Three lawyers who worked to overturn Donald Trump’s 2020 defeat pleaded guilty in the past week in Georgia state court: Sidney Powell for illegally accessing voting equipment after the election, Kenneth Chesebro for gathering fake electors who would cast illegitimate votes for Trump, and Jenna Ellis for lying to lawmakers about voter fraud. They could be powerful witnesses in the prosecutions of Trump and two other attorneys, Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman.
After their bizarre roles in the post-2020 farce, it’s easy to forget that Powell and Chesebro, at least, are highly experienced lawyers. Before Powell threatened to “release the Kraken” on Trump’s behalf and claimed Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez was manipulating U.S. election results long after his death, she spent 10 years as a federal prosecutor. Chesebro holds a law degree from Harvard and worked on the Bush v. Gore 2000 election case (on Gore’s side!).
Their guilty pleas remind us of the dangers of flying too close to the sun. The glamor of the Oval Office, the media glare, and chance for 15 minutes of fame affect people powerfully. Because they could not resist that pull, Powell, Chesebro, and Ellis (and Giuliani, and Eastman . . . ) now join a club of lawyers who disgraced themselves in service of an unscrupulous president.
As a young lawyer in the Nixon administration, John Dean was a duty officer carrying out the Watergate cover-up. When things spun out of control, Dean warned Nixon that “some people are going have to go to jail” if the president continued to bury the facts
“Who?” Nixon asked.
“I think I could.”
Nixon assured his young aide that could never happen, because “you are a lawyer, you are a counsel.” Dean found out the hard way that was wrong, serving time even after he told the nation about Nixon’s crimes. Describing the conversation later, Dean said of Nixon, “He clearly wanted to engage in criminal behavior and he would blame everybody but himself.” (Dean, for his part, is now a reliable advocate for democracy. He has conducted legal ethics training for attorneys, with his own experience serving as a cautionary tale.)
Trump is likewise blaming everyone but himself. He now claims Powell was never his attorney. That’s not true — she was officially on his legal team, and even after the engagement formally ended she remained in contact with him. In any event, the absence of an attorney-client relationship will not save Trump from prosecution. Powell, Chesebro, and Ellis are going to talk, and I doubt Trump will like what they have to say.
The downfalls of Sidney Powell, Kenneth Chesebro, and Jenna Ellis are also an important reminder to lawyers everywhere that the attorney-client relationship is not a license to break the law, and bar membership is not a guarantee of immunity. Even the attorney-client privilege — one of the strongest bars on evidence collection in U.S. law — falls away when a client uses his lawyer in furtherance of a crime.
It’s no wonder a veritable who’s who of high-profile attorneys has reportedly rebuffed Trump’s attempts to enlist their services. The presidency has powerful magnetism, but the repulsive power of prison is even stronger.