The three-day conference in November 2018 was called “Operation Classified” and promised attendees they would “come away with a comprehensive understanding of the Deep State.” Featured speakers, gathered at a Hilton hotel in a Dallas suburb, included militia leaders, anti-vaxxers, a UFO activist, as well as a former federal prosecutor named Sidney Powell, who delivered a somber, noteless recitation in a folksy Southern accent.
Powell was there as a leading proponent, on cable news and in op-eds, of a conspiratorial narrative advanced by the far right: that special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation was part of a plot by the intelligence community to force President Donald Trump from office. Her talk was titled “Creeps on a Mission to Destroy the President,” a phrase she had coined on “Hannity” and then turned into a pro-Trump, T-shirt-selling website to denounce Mueller and his team of investigators. “This goes so deep and so wide, it is unbelievable,” Powell said with a heavy sigh during her 40-minute speech.
In the audience was Joseph Flynn, brother of Michael Flynn—the retired three-star lieutenant general who had served briefly as Trump’s first national security adviser before agreeing to cooperate with the Mueller probe and pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. The conference, in fact, was part of a fundraiser for Flynn’s legal defense fund, of which Joseph is a trustee, along with his sister Barbara Redgate.
For more than a year, Michael Flynn had been defended by Covington & Burling, the powerful white-shoe law firm, but his siblings believed their brother’s guilty plea was “a decision made in haste,” as Joseph put it to me. They wanted to fight, not surrender. Michael Flynn did too, according to Joseph: “He never felt he was guilty. He never felt he committed any crimes. We only plead guilty because he had shitty legal counsel on this.” (Covington & Burling declined to comment.)
At the Dallas conference, Joseph Flynn introduced himself to Powell, who already knew his sister. The two spoke at length over coffee, finding that they saw Michael Flynn’s case the same way, they both told POLITICO Magazine. Powell believed that Flynn, like Trump, was a victim of a purported deep state plot, and that he had pleaded guilty only because he was coerced by overzealous prosecutors. “She was very much in tune with General Mike’s case,” Redgate told me. “Sidney,” Joseph says, “is a fighter”—which he says he emphasized to his brother.
Seven months later—after Powell had publicly exhorted Michael Flynn to withdraw his guilty plea and consider finding another lawyer—Flynn fired his team at Covington & Burling and hired Powell as his lead attorney. It was a striking turnabout: Flynn went from seeming to take the high road, by cooperating with the Mueller investigation, to seeking legal counsel from a Fox News pundit who thought Mueller was the perpetrator and Flynn the victim.
While Trump praised the new hire on Twitter, calling Powell a “GREAT LAWYER,” legal observers scratched their heads. Powell, who is in her 60s (she would not confirm her exact age), had shared content from social media accounts associated with QAnon, the wide-ranging conspiracy movement holding in part that Trump is doing battle with demonic, pedophile-loving Democrats and members of the deep state. The timing was also odd. Flynn’s sentencing had been delayed at that point because of procedural issues, but it was expected soon. And Mueller had recommended that Flynn receive no prison time because of the “substantial assistance” he provided in the special counsel investigation. (Flynn, under Powell’s advisement, is not speaking to the media.)
It was clear soon enough that Powell was taking a different tack. In August, she moved to have Flynn’s case dismissed for what she called “pernicious” prosecutorial misconduct, and requested that Emmet Sullivan, the presiding District Court judge, hold prosecutors in contempt for allegedly hiding FBI documents and communications that she said proved Flynn was pressured to plead guilty. In a court brief filed in October, she asserted that Flynn had been “deliberately targeted for destruction” by the intelligence community. The government countered that it had already relinquished any relevant material and that Powell was advancing “conspiracy theories” to fish for evidence that did not exist.
When I met Powell in Manhattan early last month, I asked if she was concerned the new aggressive legal strategy might backfire; Flynn had already reaffirmed his guilty plea a year ago in a testy hearing before Sullivan, who is respected as a fair-minded, no-nonsense jurist. But Powell was feeling bullish. “There’s not going to be a sentencing,” she said to me over breakfast at the W Hotel in Times Square. She wore a beige turtleneck sweater and a diamond necklace that sparkled, like the glint in her eye when she made her prediction.
“I don’t know how, but I can read the way these particular government lawyers say things to know that they are lying and hiding things,” she explained, referring to the prosecutors in the Flynn case. “And I knew as soon as I started hearing and seeing what was going on with General Flynn that he had been set up.” (The lead prosecutor in the Flynn case did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)
(Brandon Van Grack, the lead prosecutor in the government’s case against former national security adviser and retired Gen. Michael Flynn suddenly resigned Thursday, without explanation. In a single sentence filing to the court, Van Grack informed federal Judge Emmet Sullivan that he would be quitting the case.)
Reality struck several days after our breakfast, when Sullivan unequivocally rejected Powell’s requests for additional government documents and for the case to be dismissed. He also spurned her argument that Flynn had been framed, writing in an icy 92-page opinion that the retired general’s false statements to the FBI were “undisputed.” Sullivan set January 28 as Flynn’s new sentencing date. Shortly afterward, government prosecutors recommended that Flynn receive up to six months in prison—a reversal of the earlier recommendation that he not be incarcerated. “Maybe Hiring Sidney Powell Was a Huge, Monstrous Mistake for Michael Flynn,” one headline suggested.
This week, Flynn officially sought to withdraw his guilty plea “because of the government’s bad faith, vindictiveness, and breach of the plea agreement,” as Powell wrote in a court brief. Sullivan pushed back the sentencing by another month to consider the unusual request. But, says Barbara McQuade, a University of Michigan law professor and former U.S. attorney specializing in national security matters, “The scorched-earth strategy that Powell is using is rarely effective with judges.”
That Powell was seemingly blind to this likely outcome speaks to her full embrace of the Trumpian ethos of grievance and “alternative facts.” Which wasn’t always her M.O.: A federal prosecutor herself for a decade, Powell turned on her own ilk and spent years making a forceful case against prosecutorial overreach—a legitimate issue. It was when her cause came to align with Trump’s and Flynn’s plight as targets of Mueller’s probe that she worked her way into a deep state-hating, MAGA-loving network that landed her a high-profile client.
But the MAGA echo chamber, it seems, doesn’t always benefit its residents once they’re outside that bubble. While a strategy of denial and attacking the enemy might have worked for Trump during the Mueller investigation (and might yet work for him in his impeachment trial), Michael Flynn is not the president. If her client ends up in prison, it might be because of the Trumpian strategy Sidney Powell embraced.
“Crackpot conspiracy theories get easy traction on the internet,” says John Schindler, a former NSA analyst who has been critical of Flynn, but also of Hillary Clinton and the FBI. “They’re less likely to do well in federal court.”
Sidney Powell’s story, up to a point, is the very model of a high-achieving lawyer.
She knew from an early age what she wanted to do with her life. “My mother said I used to come home from kindergarten and watch ‘Perry Mason,’” recalls Powell, who grew up in a tight-knit working-class family in Raleigh, North Carolina. She was 19 when, in 1974, she was accepted into law school at the University of North Carolina, after rushing through her B.A. at UNC. “I was on student loans,” Powell explains. “My family couldn’t afford to help. … I knew what I wanted to do. I didn’t see any reason in stringing it out.”
Powell’s close friends describe her as smart, fearless and intensely driven. At the outset of her career, in the late 1970s and early 1980s she worked as a federal prosecutor in the Western District of Texas, along the border, which back then “was on the front lines of the drug wars,” says Carl Pierce, her colleague at the time, who headed up a special drug trafficking unit. It was a harrowing period, he says: “They were trying to kill our witnesses, assassinate our prosecutors.” A judge in one of Pierce’s cases was killed six weeks after Powell arrived on the job. According to Pierce, there were times when the government attorneys had to wear bulletproof vests and be escorted by federal marshals. “I was trying these [drug] cases, and Sidney was keeping them convicted on appeal,” Pierce says. “She’s a superb appellate lawyer.”
After roughly 10 years with the Justice Department, Powell struck out on her own as a federal appellate lawyer. She would go on to represent an array of private-sector clients, appealing judgments and sanctions related to health care, medical malpractice and environmental issues, among other areas. As she would later boast in a 2015 talk, “People usually call me when the ox is kind of deep in the ditch,” and needs a way out.
A turning point for Powell came in the 2000s when she spent nearly a decade representing executives caught up in the Enron scandal, in which the chief executives of the Texas-based energy company were convicted for financial fraud. Some of the government’s Enron-related cases, including two of Powell’s, were eventually overturned by higher courts for various legal reasons. Whether government prosecutors involved in Enron-related cases were just being aggressive or had abused their power is a matter of debate. Powell, for her part, came away from the experience believing the prosecutors had bent the law to unfairly prosecute her clients and were never held to account for their actions. She became convinced that “prosecutorial misconduct,” in the form of suppression of evidence favorable to the defense, was a widespread problem in the judicial system.
In 2014, she laid out her case in a self-published book, Licensed to Lie, which, as Powell puts it on her website, “reveals the strong-arm, illegal, and unethical tactics used by headline-grabbing federal prosecutors in their narcissistic pursuit of power to the highest halls of our government.” Powell says she wrote the book “because I couldn’t get the system to work.” (When professional legal associations wouldn’t act on her ethics grievances against the prosecutors, Powell says, she considered quitting law altogether.) In his foreword to the book, Alex Kozinski, an influential federal judge who retired abruptly in 2017, after multiple accusations of sexual harassment, heaped praise on Powell but stopped short of endorsing her sweeping claims. Still, he wrote, Licensed to Lie “should serve as the beginning of a serious conversation about whether our criminal justice system continues to live up to its vaunted reputation.”
That didn’t exactly happen. In fact, for several years after it was published, Powell and the book were largely ignored, which infuriated her. Powell believes the media, even on the right, made “a significant effort to kill this book with silence,” as she put it in a 2015 talk. The conspiracy evidently extended to Amazon and Barnes & Noble, which, she claimed, made her book difficult to buy. “I actually thought we had freedom of press until I wrote the book,” she said in her talk at “Operation Classified.” (While reporting this article, I bought a copy at my local Barnes & Noble in Brooklyn.)
Powell says she does not care for politics, and there may have been some truth to this at one point: As the 2016 presidential campaign was ramping up, she took off for a six-month, around-the-world cruise and then a three-week trip to Antarctica, which she made a video about and posted to YouTube. But after the 2016 election, she eagerly hopped aboard the Trump train and started plugging her book on Twitter, fruitlessly tagging conservative luminaries like Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson and raving that it “reads like Grisham but it’s true!” Again, she was met with silence.
In the summer of 2017, Powell’s luck changed. The team of legal investigators Mueller assembled for the Russia probe included several Justice Department alumni who happened to have been the same prosecutors she had villainized in Licensed to Lie. Robert Mueller, she tweeted, was “hiring out of my book!” Powell issued red alerts via Twitter and op-eds: “It’s all about WHO they want to get & they’ll do ANYTHING to win,” she tweeted in June, tagging Newt Gingrich, Hannity and the White House press secretary. This time, her somewhat niche interest aligned with Trump’s own circumstances, and conservative power brokers heeded her call. Over the summer, Gingrich began promoting Powell’s book all over the media. Licensed to Lie, the former GOP House speaker and Trump ally said on Twitter, was “about to become a very important book.”
Powell rode her sudden wave of celebrity to political relevance and began appearing on the shows that had previously ignored her, embracing Trumpian talking points about not only the Mueller report but other issues, too. On Dobbs’ show, to take one example, Powell suggested that “the continued invasion of this country” by immigrants might be the cause of “diseases spreading across the country that are causing polio-like paralysis of our children.”“Sidney the Media Figure,” as Powell describes herself on one of her websites, is a somewhat amped-up version of her real-life persona. One of Powell’s neighbors in Dallas, Patricia Falvey, an author of historical fiction who does not identify as Republican, told me Powell’s friends aren’t all in “lockstep” with her politically; Falvey and Powell mostly talk about family, travel and charity work. (Powell has a grown son from a marriage that ended in divorce decades ago, and she has long done volunteer work for women’s shelters, among other causes.)
But anyone watching Powell’s media hits or following her rat-a-tat Twitter feed—all operated on her own, she tells me—could see she was now an enthusiastic resident of MAGA-world.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Powell and Flynn would come together in common cause. Flynn has always been something of a maverick, but he too had a transformation. A respected, if hard-charging, patriot, he grew disgruntled during his time as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the Obama administration. By the 2016 presidential election, Flynn was spreading outrageous conspiracy theories—including the accusation that Hillary Clinton was involved with a child sex trafficking ring—and found himself chanting, “Lock her up!” at the Republican National Convention.
Over the course of his legal battle, Flynn has attracted a group of supporters with similarly controversial views. By all accounts, Flynn’s legal ordeal has taken an enormous financial toll on him and his family; as of July 2019,he owed more than $4.6 million dollars in unpaid attorney fees, according to court records. Flynn’s legal defense fund, set up in the summer of 2017, does not officially disclose the identities of its donors or how much it has raised. Joseph Flynn told me the fund does not accept donations from non-U.S. citizens or the Trump organization, but other than that, “We will accept help from anyone who wants to help us.”
That includes John B. Wells, who organized the 2018 Dallas fundraiser, which, according to Wells, raised “a healthy five-figure donation” for the legal fund. Wells, 62, is a voice-over actor turned itinerant radio host with an internet-streaming show; Flynn called in one time during the 2016 campaign. Wells appeared on Alex Jones’ show, “Infowars,” in 2013 and talked about how “it’s been pretty much established that the CIA and al Qaeda are almost one.” In his opening remarks at “Operation Classified,” he spoke of the “criminal cabal we refer to as government,” and he praised QAnon, the conspiracy movement that seems to believe a global gang of Satan-worshipping pedophiles in the media, Hollywood and the political establishment is secretly running the world. “Q is a real thing,” Wells said to cheers in the audience. (Wells did not respond to a request for comment.)
Michael Flynn himself was set to appear at a QAnon-related fundraiser on his behalf this past summer, but he pulled out after news of the event became public. (It was around this time that the FBI listed the amorphous fringe group as a potential domestic terrorism threat—QAnon supporters have been linked to acts of violence.) Redgate and Joseph Flynn have also amplified QAnon, though both siblings deny having “any relationship to QAnon,” as Joseph put it to me. When I asked him about his and Redgate’s retweets, he responded: “There’s a lot of people that do investigative research on Twitter.”
Similarly, Powell, who told me she is being paid out of the Flynn legal fund but reduced her rates “dramatically” for him, has retweeted QAnon accounts too and, according to reporting by Media Matters, appeared on a QAnon-affiliated YouTube show, where she thanked the host for his “huge and extremely helpful” support. I asked Powell about this, and she responded in an e-mail: “I don’t know anything about Q Anon, or Q. I couldn’t tell you what that was. I speak [at] SCADS of places and would go to the gates of Hell and talk to the devil himself if it would help stop the abuses of law and prosecutorial power and corruption I have seen in our government.”
While “FlynnLand,” as Joseph calls it, has embraced Powell (“We love Sidney!” Redgate gushes), it was never clear that Sullivan, Michael Flynn’s judge, would follow along.
Powell, it seems clear, expected Sullivan to be on her side. In a 2018 article for the Daily Caller—more than a year before she would be hired by Flynn—she asserted that Sullivan was “ready, willing and able to hold Mr. Mueller accountable to the law and who has the wherewithal to dismiss the case against General Flynn—for egregious government misconduct—if Mueller doesn’t move to dismiss it himself.” Sullivan actually is known for bringing the hammer down on overreaching prosecutors, as in the trial of former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens.
“Emmet G. Sullivan is one judge who knows a cover-up when he sees one,” she wrote in a 2014 Observer column. “I love this man!” Powell has exclaimed in some of her public talks.
“Let me put me put it this way,” she said at our breakfast in New York. “If I were in the government’s shoes, I would move to dismiss this case before Judge Sullivan does anything else.”
Her conviction was bolstered by the release, in early December, of the long-awaited report by the inspector general for the Justice Department, which found that the FBI’s initial investigation into possible ties between Russia and Trump campaign officials (the precursor to the Mueller probe) was marred by sloppy and improper methods. Powell felt that the IG findings lent weight to a key component of her argument: that FBI agents manipulated the notes from their interview with Flynn to make him look guilty.
But in mid-December, Sullivan rejected the idea that the original FBI counterintelligence investigation of former Trump officials—Flynn included—was a deep state plot against Trump, and that Flynn had been tricked into his perjury by unscrupulous FBI agents. At the close of his ruling, Sullivan wrote: “the Court summarily disposes of Mr. Flynn’s arguments that the FBI conducted an ambush interview for the purpose of trapping him into making false statements and that the government pressured him to enter a guilty plea. The record proves otherwise.”
Powell stayed mum for nearly a month. She was careful not to respond to Sullivan’s rejection or reveal her next move—until she filed her own brief earlier this week, announcing that Flynn wanted to rescind his guilty plea. She sounded a defiant tone: “It is beyond ironic and completely outrageous that the prosecutors have persecuted Mr. Flynn, virtually bankrupted him, and put his entire family through unimaginable stress for three years.” Powell argued that government prosecutors had violated the terms of his plea agreement and asked for Sullivan to delay his sentencing to consider her argument and allow time for the government to respond.
[Unequal treatment. James Comey bragged in a videotaped interview that he authorized the FBI to try to conduct a Flynn interview without the proper notifications and protocol, hoping to catch Flynn and the new Trump White House off guard. In other words, they didn’t follow procedure or treat Flynn like others when it came to due process. Comey said the tactic was “something I probably wouldn’t have done or maybe gotten away with in a more organized administration.” https://www.foxnews.com/politics/comey-admits-decision-to-send-fbi-agents-to-interview-mike-flynn-was-not-standard.]
“Withdrawing the guilty plea seems like an odd strategy at this stage,” McQuade, the law professor, says. “Her portrayal of Flynn as a victim of government overreach suggests that her strategy is to seek sympathy from a segment of the public and a pardon from President Trump.” (“It’s bullshit. Total bullshit,” Powell says about the prospect of fishing for a presidential pardon.)
It’s unclear how Flynn’s case will end, and what it will mean for Powell. Her defiance, in spite of Sullivan’s scolding, reminded me of an exchange I had with her toward the end of our early December meeting in New York. I had asked her about the widespread accusation that she was a conspiracy theorist. “I think it’s hilarious,” she said, smiling.
“Maybe you will get the last laugh,” I politely offered.
“I think I will,” she said firmly. “Let me put it this way: I will not quit until I do. The only question is, are we going to do this the easy way or the hard way?”
It wasn’t until we both stood up to leave that I realized how tall Powell was (six feet) and that she was wearing tight-fitting leopard print pants and matching boots with two-inch heels and gleaming spikes. She saw my eyes grow wide at the sight of the boots. “I call these my attitude adjusters,” Powell said with a big smile. “And I don’t mean my attitude.”
[“Playing games.” Then-Assistant Director for Counterintelligence William Priestap wrote in handwritten notes that he feared the bureau was “playing games” with the Flynn interview in an effort to get the national security adviser to lie so “we can prosecute him or get him fired.”]