon) unanimously agreed to the alternate slate.

Even though no court ever blessed this procedure, or even held that it wasn’t criminal, Mr. Trump’s team could argue with a straight face that they believed their request was legally possible.

There’s also the possibility of a First Amendment defense. Typically, people are allowed to petition the government to do things, even unconstitutional things. That a court might, down the line, find those things to be unconstitutional seems like a dangerous basis to criminalize that petitioning.

I’d understand bringing these charges to get at some obviously bad and immoral conduct by the president if there were nothing else available. But there are other, much stronger charges in the same indictment without the same constitutional concerns. Take the false statement counts: The very best case that Mr. Trump and his team could cite is United States v. Alvarez, where the Supreme Court held that there is a First Amendment right to lie about having received the Medal of Honor. But the Supreme Court also specifically said that this protection vanishes when lying for material gain, or to the government.

Rudy Giuliani told state legislators that election workers were passing around flash drives like “vials of heroin” and that thousands of dead and felonious voters participated, but he can’t claim those statements have constitutional protection. All Mr. Giuliani can do is show the court what evidence supported those statements. There is none. And what’s more, Mr. Giuliani recently admitted in a civil filing that his claims against two Fulton County election workers had been false. Despite claiming that it was for “this litigation only,” that’s an admission.

Similarly, the forgery charges simply need to establish a conspiracy to create fake elector votes that could potentially be counted on Jan. 6. It’s irrelevant whether the parties thought it was legal to do this, so long as they knew they were not, in fact, the duly appointed electors.

So it is an odd legal choice to drag a jury through weak, disputed counts in a monthslong trial when you could just focus on the counts that are hard to challenge and easy to explain, saving weeks in the process. The RICO count will already require dozens of witnesses and some complicated instructions, so tossing in these oath of office charges seems like a recipe for confusion and delay.

And it’s not just the charges that complicate things, but the sheer number of defendants. A judge granted one co-defendant, Ken Chesebro, a speedy trial, which will require Fulton County to bring this case to trial by Nov. 3 or acquit him as a matter of law. (Sidney Powell has also requested a speedy trial.)

Ms. Willis reacted by requesting an October date for the entire case, but at least for the moment, a judge has declined her request. This puts the prosecutors in a bind. Mr. Chesebro’s trial would give Mr. Trump a useful preview of the entire case, from voir dire to closing arguments, which could weaken the effectiveness of Ms. Willis’s prosecution of Mr. Trump and the other defendants. It would allow Mr. Trump’s lawyers to dig into witness testimony and perhaps encourage Georgia Republicans to step in.

Additionally, it might be very difficult for Fulton County to actually grant these parties the speedy trial they’ve requested. There is some Georgia authority to suggest that a trial does not “begin” under the statutory speedy trial act until a jury is empaneled and sworn. What happens if Fulton County needs a month, or two months, to actually select the jury that will be sworn?

And for all the talk of potentially flipping co-defendants, many of the people in this case don’t have all that much criminal exposure. With no mandatory minimums for prison time and no criminal history, many of the participants could reasonably expect probation, and maybe even a first-offender sentence that would not count as a felony. A simpler case, with fewer co-defendants, would go more swiftly, with less legal uncertainty.

As a general, George Washington was known for unworkable battle plans. Where an ordinary commander might send all his troops to one location at one time, Washington would split them into three columns, expecting them to arrive all at one spot with precision timing. It rarely worked out. Despite those mistakes, he’s now best known for winning.

For all the potential problems with this indictment, I would still expect Ms. Willis to secure a conviction against Mr. Trump on one or more counts if this case goes to trial as it intends.

But there are a dozen ways that things can go sideways, and it is very possible that history will remember the two years that Fulton County took to bring these charges as a wasted opportunity to make a simpler case.

Andrew Fleischman is an attorney at Sessions & Fleischman in Atlanta.

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