Between then and Sunday afternoon, though, the relationship between Powell and the president soured. Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has served as Trump’s personal attorney since last year, released a statement effectively slicing Powell out of the strike force. Something that Powell had done crossed some sort of line, and out she went, with the statement’s language leaving open the possibility that the remaining team might try to claim that Powell had never been formally representing Trump’s interests.
So what happened?
Well, we know what it wasn't.
It wasn’t that Powell said things that were obviously untrue. Giuliani himself delineated a whole battery of nonsense at last week’s news briefing, claims that were not only presented without evidence but also that depended on purported evidence that the team said it was intentionally withholding. What Giuliani claimed was less obviously nonsense, avoiding claims that the election was thrown via systems implemented by a dead Venezuelan leader (as Powell said). But it was still nonsense on a grand scale. Giuliani falsely claimed that President-elect Joe Biden was somehow involved in a broad scheme aimed at planting illegal votes around the country, an effort that looped in scores of people in a number of states, including ones with Republican leadership — all without detection.
It also wasn’t that Powell’s claims themselves met with Trump’s disfavor. Her false allegations about voting machines altering the results of various contests had been hyped repeatedly by the president himself both before and after her appearance.
Nor was it that Powell’s performance was uniquely embarrassing. Ask an American what happened at the news conference, and you are far more likely to hear about Giuliani’s performance — and tonsorial failures — than about anything that Powell did.
Stepping so deliberately into the national spotlight didn’t serve Powell particularly well, but this, too, was predictable. She has served as attorney for former national security adviser Michael Flynn since June 2019, prompting legal experts to marvel at her bizarre arguments and the bad advice she offered her client. Like Flynn, Powell has flirted with the QAnon conspiracy theory and embraced its adherents as allies. All of this was known before Trump elevated her to his team.
Powell did do two things that Giuliani avoided, however.
The first was that she implied the involvement of Republican elected officials in her delineated conspiracy theory.
“We have no idea how many Republican or Democratic candidates in any state across the country paid to have the system rigged to work for them,” she said during the news conference. (The available evidence suggests that the answer is zero, particularly since her theory of how voting machines work is itself nonsensical.)
This comment spurred an unusual rebuke from Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).
“To insinuate that Republican and Democratic candidates paid to throw off this election, I think, is absolutely outrageous, and I do take offense to that,” Ernst said.
The senator later added: “To have that accusation just offhandedly thrown out there, just to confuse our voters across the United States, I think that is absolutely wrong.” It’s a criticism that could certainly be applied to Giuliani’s unfounded claims of rampant fraud, as well.
Powell was more specific during an appearance on Newsmax. She claimed she had evidence that would “blow up” the results in Georgia, where Biden defeated Trump by a narrow margin. She also suggested that Gov. Brian Kemp (R) — a longtime Trump ally — would be implicated by her imaginary findings.
The other obvious failure on Powell’s part was that she was unable to give Fox News adequate cover to present her claims uncritically. She had been slated to appear on Tucker Carlson’s show last week but backed out after Carlson asked her for evidence to support her claims. Carlson’s bar for presenting allegations isn’t high; he recently apologized on-air after claiming that a dead man voted in Georgia, only to learn from a local television station that he hadn’t. But Powell’s hostile response to the request prompted Carlson to note the lack of evidence on air — even as he self-consciously insisted to his audience that he really, really wanted to be able to present her case.
This may simply have been a lack of experience on her part. It’s hard to imagine that Giuliani would similarly have been unable to either convince a Fox News host that his claims were legitimate or otherwise avoid being put in a position of tension with a sympathetic host.
It seems likely that this inexperience and inability to play the game properly was what doomed Powell. Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who has long advised Trump, disparaged her specifically during an appearance Sunday on “This Week.”
“Sidney Powell accusing Governor Brian Kemp of a crime on television yet being unwilling to go on TV and defend and lay out the evidence that she supposedly has, this is outrageous conduct,” Christie said. He described the legal team broadly as a “national embarrassment.”
It’s hard to see how that assessment stops at Powell. Giuliani’s behavior and claims haven’t been much different. But he has decades of ties to Republican officials including the president and years of experience navigating conservative media. You can think of Giuliani as being the Fox News of Trump’s legal team while Powell was the One America News: the former being an institution used to toeing the expected lines of believability, vs. an upstart unburdened by rationality. Even Powell’s attacks on Republican leaders hew to that dichotomy.
As soon as the news conference ended last week, it was obvious that Powell’s claims differed from Giuliani’s only in style. They weren’t even compatible with what Giuliani alleged, claiming a vote-rigging that seems as though it would obviate the need to commit the fraud Giuliani was discussing. But all of her commentary was acceptable to Trump and to the Republican Party until, suddenly, it wasn’t.
Giuliani remains employed.