“There are a lot more lawyers working on this,” he added, “but, I guess, we’re the senior lawyers.”
Ellis, who did speak later, described the crew as “an elite strike-force team that is working on behalf of the president and the campaign to make sure that our Constitution is protected.”
A few days prior, Trump had endorsed the team in a tweet.
“I look forward to Mayor Giuliani spearheading the legal effort to defend OUR RIGHT to FREE and FAIR ELECTIONS!” he wrote. “Rudy Giuliani, Joseph diGenova, Victoria Toensing, Sidney Powell, and Jenna Ellis, a truly great team, added to our other wonderful lawyers and representatives!”
But at the news conference at the RNC, Powell did Trump few favors. Her section of the presentation was centered on unhinged claims that the 2020 election was stolen by an international alliance of actors who subverted voting machines to flip votes to Joe Biden. At one point, someone in the crowd asked Powell whether bonkers claims circulating in fringe right-wing media about servers being seized in Germany were part of the crime. Powell said that it was true but that “I do not know whether good guys got it or bad guys got it.” Sure, okay.
The whole thing was so bizarre that it nearly upstaged Giuliani’s tonsorial malfunction. Fox News host Tucker Carlson, not one to shy away from a conspiracy claim implicating the left and government actors in malfeasance, publicly questioned Powell’s claims. Giuliani and Ellis were forced to release a clarification three days later.
“Sidney Powell is practicing law on her own,” the pair wrote. “She is not a member of the Trump Legal Team. She is also not a lawyer for the President in his personal capacity.”
Rarely has the difference between the present and past tenses been so significant.
At the time, I wondered why Powell got the ax when Giuliani didn’t. Both said indefensible and ludicrous things; both should have prompted embarrassment for Trump’s team. Powell did two things that Giuliani didn’t, though. She implicated Republicans in her nonexistent plot, and she was so sloppy with her claims that even Fox News had to chide her. So out she went.
Later reporting made clear that her ouster from Trump’s team was largely a public relations play. In their book “Peril,” The Washington Post’s Robert Costa and Bob Woodward described a moment a month later in which Powell nearly persuaded Trump to seize voting machines in a misguided attempt to prove the nonexistent fraud. On Dec. 19, Powell and former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn tried to get the president to appoint Powell as a special counsel, Costa and Woodward reported, granting her wild goose chase the imprimatur and resources of the federal government. Trump was inclined to do so, telling those gathered in the Oval Office that evening that “at least she’s giving me a chance.” Only Giuliani’s intervention derailed the idea.
“She didn’t work for me,” Trump replied. “She was a lawyer that was representing General Flynn and some others, and she never officially — now she was on our side from the standpoint, I guess, you know, from the standpoint of what she was doing, but she didn’t work for me as per se. She worked for General Flynn and others. And I disagree with some of the things that she’s doing, and some of the statements that she made, as you know.”
Hewitt agreed, though it’s not clear why. To this day, Trump entertains the broader idea that Powell promoted. In a conversation last month with conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell, Trump nodded along as Lindell made various false claims about electronic voting machines. On Dec. 16 of last year, Trump tweeted about the idea that fraud was committed through voting machines, the heart of Powell’s argument. The day of the meeting in the Oval Office, he suggested that hackers might have influenced the election through voting machines.
But more importantly, it is obviously not the case that Powell “didn’t work for Trump.” I suppose it’s possible that an international cabal of malefactors from Venezuela and China created a Powell-bot that stood at a lectern behind a “Trump Pence” sign at the RNC on Nov. 19, 2020, but, yet again, the evidence doesn’t support such a theory.
What’s happening is a very Trumpian phenomenon. Powell is an embarrassment to Trump, in part because she didn’t have the institutional ties and relationships that Giuliani did. So, always attentive to public perception, he distances himself from her. She didn’t prove that fraud occurred (because it didn’t), and so she becomes not only persona non grata but, retroactively, persona never grata.
It’s a reminder of how transactional all of this is and how accurate Trump’s “at least she’s fighting” line actually was. Behind closed doors, the embrace of his falsehoods was more important than the embarrassment she caused. It’s also a reminder that Trump is never bound to reality, any more in his obvious past relationships to his legal team than to the nonsensical claims he and they were — are — making about the election results.