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.