A day after major news organizations declared Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential race, a Sunday-morning guest on Fox News was holding forth on exotic and baseless claims of election fraud — allegedly deceased voters, ballots supposedly lacking an option to vote for Donald Trump, an “affidavit” from a postal worker claiming to have postdated mail-in ballots — when host Maria Bartiromo pressed for more details.
“Sidney, we talked about the Dominion software,” Bartiromo said on the Nov. 8, 2020, broadcast. “I know that there were voting irregularities. Tell me about that.”
The guest was Sidney Powell, a Texas-based lawyer who would soon be ambiguously connected to the Trump legal team mustered to challenge the election results. She stared stiffly into the lights of a satellite TV studio but answered without hesitation.
“That’s putting it mildly,” Powell replied. “The computer glitches could not and should not have happened at all. That’s where the fraud took place, where they were flipping votes in the computer system or adding votes that did not exist.”
It was the first of a dozen appearances Powell would make on Fox programs over the next month in which she helped inject far-fetched and debunked claims of widespread fraud into the mainstream — and which are now at the heart of Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox, court documents show.
These appearances helped elevate a once-obscure lawyer to a marquee player in Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election — and helped keep her claims of fraud on the forefront for millions of loyal Fox viewers, including Trump himself. Powell would continue to appear on Fox for weeks after Dominion protested that it had been unfairly smeared, and as Fox News executives privately agonized that these on-air falsehoods created a problem for the network, according to newly released internal communications and testimony.
She would even appear on Fox programs after a Fox Corp. senior vice president said he had privately begged the White House to disavow Powell.
“We encouraged several sources within the administration to tell reporters that Powell offered no evidence for her claims and didn’t speak for the president,” executive Raj Shah wrote to his bosses on Nov. 23 — a day after Trump lawyers issued statements saying that Powell was not a member of their team.
One day later, though, Powell was back in front of Fox’s cameras, telling host Lou Dobbs that in Arizona, “there were 35,000 votes added to every Democrat candidate just to start their voting off. It’s like getting your $500 of Monopoly money to begin with when you haven’t done anything, and it was only for Democrats.”
Fox has defended its decision to air such statements as a normal exploration of newsworthy claims by the sitting president and his attorneys.
Dominion argues that Fox’s internal communications show that it knew such claims were false and irresponsible even as it continued to air them and continued to book Trump lawyers such as Powell and Rudy Giuliani well into December. Fox has countered that individual hosts who brought Powell on their shows believed that these claims — coming from a respected lawyer who was using them as the basis for court challenges — might be valid.
Still, it is that very first post-election Powell appearance on Nov. 8 — and what has come to be known as the “wackadoodle” email said to have inspired some of the segment’s particularly specific and bizarre claims — that legal experts say might provide Dominion with some of its most potent evidence.
Powell, who had worked as a federal prosecutor in the 1970s and ’80s, had a relatively low profile outside of certain legal and political circles. But she was not an unknown to Fox News, where she had been an occasional guest while defending former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn against charges that he lied to the FBI.
While she would later appear with Giuliani and other Trump lawyers at news conferences, she never appeared with them in court or signed her name to filings in their many legal challenges.
Powell, who did not respond to requests for comment for this story, is also being sued individually by Dominion. Since the calamitous aftermath of the 2020 election, the Justice Department has subpoenaed documents related to a nonprofit organization she set up for the election challenges she pursued independently and a political action committee, amid questions about what happened to the millions they had raised. Powell has also been sanctioned by a federal judge in Michigan for what he deemed a frivolous election challenge and has been sued by the Texas bar for alleged professional misconduct.
But on that day, Bartiromo in her introduction described Powell as “fighting on the front lines of this battle as part of the president’s legal team.” And after a few minutes of conspiracy-theory-fueled chatter, she broke for a commercial with this teaser:
“Sidney, I want to ask you about these algorithms and the Dominion software,” the host said. “I understand Nancy Pelosi has an interest in this company?”
Dominion alleges that their subsequent line of on-air discussion was inspired by an email Powell had received a day earlier from a Minnesota artist with no apparent expertise in election administration, which Powell shared with Bartiromo, who sent it along to her producer.
“I also see reports that Nancy Pelosi’s longtime chief of staff is a key executive at that company; Richard Blum, Senator Feinstein’s husband, significant shareholder of the company,” Bartiromo said. “What can you tell us about the interest on the other side — of this Dominion software?”
“Well, obviously,” Powell responded, “they have invested in it for their own reasons and are using it to commit this fraud to steal votes.”
In their court briefs, Dominion’s lawyers have argued that they can find no source of the allegations about Pelosi and Blum other than the email from the Minnesota artist that the plaintiff turned up during the lawsuit’s discovery process. (Blum, who died last year, did not own a stake in Dominion. A former Pelosi chief of staff later moved on to a lobbying firm that has done work for Dominion but is not a “key executive” for it.)
And yet the artist, in the very same email, acknowledged that her claims were “wackadoodle” — and went on to allege that the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia was murdered in a human hunting expedition, that she herself was capable of time travel and that “the wind tells me I am a ghost.”
Bartiromo’s producer, Abby Grossberg, testified in a deposition in the case that she didn’t remember reading the email at the time and that it “was just one of the many documents that she probably forwarded me before the segment,” adding that it “isn’t something that I would use right now as reportable for air, no.” In her own deposition, Bartiromo called the email “kooky” and said she did not report on it. Fox said Thursday that Bartiromo’s interview questions were based on a prior conversation with Powell and not on the email.
Experts in defamation law have said the artist’s email could pose a major problem for Fox in defending itself, if Dominion can successfully connect the on-air conversation back to this email.
Some of the email’s other flamboyant claims should have given Bartiromo and her staff “an obvious reason” to doubt Powell’s credibility in forwarding it, said Jeffrey Pyle, an adjunct law professor at Boston College and a private practitioner focusing on First Amendment-related cases.
“The ‘wackadoodle’ email is a classic example of such evidence,” Pyle said. “The person you’re having on is forwarding without irony an email from a person who claims to be a time traveler. That is a red flag as to the reliability of that source.”
Internal communications indicate that there was almost immediate alarm within Fox after Powell and Bartiromo discussed these claims.
“Tons of crazy,” a Fox News communications executive texted a colleague on Nov. 8 as they agreed to not publicize the interview.
Some of Bartiromo’s on-air colleagues began to push back on the Trump team’s conspiracy theories. News host Neil Cavuto cut away from a campaign news conference in which Trump spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany accused Democrats of “welcoming fraud and welcoming illegal voting.” Cavuto explained that “unless she has more details to back that up, I can’t in good countenance continue showing you this.” Fox News anchor Bret Baier featured a statement from the Department of Homeland Security maintaining that voting systems were secure and uncompromised on his Nov. 12 “Special Report” broadcast.
But by the following night, Powell was making her third appearance since the election on a Fox program, “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” on Fox Business.
(In a statement, Fox noted that of the 3,840 hours of programming it ran between the election and the end of January 2021, “approximately 4.25 hours involved Sidney Powell segments that Dominion challenges in its lawsuit.”)
Within Fox, skepticism of Powell was growing. Prime-time host Tucker Carlson — who had declared in private texts that “Sidney Powell is lying” — confronted Powell in a text on Nov. 18, saying that, “If you tell people you have evidence of the greatest crime in American history, you’d better have it for real. … But if you don’t provide proof, then you are a fraud and should be ashamed of what you’ve done.” He delivered a similar message on air the following night.
Yet executives also were growing concerned about the threat of declining ratings, as viewers who clung to Trump’s account of a stolen election began to gravitate toward smaller rivals, such as Newsmax and One America, that championed those arguments. In internal communications, executives and some prime-time hosts expressed concern that contradicting the election-fraud claims would further alienate those viewers.
A day after Carlson’s exchange with Powell, Fox aired a live news conference with Powell and Giuliani in Washington that may be best remembered for the image of Giuliani’s dark hair dye running down the sides of his face.
When the news conference ended, a Fox News reporter declared on air that some of what was said was “simply not true.” Shah reacted with alarm, texting a colleague: “This is the kinda s--- that will kill us. we cover it wall to wall and then we burn that down with all the skepticism.”
That night, Carlson criticized Powell by name on his show and said she would not provide him with evidence of her claims. Among others, the president was watching. In her testimony to the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, former White House and campaign aide Hope Hicks recalled hearing Trump in a speakerphone conversation with Powell, “calling to ask her why she wouldn’t go on the show and defend herself, and that not responding looked weak.”
The next morning, Powell made another appearance on Bartiromo’s Fox Business show to deny Carlson’s characterization. Days later, she retweeted Trump’s complaints about Fox News anchors (“virtually unwatchable”) and slammed Carlson in an interview on Newsmax.
Fox executives, meanwhile, tried to work behind the scenes to curtail Powell’s on-air appearances, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.
Despite the campaign’s official disavowal, Powell continued to find occasional entree to the White House, including for a raucous Oval Office meeting with Trump and others on Dec. 18 that preceded by hours his tweeted promise that a planned Jan. 6 rally in D.C. to protest the election result would be “wild.” She also found a home on select Fox shows. (Grossberg, Bartiromo’s producer, explained in her deposition that “each show operates on its own. … Each show makes up their own guidelines.”)
Her appearances were couched by presenters in a somewhat different tone. Both Bartiromo and Dobbs began framing their interviews differently, prodding Powell for evidence of her claims.
“Sidney, let me ask you this,” Bartiromo said the day after the news conference. “A lot of people out there want to believe what’s happening and what you are presenting, because they want to make sure that this was a fair election and they want to make sure that their vote counted. Do you believe that you will be able to prove this in court in the next two weeks?”
Bartiromo also asked Powell to respond to pushback from Dominion, which had issued a strong statement calling Powell’s and Giuliani’s allegations absurd. And she further asked Powell whether it was true that Carlson had asked her for evidence and that she had refused to provide any.
Powell sidestepped this and other questions. “We have more evidence now than half the prison population is imprisoned on,” Powell said — without providing any.
On the Nov. 30 episode of his Fox Business show, Dobbs gave Powell an open microphone: “Let me start by just saying: This time is yours,” Dobbs told her. “Right now, this audience, most of America, wants to know: Where are we in this fight for the White House?” That same day, Sean Hannity — one of Fox’s biggest stars — interviewed Powell on both his radio show and his prime-time television show. “There was a whole plot going on and a lot of people involved in this,” she said.
And as late as Dec. 10 — long after other hosts had started to push her for more evidence — Dobbs continued to praise her.
“I will get you some more information that’s just stunning tonight,” Powell told Dobbs.
“Sidney Powell, thank you for all you’re doing,” he replied. “It is the Lord’s work.”