When Sidney Powell, a top ally of Donald Trump, pleaded guilty Thursday to crimes associated with the 2020 election, lawyers for many Jan. 6 defendants were stunned by her relatively meager sentence: six years of probation and a modest fine.
For years, those lawyers — and some judges — have lamented that the thousands who breached the Capitol were used as pawns and dupes by Trump, Powell and their associates in a bid to subvert the election. So Powell’s plea was the first taste of accountability for Trump’s inner circle. Yet her punishment, Jan. 6 defense lawyers noted, paled in comparison to even some of the low-level offenders who entered the Capitol that day and now face consequences that may dog them for life.
“Gobsmacked is certainly an appropriate description considering the sentences that have been imposed against others who believed the lies spread by Donald Trump, Sidney Powell and others,” said Bjorn Brunvand, whose client Robert Palmer was sentenced by Judge Tanya Chutkan to 63 months in prison for assaulting officers at the U.S. Capitol. “The rules we all share are not applied equitably to all. Frequently, deals are made with the highest-ranking players in criminal conspiracies, while the pawns receive the most significant sentences.”
Powell’s mild sentence was a reflection of an apparent cooperation deal she struck with prosecutors. Another close Trump ally, Kenneth Chesebro, entered a similar plea deal on Friday that will allow him to avoid prison. (Brunvand and other lawyers for Jan. 6 defendants spoke with POLITICO before news emerged of Chesebro’s plea.)
Both Powell and Chesebro provided statements to prosecutors and promised to testify for the government in the racketeering case in Fulton County, Ga., where prosecutors have charged Trump and 18 others with conspiring to subvert the 2020 election. It’s unclear whether Powell or Chesebro will testify against Trump himself, but they were among his closest advisers in the final frantic weeks of his presidency as his efforts to overturn the election grew increasingly desperate. Their testimony could offer firsthand accounts that give jurors unparalleled insight into Trump’s mindset.
District Attorney Fani Willis initially charged Powell with seven felonies, including racketeering and conspiracy to commit election fraud, for her involvement in an effort to unlawfully access voting equipment in Georgia’s Coffee County. Powell initially denied the charges and fought to have them thrown out, but her plea deal includes an admission to many of the facts prosecutors alleged. Ultimately, she pleaded guilty to six misdemeanor charges, which will be wiped from her record under Georgia’s “first-time offender” policies as long as she doesn’t commit additional crimes in the near future.
Powell’s lawyer, Brian Rafferty, and a spokesperson for Willis did not respond to requests for comment.
Attorneys for several Jan. 6 defendants told POLITICO that it seemed incongruous for foot soldiers to face steep penalties — often including jail time — while Powell, an architect of the effort to overturn the election, was permitted to negotiate a misdemeanor plea deal.
“This is sick and scandalous,” said Carmen Hernandez, a defense attorney whose former clients include Philadelphia Proud Boy Zachary Rehl. “There are J6 defendants with no priors who’ve served jail time. … It’s obscene given that she was a prominent attorney and was one of the leading and loudest of the ‘stolen election’ BS.”
Rehl, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison after a jury convicted him of seditious conspiracy in May, quoted Powell — and her chest-thumping promise to “release the Kraken” as she sought to overturn the election results in court — in his social media exchanges with other Proud Boys.
Norm Pattis, who represents Florida Proud Boy Joseph Biggs and InfoWars broadcaster Owen Shroyer in Jan. 6 criminal cases, said it simply didn’t sit right to see Powell receive light punishment.
“Ms. Powell must have offered Georgia a lot for this deal. In the meantime, ordinary J6 defendants, who listened to her, get severe sentences,” Pattis said. “None of this promotes respect for the law..”
Biggs, one of Rehl’s co-defendants, was sentenced last month to 17 years in prison for seditious conspiracy and other felony convictions. Shroyer, who pleaded to a single misdemeanor, was sentenced recently to 60 days in prison.
Other Jan. 6 defense attorneys, however, said it’s not surprising that Powell’s cooperation was a white whale for prosecutors. Her cooperation could reshape the calculus of many of Trump’s other co-defendants, arm prosecutors with explosive new evidence and even influence special counsel Jack Smith’s ongoing probe in which Powell has been identified as an as-yet-uncharged co-conspirator.
Powell, they say, simply has something to offer that most Jan. 6 defendants do not.
“They really, really wanted her cooperation. She will be an explosively helpful witness,” said Gene Rossi, who represents William Isaacs, a Jan. 6 defendant who joined members of the Oath Keepers at the Capitol. “If I were the state prosecutor, I could not ask for a better … cooperator testifying against President Trump and the others than the attorney who was going to be the special counsel for the ‘stop the steal’ investigation.”
Rossi noted that Powell’s deal also sends a signal to other Trump co-defendants “that if you come in early, you will get a bargain deal. If you wait until the end, you will get hammered.”
Scott Weinberg, who also represented a member of the Oath Keepers in a Jan. 6 trial, said he was “hardly surprised” by the outcome.
“With these numerous prosecutions, indictments, involving massive resources both criminal and civil, it seems the government would hand out a jaywalking ticket to Charles Manson if it meant securing a conviction against Trump,” he said.
Both Weinberg and Rossi referenced the cooperation deal that Sammy ‘the Bull’ Gravano reached with the government to testify against mobster John Gotti, even after confessing to a role in 19 murders.
“Not comparing Trump to Gotti,” Weinberg said, “but if the government wants you, they’ll get you.”