The prosecution of Sidney Powell seems to have come to an abrupt end. The former legal adviser to Donald Trump, who was central to the former President’s plot to overturn the 2020 election, pleaded guilty Thursday to misdemeanor charges for a modest sentence: no jail time, six years of probation, a small fine, and an apology to the people of Georgia.
But the deal is an early and significant victory for Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ sprawling election interference case and her grand strategy of flipping co-conspirators to convict her main target: Trump himself.
Willis is employing what was once a favorite tactic of federal prosecutors to stamp out the mafia, according to the legal scholar Michael Waldman, who heads the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice: “You’ve got to take out the foot soldiers before you get to the Godfather.”
Powell’s plea is the second notched by Willis, who indicted Trump and 18 others on racketeering charges in August for participating in a “criminal enterprise” to subvert Joe Biden’s election victory. Scott Hall, a bail bondsman who tampered with a rural Georgia county’s voter data and ballot counting machines, pleaded guilty last month in exchange for probation and community service. But Powell is by far the closest member of Trump’s inner circle, and the most prominent, to turn government witness.
Powell was present for a notorious December 2020 Oval Office meeting with Rudy Giuliani and Michael Flynn, when Trump considered seizing voting machines, invoking martial law to nullify the election, and appointing Powell as special counsel to investigate baseless allegations of voter fraud. “She is in possession of some very valuable knowledge,” says Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan.
That may be one reason why Powell’s sentence is light: Willis and her team believe she can deliver the goods against Trump at trial. They have other reasons for cutting a deal with Powell, too. Powell became a household name for her wild conspiracy theories, including that Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013, was part of a “deep state” cabal to steal the election from Trump. Given her notoriety, the agreement could help incentivize other defendants to strike their own deals with prosecutors. “It has the power of that domino effect,” says McQuade.
Trump’s lawyer in the Georgia case, Steven Sadow, did not respond to a request for comment.
The plea deal could undermine the defense of a whole category of Trump’s other alleged co-conspirators: his lawyers. Giuliani, John Eastman, and Kenneth Chesebro are expected to argue in court that giving their client legal advice is not a crime. But now that one of Trump’s chief legal advisers after the 2020 election, Powell, has copped to criminal wrongdoing, “that is a problem for that group,” says Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor. The first test of that defense will come soon. Chesebro, an architect of the infamous fake electors scheme, is scheduled to go on trial Friday.
Flipping Powell is not an automatic win. She comes with credibility issues; her prolific election denying and false statements as a guest on Fox News was part of a $787.5 million settlement the network struck with Dominion Voting Systems in April. In a bizarre twist of fate, Trump’s lawyers could use that against her when she testifies. “It’s hard to take Sidney Powell very seriously,” Mariotti says. “One challenge for prosecutors is going to be that they’re going to have to deal with a very intense cross examination.”
Still, her guilty plea represents a significant development that could also assist one of the other prosecutions against Trump. Her testimony in Fulton County stands to bolster Special Counsel Jack Smith’s charges on election subversion, former prosecutors say. In the federal indictment, Powell is referenced, though not named, as one of six unindicted co-conspirators, citing testimony that Trump privately acknowledged that Powell’s claims of voter fraud were “crazy,” but that he promoted them anyway.
Powell’s tenuous relationship with the truth notwithstanding, she was a key player in Trump’s efforts to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. She was, as they say, in the room where it happened.
“Anybody in the criminal conspiracy with Sidney Powell has some exposure because of her guilty plea,” says McQuade. “She has information potentially against all of them.” There may be no one she poses more of a threat to now, though, than the man who once thought of her as his faithful servant.