Sidney Powell once fought for Trump. With Georgia plea, she’s a threat.

Photo of author


In the weeks after the 2020 election, a self-assured lawyer with a Southern drawl quickly climbed the ranks of the movement trying to keep President Trump in power: She aired outlandish assertions on Fox News and before cameras at the headquarters of the Republican National Committee, filed a battery of lawsuits pressing Trump’s case and took part in an Oval Office meeting where the president considered naming her a special prosecutor.

Then Sidney Powell fell back down to earth.

Trump’s team spurned her. Federal prosecutors demanded her fundraising records. She was ordered to pay sanctions for filing a frivolous lawsuit in Michigan. The State Bar of Texas lodged a disciplinary complaint against her. Two companies that make voting software sued her.

All that was before prosecutors began filing criminal charges. In August, she appeared as an unindicted co-conspirator in the federal indictment accusing Trump of trying to subvert the election, and, later that month, she was charged alongside him in a Georgia case brought by Atlanta-area prosecutors.

On Thursday, Powell resolved the Georgia case by pleading guilty to six misdemeanor counts of conspiracy to interfere with the performance of election duties. Her plea related to her involvement with a secretive effort to access and copy election software in rural Coffee County, Ga. in the months after the 2020 election — part of an attempt to prove Democrats might have tampered with the machines.

The deal turns Powell into the government’s most prominent known asset in its quest to convict Trump, potentially now dangerous to the president she once supported. But it also represents a personal minefield for the 68-year-old lawyer, who is still fundraising based on a promise to sponsor causes that are dear to supporters of the former president, including the legal defense of people accused of breaching the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Sidney Powell, a former attorney for president Donald Trump, pleaded guilty in a case over efforts to overturn Trump’s 2020 election loss on Oct. 19. (Video: AP)

The plea deal sent shock waves through circles loyal to those causes.

“I’m surprised,” said Jonathon Moseley, an attorney who has represented numerous Jan. 6 defendants. “She built a reputation on being a fighter. She wrote a book called ‘Licensed to Lie’ about government corruption. I just wouldn’t have expected her to stop fighting.”

Powell’s attorney, Brian Rafferty, declined to comment.

As part of her plea, she was required to write a letter of apology to the people of Georgia — a terse handwritten note on a legal pad that she submitted to prosecutors Thursday that indicated she was sorry for her actions in Coffee County, according to a person familiar with the message who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

For now, the terms of Powell’s plea agreement prohibit her from discussing the case publicly or speaking to others charged.

That leaves associates to debate whether she is now a Trump antagonist or remains a loyal foot soldier.

After Trump declined to act on some of the most brazen proposals, including naming Powell special counsel and seizing voting machines, she soured on him, according to someone who discussed the matter with her and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing criminal cases. “She was disgusted with his unwillingness to take action,” said this person, who recalled finding it unusual that she was expressing personal disappointment with someone whose election defeat she continued to try to reverse.

But an attorney who once worked for Powell’s firm, Sidney Powell P.C., rejected the notion that her personal feelings toward Trump would influence her testimony.

“The idea that she would shade her testimony based upon a personal bias could only be suggested by someone who does not know Sidney well. (Of course, I don’t think Trump committed any crime, and so I don’t think there is anything to hide.),” the attorney, Molly McCann Sanders, wrote in an email.

Of her onetime boss, the attorney added, “I know her first priority will be to be truthful.”

‘I’d like my key and my White House pass’

Powell toiled for decades in high-stakes, but low-profile, circumstances — as a federal prosecutor in Texas and Virginia and then a private litigator representing defendants in the Enron financial scandal and other disputes.

She gained prominence in 2019 when she took over the defense of Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. She went to great lengths for her client, writing to then-Attorney General William P. Barr about the matter, and, by her own account, personally briefing Trump on the case. The Justice Department announced plans to drop the case in 2020, and Trump ultimately pardoned Flynn.

“I wish I knew,” Powell said in a 2021 interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, when asked how she became involved in Trump’s post-election legal efforts in 2020.

She said she was “in the area at the time” and working “on another matter” with Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. “The next thing I know I’m smack in the middle of it,” she said. “And people are pouring in with offers of help and wanting to investigate and wanting to give us affidavits.”

One of those people was apparently a Minnesota artist with no apparent expertise in election administration, who wrote to Powell four days after the election, acknowledging that her claims were “pretty wackadoodle” and yet alleging widespread malfeasance by Dominion Voting Systems — malfeasance implicating the upper echelons of the Democratic Party.

Powell aired some of those ideas the next day on Fox News. The Nov. 8, 2020, broadcast was the first in a string of Fox appearances by Powell over the next month — appearances in which she introduced millions of Fox viewers, including the then-president, to fantastical claims of election fraud and burnished her pro-Trump bona fides.

On Nov. 13, she teased that she would soon publish voluminous evidence of fraud. “I’m going to release the Kraken,” she said, a reference to a mythical sea monster that soon morphed into a viral pro-Trump rallying cry.

Less than a week later, she shared the stage with Giuliani at a news conference held at the headquarters of the Republican National Committee. The president primed his supporters for the occasion on Twitter, now known as X: “Important News Conference today by lawyers on a very clear and viable path to victory. Pieces are very nicely falling into place. RNC at 12 p.m.”

Powell, who was presented by Giuliani as a member of Trump’s legal team, alleged a vast conspiracy by foreign forces to switch the outcome of the election.

“What we are really dealing with here and uncovering more by the day is the massive influence of communist money through Venezuela, Cuba and likely China and the interference with our elections here in the United States,” she said at the Nov. 19, 2020, news conference.

Three days later, the Trump campaign sought to distance itself from her. Giuliani, in a statement issued by the campaign, said Powell was “practicing law on her own.” As one campaign official put it at the time, “She was too crazy even for the president.” Powell pressed ahead with her claims, filing a series of ultimately unsuccessful lawsuits — which came to be known as the “Kraken” cases — seeking to reverse the outcome of the election in numerous states.

And a month later, Powell gained access to the White House and an audience with Trump. Late on a Friday night a week before Christmas, Powell and a handful of others, including Flynn, urged the president to take extreme measures to unearth evidence of fraud and reverse his defeat, according to the testimony of people present. As the Dec. 18, 2020, meeting unfolded, first in the Oval Office and then in the White House residence, an aide described it in a text message as “UNHINGED.”

During the hours-long discussion, people present later said, Trump weighed seizing voting machines from key counties, deploying the National Guard to potentially rerun the election and appointing Powell as a special counsel to investigate the election. “There was a proposal made by Sidney to become special counsel,” Bernard Kerik, a former New York Police Department Commission and close ally of Giuliani, said in a deposition taken by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Powell, in a deposition with the same panel, said the president “asked me to be special counsel to address the election issues and to collect evidence.”

But the plan sputtered, she said. The next morning, she placed a call to Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, to say, “Hey, I’d like my key and my White House pass,” as she recalled. “And his response was: Well, that’s just not going to happen.”

‘No reasonable person’

The reckoning for Powell began before the year was out. In December 2020, a former Dominion employee sued her for defamation in Colorado. He argued that she, Trump and others ruined his reputation by linking him to false claims the election was stolen. The case is still pending.

The next month, Dominion itself sued her for defamation, asking for $1.3 billion in damages. No evidence has ever emerged that its machines were used to swing the election.

Another company that makes voting software, Smartmatic, followed suit in April 2021. (A New York judge later dismissed the claims against her, but the company has a separate federal case against her, which is still pending.)

Responding to Dominion’s claims that spring, Powell’s attorneys contended that her statements could not be proved true or false. “No reasonable person would conclude that the statements were truly statements of fact,” they wrote. Their argument was that she was merely asserting her opinions and legal theories, not that her claims were necessarily wrong.

Still, Trump erupted at the defense, and she quickly fell out of favor with him, said people familiar with the matter, who said she has not been a presence in his inner circle for several years.

Initially, he expressed appreciation that Powell was “fighting” for him while others were giving up. But her theories were scorned by other lawyers, and Trump ultimately conceded that Powell was too conspiratorial even for him. In recent months, Trump has told others that Powell was not his lawyer, while maintaining that he “liked her” at the time, according to an adviser. Trump’s lawyers believe they can undermine her as a credible witness because she has cast doubt on the veracity of her own statements, the adviser said.

Powell’s troubles mounted later in 2021, when the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia sought communications and other records related to fundraising and accounting by a number of groups started by Powell, including Defending the Republic, a Texas-based organization claiming 501(c) 4 nonprofit status, and a PAC by the same name, according to documents reviewed by The Washington Post.

An attorney for Powell said at the time that, “We have always known the more effective we are, the more the false attacks will intensify. Defending the Republic has and will continue to fight for #WeThePeople who make this country work.”

The nonprofit group raised $16.4 million in the year following the 2020 election, according to tax filings. According to its website, Defending the Republic’s causes include: election fraud, fighting “lawfare,” exposing government corruption, fighting mandates, “defending January 6ers,” and Freedom of Information Act litigation.

The group has helped cover legal expenses for numerous people prosecuted for their alleged involvement in the pro-Trump riot at the Capitol, according to defense attorneys involved in these cases.

Moseley, the attorney who has represented Jan. 6 defendants, said the money hasn’t always come through as promised. One of his paralegals still needs to be paid, he said, and another attorney has complained to him of not receiving payments for some time.

“I think Sidney’s funding had to take care of her and some of her legal battles,” said Moseley, who was disbarred last year in Virginia for violating a range of professional rules.

At the end of 2021, a federal judge in Michigan ordered Powell and others involved in the November 2020 lawsuit that challenged the election results in that state to pay about $175,000 in legal fees to the state of Michigan and the city of Detroit. The judge, Linda V. Parker, called the fees an “appropriate sanction … needed to deter Plaintiffs’ counsel and others from engaging in similar misconduct in the future.”

Kleinhendler, Powell’s attorney, criticized the decision and vowed to appeal, but a federal appeals court panel upheld the sanctions against her.

Last year, a disciplinary commission within the Texas bar sued Powell for professional misconduct. A state judge tossed the complaint, prompting the commission to appeal.

Jury selection in Powell’s trial in Fulton County had been set to begin this week. Conviction on seven felony counts — including violation of Georgia’s anti-racketeering act and conspiracy to commit election fraud — could have been rock bottom for the embattled lawyer.

Her deal to plead guilty only to misdemeanors means she will avoid jail time. In addition to six years of probation, she agreed to pay a $6,000 fine and $2,700 in restitution to the state of Georgia.

The deal may also help preserve Powell’s ability to practice law because it involved prosecutors spelling out that her crimes did not involve “moral turpitude,” language she could use to fend off the complaint in Texas. And because Powell has no prior felonies, successful completion of the terms of her sentence will allow her under Georgia law to erase the convictions from her permanent record.

The deal means “better consequences for her,” Moseley said, but it puts her standing in the pro-Trump movement in doubt. “It’s going to be hard to rally the troops after this,” he said.

Instead of furnishing evidence of election interference by the Chinese or Venezuelans, she is admitting to having engaged in it herself. “Guilty,” she intoned in a downtown Atlanta courtroom, when asked by a prosecutor how she pleaded to the charges.

Powell was the second of the former president’s 18 co-defendants to plead guilty and agree to testify. Bail bondsman Scott Hall pleaded guilty in September.

Another defendant, Kenneth Chesebro, pleaded guilty on Friday to a single felony count of conspiring to file false documents — a charge related to his role in organizing GOP slates of electors in seven states won by Joe Biden to cast votes for Trump anyway.

The ‘brains’ behind fake Trump electors was once a liberal Democrat

Powell has now agreed to testify against the remaining defendants in the case, including Trump. It’s not known what precisely prosecutors hope to learn from Powell and when they might call her as a witness.

Fulton County Assistant District Attorney Daysha Young read aloud in court the facts prosecutors would have presented against Powell at trial, describing how Powell entered into a conspiracy with several co-defendants in the case. The purpose of the conspiracy, Young said, was to unlawfully access election machines in Coffee County. At the center of the conspiracy, Young argued, was Powell’s move to retain Sullivan Strickler, an Atlanta-based cyber-forensics firm.

Her testimony could reveal whether others in Trump’s orbit were involved with or aware of the scheme. There are some clues about ways Powell may be able to link members of Trump’s inner circle to the far-fetched effort. In a December 2020 email — which was read aloud during a deposition taken by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack — Powell seems to have kept Meadows — another defendant in the Georgia case — apprised of efforts to access voting software in various states.

“Georgia machine access promised in meeting Friday night,” part of the email read. A lawyer for Meadows did not respond to a request for comment.

Powell is now limited in what she can say publicly about the Georgia case. But her nonprofit, Defending the Republic, asked followers for forbearance in a Friday newsletter distributed via the Substack platform: “We at Defending the Republic appreciate your patience, support, and understanding of Sidney’s decision regarding the Georgia case.”

“Now that this is behind us, we can focus on our mission,” the newsletter vowed.

Emma Brown contributed to this report.

Leave a comment