What do two South American caudillos (one living, one long-dead); an even longer-dead Chicago mayor; a British baron; voting machine manufacturers; a computer in Frankfurt, Germany; poll workers in Philadelphia; the governments of China and Cuba; and a Hungarian-American philanthropist have in common?
No, this isn’t the set-up to a joke. It’s a list of who and what the latest iteration of Donald Trump’s legal team says are the key players in a massive global conspiracy to deny their client another four years in the White House.
To be sure, lawyers working for the President’s re-election campaign have been filing lawsuit after lawsuit in courts across the country since he lost his re-election bid to President-elect Joe Biden. According to Marc Elias, the Perkins Coie partner who leads the Democratic Party’s election litigation efforts, the arguments put forth by Trump campaign lawyers have failed to convince judges in 32 separate lawsuits across numerous swing states.
And because the claims the campaign wants to make have become more and more untenable as the scope of Biden’s victory became clear, most of the so-called “white shoe” law firms that were representing it have withdrawn. That has left the President in the hands of what Trump campaign Senior Legal Adviser Jenna Ellis called “an elite strike force team” laboring to protect the constitution, consisting of (among others) herself, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Texas-based attorney Sidney Powell. But insiders say the bizarre, falsehood-strewn press conference at which the trio presented, in Ellis’ words, an “opening statement,” left their effort looking less like the Seal Team Six raid that took out Osama bin Laden and more like the failed “Desert One” hostage rescue mission which doomed Jimmy Carter’s re-election hopes.
It was, in the words of one White House official, “an absolute s**t show”.
Just two days prior, Giuliani had told a Pennsylvania federal judge that the Trump campaign was not alleging fraud in its lawsuit against Pennsylvania’s secretary of state in his first courtroom appearance in decades. Yet, his opening remarks on Thursday contained numerous allegations of so-called “voter fraud”, supposedly supported by numerous sworn declarations (which he refused to show reporters) made by election workers in Michigan and Pennsylvania (who he refused to name).
“Each one of these cities or cities that are controlled by Democrats really can get away with anything they want to do. It means they have a certain degree of control over and certainly control the election board completely. And they control law enforcement, and unfortunately, have some friendly judges that will issue a ridiculously irrational opinions just to come out in their favor,” he said, offering exactly zero evidence to support what would ordinarily be very serious allegations. He even took time to berate the reporters who’d come to witness his spectacle for not reporting on allegations he would not show the evidence to prove.
Rick Wilson, a GOP political consultant and co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, once labored to make Giuliani the mayor of one of the most Democratic cities in one of the most Democratic states in the Union. When asked for a reaction to his former boss’s bizarre presentation, he replied that it was “like a cabal of mad priests of a dead religion worshipping their fallen god”.
Pressed further on what could have happened to Giuliani to prompt such a descent into conspiracy-mongering, Wilson suggested ambition or the effects of age might have something to do with it.
Another person with many years in Giuliani’s inner circle suggested that his fealty to Trump was possibly down to gratitude. His work as one of the President’s top boosters has given him the opportunity to repair a once-strained relationship with his son, Andrew, who works in the White House Office of Public Liaison, the source explained.
And Susan Del Percio, a veteran GOP strategist who served as Giuliani’s Deputy Commissioner for Finance and Administration during his mayoralty, also expressed disappointment at her boss’s descent into incoherent madness.
“It’s so saddening to see that this is who he is now because it’s nothing like he was,” she said, contrasting his current presentation with his time as mayor, when he was “always in command of the subject matter” and “on top of things”.
“It appears that he is just sucked into that Trump world, and once you go there, you cannot get out. He is spinning a web… and he’s just happy to be out there,” she said. “He doesn’t have to be, but he chooses to be, and the only [reason] I can come to is he likes the attention.”
But Giuliani was just the opening act in Thursday’s entertainment.
After roughly forty minutes, he ceded the microphone to Powell, who until recently was perhaps best known for her frequent Fox News appearances and her representation of Michael Flynn.
Powell, whose arguments on Flynn’s behalf have centered around a supposed “deep state” conspiracy and have been all but laughed out of court since she took over representing him last year, began her argument for Trump on a similar note.
“What we are really dealing with here and uncovering more about the day is the massive influence of communist money through Venezuela, Cuba, and likely China in the interference with our elections here in the United States,” said Powell, who alleged that one mastermind behind this alleged scheme was none other than Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan strongman who has been dead since 2013. She proceeded to spin a complicated yarn involving her deceased protagonist, an alleged associate of George Soros, and two of the largest vendors of voting machines in the country: Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic.
Much of her monologue amounted to a series of widely debunked claims about both companies’ ownership and history, as well as outlandish conspiracy theories about the software each company uses in their voting machines (which she falsely asserted was the same for both). Powell even called out an executive at one of the companies by name as she accused him of using the technology he holds a patent for to rig the election against Donald Trump.
And like Giuliani, Powell offered no evidence for her claims. Ellis, who spoke last, berated the press for being interested in such silly things as evidence to support the outlandish allegations her colleagues had just made.
But it might not only be reporters who’d like to see the evidence. The targets of the team’s accusations might want to as well, one of the country’s top First Amendment litigators said, because the lack of it could leave them open to a costly libel lawsuit.
“To say that they [the voting machines] were designed for communists to rig elections sounds like a statement of fact,” said Anne Champion, a Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher partner who recently helped defeat Trump’s attempt to block his niece, Mary Trump, from publishing her now-bestselling book Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.
Champion — who was also part of the legal team that defeated two Trump administration attempts to revoke reporters’ press credentials — posited that the reputational damage from the Trump attorney’s myriad public statements could be so catastrophic that the two companies will have to market their products under different names going forward. She added that in her judgment, the entire press conference was an attempt to poison the “jury pool” of the American electorate because such outlandish claims are not passing muster in court.
“It's like a jumbled word salad of conspiracy-minded allegations because they clearly are not ready to go in front of any judge. They are litigating in the press, because they know they can't win in court,” she said. “If I were Dominion voting systems, I'd be on the phone with my lawyers getting ready to file defamation cases.”
But Powell didn’t just stop at defaming whole companies and their employees. She concluded her remarks with a blatant lie and a call to hand a second term to Trump.
“President Trump won by a landslide, we are going to prove it, and we are going to reclaim the United States of America for the people who vote for freedom,” she said. However, even a normally Trump-friendly pundit — Fox News’ Tucker Carlson — wasn’t impressed with her follow-through on the allegations.
Speaking at the outset of his nightly show on Thursday, Carlson told viewers that Powell never responded to his requests for her to provide the evidence she spoke of (she also ignored queries from The Independent) and that she became angry when he continued to press her to prove the allegations she has been peddling in a variety of public settings since Election Day.
Other allies of the President and his family had similarly dim views of the so-called “elite strike force” — particularly Ellis, who many White House and campaign staffers say encourages Trump’s worst impulses.
Powell, a longtime proponent of conspiracy theories who once argued (without evidence) that South and Central American migrants were bringing polio-like illnesses to the US, repeated her eye-opening election claims during a Thursday evening appearance on Lou Dobbs’ Fox Business Network program.
"The entire election, frankly, in all the swing states should be overturned and the legislatures should make sure that the electors are selected for Trump,” she said.
One person familiar with Trump’s thinking said the idea of taking the decision of who should be the next president away from voters has always been at the back of the President’s mind. Since his loss, the source added, that idea has occupied more and more of his attention as the reputable lawyers and advisers who were staffing his campaign and early litigation efforts have either withdrawn or been pushed aside in favor of what the person called “the goddamned crackpot brigade”.
“This is going to blow up in all our faces,” they said, before expressing hope that the slow trickle of Republican officeholders who’ve acknowledged Biden’s win — most recently Michigan Representative Fred Upton and Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse — combined with the growing number of courtroom losses and the inevitability of states certifying their elections could convince Trump to abandon his crusade to end more than two centuries of democracy in America.
“Wild press conferences erode public trust. So no, obviously Rudy and his buddies should not pressure electors to ignore their certification obligations under the statute. We are a nation of laws, not tweets,” Sasse said in a statement late Thursday. Also weighing in was Utah Senator Mitt Romney, the only member of the upper chamber to vote in favor of removing Trump after his January impeachment trial.
“It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American president,” Romney said.
But the source close to Trump said criticism from his usual critics will make no difference to whether he continues his rebellion against the voters who rejected him. They declined to offer any predictions as to how far the President would go because, they said, Trump is not in a stable enough frame of mind to accept defeat considering he knows losing opens him up to possible criminal charges and a flood of lawsuits he won’t be able to avoid without presidential immunity.
“He’s absolutely terrified, and people do stupid things when they feel fear,” they said.