Sidney Powell’s Plea Deal Is So, So Bad for Donald Trump

Powell wears leopard print sweater and stands in front of a podium that says Trump campaign.
Sidney Powell speaks during a news conference about lawsuits contesting the results of the presidential election in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 19, 2020. Sarah Silbiger/The Washington Post via Getty Images
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On Thursday, Sidney Powell pleaded guilty to misdemeanor election interference charges in Fulton County, Georgia, becoming the highest-level figure to admit guilt in the vast conspiracy to try to overturn the 2020 election.

To put it more colloquially, Powell flipped. This is awful news for Donald Trump, as Powell also immediately becomes the highest-level known cooperating witness against him. Given what we know about Powell’s role in the days surrounding Jan. 6 and the very lenient terms of her plea deal, she appears poised to offer damning testimony against the former president.

How seriously will we be able to take that testimony? Given her history of flamboyant statements and conspiracy theories, former federal prosecutor Norman L. Eisen notes that “the jury is literally out on how probative she will be as a witness.” He continued: “She may have particularly damning pieces of information to share with a jury that are corroborated so that any credibility issues are bolstered by other witnesses, documents, or evidence.”

Powell is only the second domino to fall among Trump’s alleged co-conspirators agreeing publicly to cooperate against Trump. So far, she is the most damaging for Trump, but she is likely to be joined by others who were targeted in the 19-person RICO conspiracy case filed in August by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, and her cooperation places further pressure on others to agree to testify against Trump.

Having previously asserted her right in Georgia under the state’s speedy trial act, jury selection in her case was due to begin on Friday. Powell’s deal, essentially, could not have come any later.

Her decision also comes on the heels of a devastating ruling for her by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee, who rejected in full Powell’s efforts to dismiss the case before trial. That ruling left Powell with little choice but to face immediate trial and likely conviction on charges that carried many years in prison, or plead guilty and agree to testify against Donald Trump. Now her co-defendant in that trial, Kenneth Chesebro, is left holding the bag on the eve of trial proceedings.

Under the terms of Powell’s agreement, she will receive a small monetary fine and a six-year sentence of probation, and she will have to write an apology letter to the people of Georgia. This may seem like a slap on the wrist for one of the top figures implicated in the Jan. 6 cases, but it could mean she gave up a significant amount of evidence against even higher-level figures as part of her deal. Indeed, the agreement included a pledge to turn over all documents, testify against all of her co-defendants, and offer a recorded statement to prosecutors. She’s already done the last part.

That testimony against her co-defendants could start as soon as next month, when the trial of Chesebro is projected to begin. While Powell is not obligated by the agreement to testify against Trump as part of special counsel Jack Smith’s federal prosecution, scheduled for March, any testimony she gives in the Chesebro trial could potentially be used by Smith’s team. If Powell refuses to testify in the federal case, Judge Tanya Chutkan could decide to admit any Georgia testimony. “Her testimony will be on the record and potentially admissible,” in the federal case, said Eisen.

There are several reasons why Powell could prove to be such a critical witness against Trump. For one thing, the original RICO indictment alleged that she was deeply involved in a scheme to steal voting machine software in Coffee County.

What’s more important, for the purposes of the prosecutions against Trump, though, is that the House Jan. 6 committee revealed that she was an active participant during a critical White House meeting in the weeks before Jan. 6, during which Trump allegedly sought to have her appointed as special counsel in order to seize voting machines. Eisen called that the “the Oval Office meeting that has been described as one of the craziest of the Trump administration,” and said testimony on it is likely to be critical to the overall conspiracy charge.

As Slate has reported, there’s also previous testimony about that meeting that indicates that Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani might have had some knowledge of the Coffee County plot. The next on the ladder would be Trump himself.

During the Dec. 18 meeting in question, a group of Trump’s most extreme outside advisers, including Powell, debated with a team of more professional White House attorneys and appointees what the president’s ability to seize voting machines was. At that point, Trump advisers had already written two “draft executive orders” authorizing the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security to seize the machines. The draft orders, which were never enacted, specifically mentioned alleged voting irregularities in Coffee County as justification for the unprecedented move.

Powell had publicly pushed a conspiracy theory, since widely debunked in and out of court, that Dominion Voting Systems machines had been rigged to steal votes from Trump and give them to President Joe Biden. In that meeting, she was part of a group saying that Trump had the authority to seize the voting machines, or appoint Powell as special counsel to do it herself. According to Jan. 6 committee testimony, Trump at one point asked his staff to “prepare the forms” to have Powell’s appointment made official. The appointment never happened.

During the meeting, Giuliani indicated that he knew of an alternative path to acquiring the voting machines that didn’t require government seizure. White House staff secretary and counselor to the president, Derek S. Lyons, testified to the Jan. 6 committee that Giuliani indicated he was working on another way to acquire the voting machines: Giuliani’s “point of view was that in some way the campaign, I believe, was going to be able to secure access to voting machines in Georgia through means other than seizure,” Lyons testified.

This could be in reference to any number of efforts to acquire the machines, including the now-infamous Jan. 2 phone call during which Trump tried to berate Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” the precise number of votes he needed to overturn the result in the state. Five days after that effort failed, the voting system in Coffee County was breached, allegedly at the behest of the Trump campaign and with the help of a local official, Misty Hampton, who is also facing charges in the Fulton County RICO case.

Powell’s link to both the Dec. 18 meeting and the Jan. 7 vote machine theft will make her a critical witness against Giuliani, who was also charged in Fulton County, and against Trump. But now, Powell’s cooperation is likely to significantly increase pressure on Giuliani to reach a similar deal. Trump, meanwhile, is scheduled be tried in federal court on March 4, which is when Powell’s likely testimony against Chesebro could come into play.

If Powell were to back out of that testimony, she would be subject to her probation being immediately revoked by McAfee, which could result in her being sent to serve the remainder of her six-year sentence in jail.

The only downside for prosecutors in calling Powell is her credibility, given the wildness of the conspiracy theories she has espoused in the past. “One wonders how good a witness she can be,” former federal prosecutor Frank Bowman told Slate. “She seems to have, shall we say, a rather eccentric and unpredictable personality.”