The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Trump advocate Sidney Powell, a playbook steeped in conspiracy theories

Attorney Sidney Powell speaks during a news conference about lawsuits contesting the results of the presidential election at the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 19. (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post)

She zipped through classes at the University of North Carolina, earning her diploma in less than two years. She added a law degree and in her early 20s became, she has often said, the youngest federal prosecutor in the country. And when Sidney Powell — then a Democrat — moved into private practice, she co-wrote a paper hailed as a “manual” for deciphering sometimes-arcane appellate rules, salting in advice for fellow attorneys: Never “slant” the truth to benefit a client. “To write anything less than an accurate statement of facts can cost an attorney credibility with the court,” she wrote.

Fast forward two decades — through a bitter case she says shook her faith in the U.S. justice system — and there was Powell at a lectern at the headquarters of the Republican National Committee, introduced as an attorney representing President Trump.

At the Nov. 19 news conference, before a national television audience, she asserted that “communist money,” the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and a manipulated computer algorithm were all connected in a secret plot that had altered potentially millions of ballots and stolen the election from Trump.

Trump campaign lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani claimed Nov. 19 that President Trump lost the election because of a baseless conspiracy theory. (Video: The Washington Post)

Powell did not stop there. In an interview two days later with the conservative outlet Newsmax, she said she had been given evidence — which she said she could not disclose — that Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican and an ally of the president, had taken bribes and conspired to orchestrate Trump’s defeat. Nationwide, she estimated that “thousands” of local elections officials knowingly helped carry out the master scheme to tamper with ballots. In fact, Powell claimed, if anyone bothered to look, they’d probably find that U.S. elections had been rigged for decades.

In important places, the headspinning allegations did not land well.

Trump watched from the White House as his usual cast of sympathetic proxies — including Fox News’s Tucker Carlson and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie — turned on Powell, according to an official familiar with the events, who like others interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe confidential or private interactions at the White House and at Trump’s campaign offices. On ABC’s Sunday talk show, Christie said Powell’s comments had tipped the president’s legal efforts to challenge the outcome of the election into a “national embarrassment.”

In calls to the White House, several GOP senators warned that Powell seemed unhinged, two officials said.

Powell, at least for the time being, had gone too far.

On Nov. 22, two of the president’s attorneys, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Jenna Ellis, issued a statement saying that Powell was, in fact, not representing Trump — a remark that was true in that Powell had not yet been paid by the campaign, Trump campaign officials said and Powell has acknowledged.

For Powell, however, the banishment became not a defeat but a new opportunity, one mirroring and supported by Trump’s continued refusal to concede and by his insistence that the results are fraudulent.

Powell has remained a leading purveyor of outlandish allegations about the election, at a time when polls show that the great majority of Trump voters do not believe Democrat Joe Biden was the legitimate winner. In alleging broad conspiracies and questioning the motives and actions of multiple government institutions and officials, she has followed a playbook she has drawn from in the past.

As Powell pressed claims that the election was stolen from Trump, the president on Wednesday pardoned her most famous client, former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Powell also launched a fundraising effort that she said would support her work to expose fraud in the election, writing online that “millions of dollars must be raised to defend the Republic.”

Almost immediately after the Trump team distanced itself from her, some of Powell’s supporters began suggesting on social media that the move might have been a ploy to give her the leeway to be more aggressive in court. That idea spread quickly, particularly among followers of the QAnon movement, whose absurd beliefs include that Trump and his allies are preparing to vanquish a cabal of “deep state” child abusers and Satan-worshipping Democrats.

“Be patient, there is a strategy,” came a message on Monday from an account that frequently posts QAnon theories. “Sidney is working for WeThePeople. WeThePeople who seek reelection of The president.”

On Tuesday evening, Trump himself signaled renewed interest in Powell’s claims. He retweeted an interview in which Powell told Fox’s Lou Dobbs that software made by the company Dominion Voting Systems and used in 28 states had been designed to allow Chávez to manipulate election results in Venezuela, a discredited claim. The president also retweeted a message in which conservative Georgia attorney Lin Wood said Powell would file suit Wednesday laying out new evidence of voter fraud in Georgia. “Enemies of America will deny its allegations. Do NOT believe them. Believe Sidney & me. We love America & freedom. Our enemies do not,” Wood wrote.

After Powell posted a typo-ridden draft of the complaint on her website close to midnight on Wednesday, Trump on Thanksgiving retweeted a conservative podcaster saying the suit would seek to make Georgia declare Trump the winner of the state. The filing, which became available Friday on the court’s website, showed the complaint to the U.S. “Districct Court, Northern Distrcoict of Georgia” alleges “ballot-stuffing” through manipulation of Dominion’s electronic voting systems that is “virtually invisible.”

The 104-page filing — signed by Powell, Wood and two other attorneys — names Georgia’s governor, its secretary of state and elections officials and makes at least a dozen previously disputed or debunked claims about lax security of Dominion’s machines, its ownership and alleged foreign entanglements. Among them is that the company was “founded by foreign oligarchs and dictators to ensure computerized ballot-stuffing and vote manipulation to whatever level was needed” to keep Chávez in power for life.

No hearings in the case have yet been scheduled, but on Thanksgiving, Denver-based Dominion released a blistering 15-point rebuttal, calling the lawsuit malicious and a “bizarre election fraud conspiracy” that is “baseless, senseless, physically impossible, and unsupported by any evidence whatsoever.”

“Dominion was not ‘founded by oligarchs and dictators.’ It was founded in Toronto, Canada, and it is now a proud nonpartisan American company,” the company said, adding that no single company in the American electoral systems could surreptitiously change votes as Powell alleged. Such a plot would require “collaboration of thousands” of Republicans, Democrats, poll workers, auditors and contractors that support state information technology and voting systems.

“It is important to understand that this is not possible — not on a machine-by-machine basis, not by alleged hacking, not by manipulating software, and not by imagined ways of ‘sending’ votes to overseas locations,” Dominion said, noting that its devices create an auditable paper trail of every vote cast in Georgia. “Georgia handcounts, independent audits, and machine tests have all repeatedly affirmed that the machine counts were accurate.”

The lawsuit was much anticipated on the right — Powell had said that it and her other court filings would “release the kraken,” a reference to a mythical sea monster that quickly went viral. Online, supporters had a ready explanation for the typos and other errors: They were intentional and meant to draw media attention to the complaint.

Powell did not respond to phone and text messages seeking comment for this story.

Since the election, the Trump campaign has repeatedly alleged widespread fraud in the 2020 election. In court, his lawyers say the opposite. (Video: The Washington Post)

Virginia-based lawyer Jesse Binnall, who has worked with Powell on the Flynn case and is challenging election results for the Trump campaign in Nevada, said that it is “because of her tenacity and her courage that the truth ultimately came out in the Flynn case and will ultimately come out here.”

Flynn, who had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, was pardoned, not acquitted. The Supreme Court has ruled that accepting a pardon is akin to an admission of guilt.

'A fine young lawyer'

Powell, 65, grew up in Raleigh, N.C., where her father worked for GMAC, the finance arm of General Motors. Powell has said she was an avid “Perry Mason” viewer and wanted to be a lawyer by the fourth grade. At Needham Broughton High School, she made the National Honor Society and was listed in “Who’s Who” of high-achieving seniors.

Powell became known as a young woman in a hurry. In 1979, after she had completed a bachelor’s degree at the University of North Carolina in just 21 months and swiftly passed through UNC’s law school, a local newspaper illustrated a story on her with a cartoon of Powell racing across the graduation day stage in a high-speed blur, her cap trailing behind.

At the age of 23, Powell was hired as an assistant U.S. attorney in San Antonio, a distinction she has many times said made her then the youngest federal prosecutor in the country.

She joined an office that was under siege after taking on the region’s major drug traffickers. Weeks before Powell was sworn in, another assistant U.S. attorney survived an assassination attempt; a few months later, a judge was murdered. Several of Powell’s new colleagues were under protection by U.S. marshals.

Sue Boyd, whose husband, Jamie, was the U.S. attorney when Powell joined, said she had fond memories of Powell visiting their apartment to discuss cases with her boss, including their successful prosecution of drug kingpin Jamiel “Jimmy” Chagra.

Boyd said she has been shocked by Powell’s recent turn to extreme views and conspiracy theories. “This is not the Sidney I knew,” said Boyd. “I remember a fine young lawyer and a responsible person.”

Powell moved to the Northern District of Texas, based in Dallas, and according to a biography on her firm’s website began an appellate section for the prosecutor’s office.

After a decade at the Justice Department, Powell took a job at Dallas white-shoe firm Strasburger & Price. She then set up her own boutique appellate outfit, with addresses in Dallas and Asheville, N.C. By 1989, Powell was president of the bar association for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans.

In the mid-1990s, Powell got engaged to Roger K. Parsons, a Texas physicist, who hired her for legal representation after the death of his wife in a plane crash in Malaysia. Powell helped Parsons file malpractice claims against lawyers who had won him more than $4 million in damages from the plane’s owners, arguing that he should have been entitled to more, court filings show.

Windle Turley, an attorney Parsons sued unsuccessfully, said Powell appeared to advise Parsons poorly as the widower embarked on a years-long legal campaign that has alleged conspiracy theories and coverups related to the crash.

“It’s unfortunate that any lawyer would not see that Parsons needed help other than legal assistance,” Turley said in an interview.

Parsons rejected Turley’s remarks, saying in an email that his lawsuits were well founded and that Turley was not “in a position to be directing anyone’s need for counseling, legal or otherwise.”

Yet Parsons also said that Powell had changed since they broke off their engagement. “The Sidney Powell I knew then, like me, believed that a case justified by the facts and the law should most times succeed before a jury and judge,” he said. “I do not know the Sidney Powell I saw representing the Trump campaign.”

Powell was married and divorced twice between 1980 and 1995 and has a son who now works as a financial consultant.

In the early 2000s, Powell listed her state of residence as North Carolina. While there, she registered as a Democrat, records show. In 2005, she moved her registration to Texas, where voters do not declare a party affiliation. In 2007, she donated $1,000 to the presidential primary campaign of former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.).

Scarred by Enron case

It was in Texas — four years into a wave of prosecutions, lawsuits and appeals stemming from the 2001 bankruptcy of energy giant Enron Corp. — where Powell took on a case she would later say shook her view of the U.S. justice system.

Her client, James A. Brown, an executive of Merrill Lynch & Co., had been found guilty of several crimes in a complicated side chapter of the bankruptcy, one centered around Enron’s sale of its stake in Nigerian energy barges to the New York bank.

In 2006, after a year working his appeal, Powell and other lawyers successfully argued that the Fifth Circuit should overturn Merrill executives’ convictions on conspiracy and wire fraud charges. The appeals court let stand Brown’s convictions on perjury and obstruction. Brown did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story.

Powell returned to the lower court to seek a new trial on those charges, arguing that new evidence had come to light and that her client had been the victim of “egregious” prosecutorial misconduct.

In 2010, Judge Ewing Werlein Jr. of the Southern District of Texas rejected Powell’s argument. In a detailed 63-page decision, Werlein noted that out of a huge amount of materials presented in court, Powell’s attempt to argue her position was based on “excerpted pieces, phrases, and out-of-context passages.”

Powell appealed that decision to the Fifth Circuit as well. She claimed that prosecutors failed to disclose evidence that would have buttressed Brown’s defense if his lawyers had known about it.

A three-judge panel on the Fifth Circuit found that federal prosecutors had turned over much of the evidence in question to Werlein, the trial judge, to determine whether it needed to be provided to Brown’s lawyers. Werlein had ruled it did not, and said summaries of the evidence would suffice.

In a unanimous ruling, the panel found that some of the prosecutors’ raw notes contained favorable information for Brown but upheld Werlein’s decision, saying the information would not have had a meaningful impact on his defense.

The appeals court found that there was ample evidence of Brown’s guilt.

Powell continued filing ethics complaints against members of DOJ’s Enron Task Force. Among them was Andrew Weissmann, who by then was general counsel to the FBI. The complaint against him was ultimately dismissed, Powell later wrote.

In Powell’s view, the lack of repercussions for Weissmann and others was evidence that the justice system was fundamentally broken and could not be trusted to police itself.

In 2014, she published the book “Licensed to Lie,” which argued that ambitious, aggressive federal prosecutors have been allowed to break the law with impunity and run roughshod over the rights of individuals and businesses.

“The prosecutors truly responsible for these injustices are not only unscathed but flourishing,” Powell wrote. “Until these prosecutors are convicted in the court of public opinion, or disbarred, these very powerful and politically connected lawyers are still licensed to lie.”

Weissmann, who was soon to become chief of the fraud section within DOJ’s criminal division, was referenced nearly 100 times in the book. On a website she set up promoting the book, she took to describing him as “a true villain” of her tale.

The book gained purchase with conservatives. In 2015, then-Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) called it “powerful” during the Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, and urged her to read it. “If even half of it is true,” Hatch said, “you have a lot of work to do to clean up the department.”

But Powell saw forces at work to keep the book from becoming a mainstream hit. In 2015, she said she believed the federal government and unnamed others were deliberately suppressing its sales.

Powell claimed that Barnes & Noble refused to stock it and Amazon labeled it sold out when copies were available. “The New York Times refused to review the book, even though some noted people wanted to write a review of it,” she told an interviewer from WZAB radio in Sweetwater, Fla. “The New York Post was going to publish an article about it, but reached out to Department of Justice for comment and all of a sudden pulled the article. Been no mention of it since. No way to get through to them.”

Powell kept writing, penning a series of opinion articles for the website of the New York Observer, which was at the time owned by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Some of Powell’s pieces targeted long-standing foes, including Weissmann and Lynch, while others castigated Hillary Clinton, Trump’s 2016 opponent, for her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.

Two former editors at the paper said Powell was brought on as a contributor by Ken Kurson, a close friend of Kushner’s who was then the top editor. In a brief interview, Kurson confirmed that he personally edited Powell’s copy.

“She pitched me an article and I liked it,” Kurson said. “I didn’t know her, and I don’t believe she knew Jared.”

Kushner did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Soon Powell would have a much bigger audience.

In May 2017, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein appointed former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III as special counsel to investigate alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. One of Mueller’s first hires: Weissmann.

“#Mueller hiring out of my book! #Weissmann now,” tweeted Powell, tagging President Trump, Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Kushner and others

The following month, former House speaker Newt Gingrich tweeted: “Licensed to Lie: Exposing Corruption in the Department of Justice: by Sidney Powell is about to become a very important book-explains a lot.”

Star turn

Powell and her book started getting more airtime on conservative radio and television, especially Fox News.

“Meet a woman named Sidney Powell,” Sean Hannity told his audience in November 2017. “She worked at the DOJ for a decade. She believes that one of Mueller’s top investigators, Andrew Weissmann, has a documented history of using strong-arm tactics to seek convictions, unethical behavior.”

Powell was ready when the camera turned to her.

“Andrew Weissmann is the poster boy for prosecutorial misconduct,” she said. He’s one of a “a corrupt cabal of former prosecutors and now current prosecutors again who are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve whatever they want to achieve.”

Weissmann declined to comment for this story and has not responded to her public attacks on him.

When Mueller’s office began indicting Trump allies in relation to the Russia probe, Powell appeared repeatedly on Fox News to argue that the prosecution was hollow. Trump regularly saw her arguments, officials said, and appreciated them, particularly on the show of his ally Lou Dobbs.

“Neither Mr. Mueller nor Andrew Weissmann are interested in the truth, whatsoever,” she told Fox News host Mark Levin.

In November 2018, Powell spoke at a conference in Dallas organized to raise money for the legal defense fund for Flynn, who by then had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and agreed to cooperate with Mueller.

The event was billed as a “who’s who of political leaders; each dedicating themselves to exposing the Deep State and supporting a great American patriot and hero.”

Powell delivered a talk titled “Creeps on a Mission to Destroy the President,” and she met with Flynn’s sister and brother on the sidelines of the conference, Politico reported.

After Powell took over Flynn’s defense, in June 2019, the case became a legal roller coaster.

Over several months, Powell sought to have U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan toss Flynn’s case, arguing misconduct by prosecutors and suggesting the government was going after Flynn to embarrass Trump. In January, Flynn asked to withdraw his guilty plea, alleging prosectors breached his cooperation agreement by demanding false testimony.

The government pushed back against motions seeking documents, arguing that Powell was demanding “a fishing expedition” to support her theories. Prosecutors also disclosed that Powell wrote to Attorney General William P. Barr in June 2019, asking in “utmost confidentiality” that he appoint an outsider to review Flynn’s case, an examination she felt would lead to its dismissal.

Barr ultimately did as she suggested.

Powell wrote the letter — which disparaged prosecutors as well as Sullivan — on Flynn’s behalf without notifying his then-defense attorneys.

In court, Sullivan described the letter as unusual and asked whether “it was ethical to write on behalf of someone you didn’t represent.” Powell replied that at the time she had begun representing Flynn and merely had not filed paperwork with the court reflecting that.

In the course of a hearing in September, Powell revealed that she had personally briefed the president on the case.

'Important News Conference'

Powell is friendly with Ellis, the campaign attorney, according to two officials with knowledge of the inner workings of the Trump campaign. But precisely how Powell came to be a leading face of Trump’s election challenges, and onstage last week at the RNC news conference, remains a mystery even to some who have long been deeply involved in the campaign, they said.

Powell, according to a third campaign official, simply showed up at headquarters a couple of days after the election.

“She was not involved whatsoever in the conventional campaign legal structure or the RNC legal structure,” the official said. “She was totally on the outside. She had not been involved whatsoever.”

Powell, the official said, began pressing the campaign to focus suspicion on Dominion Voting Systems. She told Trump campaign officials that the Dominion strategy was ideal because it would draw into question the accuracy of voting in so many states, the official said.

The two other officials said that when Trump’s actual lawyers sought evidence from her, she produced none.

Campaign lawyers Justin Clark and Matt Morgan told others they should not present the Dominion theory because there was no evidence for it, the two officials said. The campaign official who was surprised by her sudden involvement said she did not seem interested in having the evidence.

“What you saw with Sidney Powell and Rudy, it wasn’t shoot first and ask questions later. It was shoot first and don’t ask questions at all,” that official said.

Some RNC and campaign lawyers decided to avoid all meetings where Powell was present, this person said. The night before the Nov. 19 news conference, Ellis, Giuliani, Powell — and Flynn — were all together, the official said.

Early the next morning, Trump tweeted a promo: “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.”

Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.

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