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Trump has yet to help his Georgia co-defendants with their legal bills, a risky test of their loyalty

Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters
  • Former President Donald Trump's co-defendants in the Georgia elections case could easily face legal bills of more than $1 million to mount a defense against the sprawling RICO indictment.
  • So far Trump and his political machine have refused to assist with legal bills, forcing his onetime allies to scramble to find other sources of funds.
  • After decades of paying the legal bills for people who are loyal to him, Trump's decision to abandon his alleged co-conspirators could be straining the loyalty of onetime allies.

As former President Donald Trump and his army of lawyers prepare for his formal surrender on Thursday, a harsh new reality is emerging for the co-defendants charged alongside him in Georgia: Their legal bills are about to skyrocket, and it appears no help is on the way from Trump.

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"I was reliably informed Trump isn't funding any of us who are indicted," attorney and co-defendant Jenna Ellis said Friday in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Ellis is one of 19 people who were charged Aug. 14 in a sprawling indictment by a grand jury in Fulton County after an investigation by District Attorney Fani Willis. The defendants are accused of participating in a criminal effort to interfere in the state's results in the 2020 presidential election on behalf of then-candidate Trump.

Trump has a history of paying for at least some of his allies' legal counsel. His entire political network, including his joint fundraising committees, spent over $70 million combined from the start of 2020 through the end of 2022 on legal fees, according to a report by OpenSecrets.

People familiar with the big bills in the Georgia case told CNBC that many caught up in the case are not expecting any 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 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, created in July by two Trump confidants, is supposed to raise money to help Trump's aides and employees with their legal bills, according to a business record reviewed by CNBC. As of Tuesday, there were no public nonprofit records showing there has been any fundraising, let alone doling out money. Michael Glassner, a co-founder of the fund, declined to comment.

With Trump and his millions firmly 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 poised to soar now that the court proceedings are finally underway.

Trump co-defendants can expect to pay their lawyers "seven figures if it's a dollar," meaning at least $1 million, said Randy Zelin, a veteran attorney who specializes in white-collar crimes.

Part of the reason legal fees are so high in Trump court cases is that, for an attorney, representing a Trump-aligned client is potentially rife with pitfalls, including possibly defending the former president's false claim that he won the 2020 election, Zelin said.

"You have to do and say as the former president says and does," Zelin said.

Yet, he said, there are two ways a client could pay less than the going rate. The first is if an attorney is willing to take the publicity instead of at least some of the fees, he said.

The second way, he said, is if the attorney's client "flips" on one or more co-defendants.

Legal peril for Trump

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

Trump has a long record of using joint defense agreements, or JDAs, in which Trump can help choose the lawyer and pays the bills. One of the more memorable JDAs Trump entered into was with his 2016 presidential campaign manager, Paul Manafort, during the special counsel probe into Russia's effort to interfere in the 2016 election. But as Manafort's own legal troubles mounted so did the pressure on him to cooperate, which he ultimately did, according to The New York Times.

"She who has the gold, rules. If I am paying for your attorney, I don't expect you to hurt me," said Zelin.

"A joint defense agreement ... helps take care of that, and the agreement is standard with co-defendants working together, so they can share information without getting stabbed in the back," Zelin wrote in an email.

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

"You want to make sure your co-defendants have quality counsel who can work with your counsel – and oh yes, not encourage the client to flip!" he said.

Legal defense funds

Several of the most recognizable defendants have launched their own legal defense funds, effectively collecting money from donors to help fill in the gap created by Trump's refusal to pitch in.

They include Ellis and pro-Trump lawyer John Eastman, who is facing nine counts and is widely considered the grandfather of the so-called "fake electors" scheme at the heart of the case.

Over two years of crowdfunding, Eastman has collected just shy of $500,000, according to data from his fundraising site. But he recently said in a post on his site that the money is almost all gone.

"Most of the funds previously raised have already been depleted or committed," Eastman wrote in an update Aug. 18. Eastman told reporters Tuesday outside the Atlanta jail where he surrendered that he's paying his own legal fees. His attorneys did not respond to requests for comment, but they previously said he was not interested in a plea deal.

The former president and his lawyers now appear ready to throw Eastman under the bus.

Within days of the Georgia indictment, Trump's attorneys signaled in interviews that they plan to blame Eastman for giving Trump bad legal advice about overturning the election. They also intend to argue that when Trump pressed then-Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to certify the 2020 results, Trump was merely acting on Eastman's advice.

Ellis has recently drifted away from Trump and now backs Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the GOP primary. She has evolved into a sharp critic of the former president, and vented about her frustration over Trump's refusal to help his co-defendants in Georgia.

"Why isn't MAGA, Inc. funding everyone's defense?" she wrote Friday on X. An attorney representing Ellis in the Georgia case did not respond to a request for comment about whether his client would accept a plea deal if one were offered.

Unlike Ellis, Jeffrey Clark, a former DOJ official, has stayed firmly in Trump's fold, according to Clark's tweets.

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

A spokeswoman for a Clark-run nonprofit 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 chair of rural Coffee County, Georgia, and a fake Trump elector, is also accused of tampering with voting machines in a sweeping 11-count indictment. Latham's crowdfunding site emphasizes that she is a "retired public school teacher" who is "living on a teacher's pension."

Meanwhile, attorneys for Ellis, Eastman, Clark and Latham have not received any payments from entities in Trump's sprawling political network since the House select committee's probe into the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

Robert Sinners ran the Trump 2020 Election Day political operation in Georgia. Today he is an unnamed alleged co-conspirator referred to only as "Individual 4" in the Georgia indictment, according to The Daily Beast. Sinners has not been charged with any crimes.

Sinners represents a third category within Trump's legal universe: Former allies who got burned by their proximity to Trump and who want nothing more to do with the 2024 Republican presidential front-runner or his political operation.

"It would take a shocking amount of stupidity to rely upon an allegedly corrupt organization when that same organization displayed such disregard for one's own well being in the first place," Sinners said in an email to CNBC about how he was funding his legal bills.

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