In late 2020, a collective of Donald Trump’s most extreme election-deadenders, led by MAGA attorney Sidney Powell and Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, were loudly telling anyone who would listen—the media, judges, local Republican politicians, and (of course) Trump himself—about their ludicrous plot to deploy the troops, seize U.S. voting machines, and keep then-President Trump in power.
If there was a wild, baseless conspiracy theory about the 2020 presidential election that was animating Trump at the time and fueling his crusade, these MAGA diehards were standing at the ready, prepared to publicly take credit for pushing these ideas and written proposals to the highest levels of government, and getting it in Trump’s ear. And they were prepared to slag any of the Trump administration who stood in their way.
But a year later, as the investigations and lawsuits further intensify, with the subpoenas flying and the legal bills soaring, the Trumpist gang is taking a curious approach to a newly published draft of the Trump executive-order outlining their brazenly authoritarian blueprint.
They now want absolutely nothing to do with it.
In fact, they claim, they don’t even recognize the document, even though it mirrors (almost to a T) the plans they once openly championed.
“I do not recognize it and neither does General [Michael] Flynn,” former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne, who worked as part of the small group of Trump confidants and associates advising the then-president on seizing machines, told The Daily Beast.
“The stuff that Sidney [Powell] and Rudy [Giuliani] and other people were pushing then, you couldn’t tell if they wrote it or if they pulled it off a weird website somewhere. I told the [then-]president that many of these documents looked like they could have been written by a ten-year-old. As far as I know, they could have.
— a former senior Trump aide
“It is not what we brought over [to Trump] on December 18, ,” Byrne added.
A source close to Flynn corroborated that the former Trump national security adviser is privately telling people that he doesn’t recognize the order, a document that is now figuring prominently into the U.S. House’s investigation into the deadly Jan. 6 riot and the lead-up to it. Flynn’s brother, Joseph, who acts as a de facto spokesman for the former top Trump lieutenant, also said he “agree[s] with Mike and Pat,” and claimed not to recognize the text of the order.
The ongoing game of hot potato over the draft EO, with the would-be coup participants all invoking the Shaggy defense, underscores a nagging mystery that investigators on the congressional Jan. 6 committee and lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been trying to solve: Who, exactly, wrote the order for Trump, and what other related schemes did the then-president, along with his aides and cronies, work to turn into reality?
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that the author of this memo isn’t coming forward. After all, that person would be buying him or herself expensive legal bills, potential embarrassment, and a lot of unwanted attention from governmental authorities,” said Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor. “If you’re engaged in questionable activities, it’s even more important to stay under the radar. The more outlandish things you say, the more you’ll draw attention to matters that the authorities would never have been aware of otherwise.”
The identity of the memo’s true author has remained an unsolved mystery even at the upper echelons of Trumpland, and also at its influential peripheries.
In December 2020, Lin Wood, another MAGA lawyer who had worked closely with Powell and at times briefed then-President Trump, had also urged Trump to “exercise his executive power to direct US Marshals to impound voting machines used in [the] 11/3 election.”
When asked last week if he had any hand in writing the draft order, or if he knew who did, Wood tersely replied: “I had no involvement,” adding that he could only “speculate” who was—but declined to do so.
On Monday, Politico reported that Bernie Kerik, who was on the Trump legal team that tried to steal the election from Joe Biden, claimed to the Jan. 6 committee that “former Army colonel Phil Waldron first came up with the idea of Trump issuing an executive order to seize voting machines,” but did not identify the author.
Four sources directly involved with the Trump team during the tumultuous presidential transition told The Daily Beast they could not independently confirm who wrote it.
“I often did not know who wrote what, or where each crazy document came from,” said a former senior Trump aide. “The stuff that Sidney and Rudy [Giuliani] and other people were pushing then, you couldn’t tell if they wrote it or if they pulled it off a weird website somewhere. I told the [then-]president that many of these documents looked like they could have been written by a ten-year-old. As far as I know, they could have.”
However, each of the four sources said they had assumed it was from Powell at the time, given she was the main driver behind such ideas as commandeering the machines and getting Trump to appoint her his new White House “special counsel” on election-fraud conspiracy theories.
“The president knows this election was stolen but he is not getting the support he, the Constitution, and the republic deserve,” Powell told the Washington Examiner in December 2020—while also claiming credit for groundless theories that China and Iran hacked the election in Biden’s favor. “His own people are misleading and undermining him while protecting their own careers and agendas.”
Powell also insisted, “I have been blocked by White House counsel and others from seeing or speaking to the president since I raised the public formal findings” during the now-infamous Dec. 18 White House gathering. At that meeting, Flynn, Powell, Byrne, and former Trump administration attorney Emily Newman huddled with Trump specifically to discuss their conspiracy-theory-fueled ideas for “investigating” the 2020 election results, rounding up voting machines by force, and illegitimately keeping the 45th U.S. president in office.
Nowadays, Powell—much like her ex-comrades—is slinking away from her plan and “formal findings.” The hardliner MAGA attorney, as well as her own lawyer, did not respond to The Daily Beast’s repeated queries about whether or not she wrote the draft executive-order. Currently, Powell is still dealing with the legal fallout from her efforts, including potentially devastating lawsuits and the heat of a federal investigation.
If issued, the order, first reported by Politico last week, would have instructed his secretary of defense to seize voting machines in an effort to stay in power after decisively losing the 2020 presidential contest to Biden. The document, which would have also appointed a White House “special counsel” to probe baseless election claims, is among the files that former President Trump and his attorneys had unsuccessfully tried to prevent the National Archives from turning over to the Jan. 6 committee in Washington, DC.
The assumption that Powell wrote the blatantly anti-democratic missive for Trump—or at least that she had some hand in its distribution within the last administration—could of course end up being wrong. But as independent researchers have pointed out, the document reported on by Politico shares a number of similarities to one published to Powell’s PDF-hosting account on Scribd in December, which has since been removed.
The memo hosted on Powell’s Scribd account is branded as a summary that “established ‘foreign interference” in the United States 2020 elections as defined in [Executive Order] 13848” and is dated December 22—a week after the draft executive order obtained by Politico is dated.
Both memos cite the same passages of a Georgia judge’s ruling in a lawsuit over ballot marking software in Dominion Voting Systems machines, a since-debunked Antrim County, Michigan “forensic report” compiled by the firm Allied Security Operations Group (ASOG), which falsely claimed that Dominion Voting Systems had purposely designed their voting machines to miscalculate vote tallies.
In other places, the two documents share the same exact language while trying to paint Dominion Voting Systems as a stalking horse for foreign adversaries. In one paragraph which appears verbatim in both the draft executive order and Scribd memo, the authors strain to use Dominion’s sale of intellectual property to HSBC, a British bank with a branch in China—in an attempt to establish a nonexistent link between the voting technology firm and the Chinese government.
Whether or not anybody in the Powell-Flynn crew authored the draft order, the document clearly bears the hallmarks of their coup d’état plans. But as the individual members of this group either deny involvement or go conspicuously silent on the topic, they do so not as brothers and sisters in arms, but as a fractured and feuding clique.
In the time since December 2020, Wood, Byrne, Flynn, and Powell—once devoted comrades in some of the most extreme excesses and endeavors of the conservative-MAGA movement—have descended into a blitz of high-school-style melodrama—replete with backstabbing, sordid accusations, and the destruction of close friendships.