ATLANTA (AP) — Sidney Powell was present for a now-infamous December 2020 meeting at the White House where participants hatched far-fetched schemes to keep Donald Trump in power and was so tied to the then-president that he once considered naming her a special counsel to probe claims of election fraud.
Kenneth Chesebro was part of a small coterie of advisers who prosecutors say prodded Republicans in battleground states to submit slates of fake electors who would falsely assert that Trump, not Democrat Joe Biden, was victorious.
Yet rather than continue to stand behind Trump, the two lawyers cut deals last week with prosecutors in Fulton County, Georgia, agreeing to plead guilty and cooperate instead of face trial in the indictment that charged them, the ex-president and 16 others with illegally plotting to overturn the 2020 election.
The deals ensure the cooperation of two witnesses who could presumably offer insider accounts of the desperate scheming to help Trump remain president — a boon for prosecutors striving to develop incriminating evidence against higher-profile targets. Even so, it’s hard to forecast how much their assistance heightens the legal peril for Trump, especially since Powell’s own history of outlandish and ill-supported claims of fraud could open her to attacks on her credibility and a bruising cross-examination.
“It’s not a slam dunk that she is the knife to the heart of the former president, but it’s not a good day for him when she pleads guilty,” John Fishwick, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, said of Powell. “She’s going to do something that hurts him. The level of the hurt, we don’t know yet.”
Neither agreement — Powell pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges, Chesebro to a felony — called for prison time. That’s a generous resolution for two defendants alleged to have played significant roles in what Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has called a “criminal racketeering enterprise to overturn Georgia’s presidential election result.” But such an outcome could nonetheless signal to other defendants the benefits that await them if they, too, plead guilty while also helping prosecutors winnow down an unwieldy racketeering case so they can focus their attention on even bigger names.
“In terms of immediate things that might shake out of it, I think it’s a question of what the people next down in the pecking order might do in order to free up the DA’s office a little bit more,” said Anthony Michael Kreis, a Georgia State University law professor. “I think that’s really what the DA’s office is trying to do now. They’re trying to shake as many of these codefendants loose as they can and focus on the people they want to focus on and just step on the accelerator and get things moving.”
Beyond the Georgia case, the cooperation could potentially aid Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith, who in August charged Trump with conspiring to undo the election. Powell and Chesebro are referenced, though not by name, as unindicted coconspirators in that case, making their statements to investigators in Georgia of potential interest to Smith in his prosecution of Trump, which is set for trial next March.
“There’s considerable overlap in the case that Jack Smith has charged and the case that Fani Willis has charged,” said Jessica Roth, a professor at Cardozo School of Law. “They’re clearly part of the story in Jack Smith’s indictment.”
The plea deals ushered in a predictable pattern of once-close Trump allies turning against him in their own interests, followed by Trump moving to distance himself from them. That happened Sunday when Trump posted on social media, in capital letters, that Powell “was not my attorney, and never was.”
The about-face was striking given that just three years ago, Trump introduced Powell on the social media platform then-known as Twitter as part of his “great legal team” challenging election results.
That same month, she filed a since-dismissed lawsuit attacking Georgia’s election results that was embraced by Trump and was part of a news conference with two fellow Fulton County co-defendants, Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis, where baseless claims of vast election fraud were raised. Powell also participated in a raucous meeting at the White House one month later, with the then-president, where Trump allies discussed potentially invoking the Insurrection Act as a way to seize voting machines.
“That might be one small part of the picture that nobody else can paint and that is particularly damning for Donald Trump in terms of showing that this was not a good-faith effort to ensure the election’s accuracy but rather was a bad-faith effort to overturn it,” Kreis said.
Even so, he noted, she’d likely be an easy witness for the Trump team to attack, potentially lessening the impact of any testimony she’d give.
Smith’s indictment notes Trump privately told others that he thought her election fraud ideas sounded “crazy.” And Giuliani and Ellis moved to separate themselves from her days after their news conference in which Powell incorrectly suggested that a server hosting evidence of voting irregularities was located in Germany, that voting software used by Georgia and other states was created at the direction of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and that votes for Trump had probably been switched in favor of Biden.
“Not only is she easy to discredit, I think she’d be a very hostile witness,” Kreis said.
Campaigning in New Hampshire on Monday, Trump appeared to refer to Powell and Cheesbro as “good people” and said prosecutors worked to “hound” and “scare” them.
Steve Sadow, Trump’s lead attorney in the Georgia case, expressed confidence that Powell’s plea wouldn’t hurt Trump, saying last week that any truthful testimony offered would be “favorable to my overall defense strategy.”
The Georgia indictment accuses Powell in a plot to illegally access a county’s voting equipment.
In Chesebro’s case, though prosecutors don’t say he communicated directly with Trump, he’s alleged to have played an instrumental role in a scheme underpinning both the Georgia prosecution and the federal prosecution — efforts to enlist fake electors in battleground states won by Biden.
Georgia prosecutors say had the case gone to trial, they would have shown Chesebro conspired with Trump, Giuliani, conservative law professor John Eastman and others to get several Georgia Republicans to falsely present themselves as the state’s “duly elected and qualified” electors to “disrupt and delay” the joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021.
Chesebro’s lawyer said last week that he didn’t foresee his client’s cooperation harming Trump, but nonetheless, the fake elector plot is being investigated in multiple states and is “much more a central part of the overall conspiracy,” said George Washington University law professor Randall Eliason. That could make his cooperation important in implicating others.
“Anytime that you’ve got co-conspirators pleading guilty” and admitting to engaging in criminal activity, “that’s pretty significant,” he said.
Tucker reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in Derry, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.
Eric Tucker And Kate Brumback, The Associated Press