Remorse or defiance? Trump apology letters draw criticism

Four days after she scrawled a 13-word apology on a sheet of ruled paper and submitted it to the Fulton County Superior Court, lawyer Sidney Powell’s nonprofit group suggested she was anything but contrite about her push to overturn the results of Georgia’s 2020 election.

A blog post from the nonprofit Defending the Republic provided links to right wing news sites assailing “corrupt prosecutor” Fani Willis and reprinted a Truth Social post from former President Donald Trump repeating false claims about a rigged election.

“KNOW the truth. SHARE the truth,” concluded the missive from Powell’s group.

Powell is among four defendants who have pleaded guilty in Fulton County’s election interference case. As a condition of their plea deals, District Attorney Fani Willis insisted on what some thought was an unusual requirement: each had to write an apology to the citizens of Georgia. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained three of the letters on Thursday through an open records request.

Two — from Powell and fellow attorney Kenneth Chesebro — were only a sentence long.

“I apologize for my actions in connection with the events in Coffee County,” Powell said in her Oct. 19 letter as she pleaded guilty to six misdemeanors.

“I apologize to the citizens of the State of Georgia and of Fulton County for my involvement in Count 15 of the indictment,” Chesebro wrote a day later as he entered his own guilty plea to a felony.

Powell and Chesebro were among 19 people — including Trump — charged with attempting to overthrow the 2020 election in Georgia. Powell is alleged to have financed and helped organize a breach of election voting machines in rural Coffee County, while Chesebro was cast as the architect of a plan to put in place electors for Trump even though he had lost the election.

‘A wink and a nod’

The notes obtained Thursday have raised questions about what exactly the apologies were meant to accomplish. Critics said there is one thing they didn’t do: clear up misinformation surrounding the 2020 election. Instead, their terseness seemed to demonstrate defiance instead.

Democratic strategist Fred Hicks called them “a wink and a nod to the election deniers.”

“The letters have the feel of someone who is giving an apology with their fingers crossed behind their backs,” said Hicks, who ran the campaign for Willis’ opponent for DA in 2020. “To me, these serve to further entrench beliefs of a mass conspiracy.”

Not all of the apologies were so abrupt.

Bail bondsman Scott Hall wrote four paragraphs describing how he became swept up in election fraud activities in late 2020 and early 2021 after noticing what he thought were voting irregularities.

“I owe you an apology,” Hall wrote in a typed letter addressed to Georgians citizens.

“Although I certainly did not mean to violate any laws, I now realize that I did and have accepted responsibility for my actions,” Hall wrote.

Ellis, a lawyer who worked for the Trump campaign, tearfully read her apology letter during a court hearing in October.

“I look back on this whole experience with deep remorse,” she said.

Earlier this year, Hall pleaded guilty to five misdemeanors and Ellis to a single felony.

‘I’m sorry’

The District Attorney’s office also required apologies from defendants in the Atlanta Public Schools test cheating case in 2015. Willis prosecuted that case, which involved 21 defendants entering guilty pleas.

In a wide-ranging interview with The AJC on Tuesday, Willis said she believes apologies provide accountability. And she said length and flowery language wasn’t important.

“The contrition doesn’t have to be some poetic melody. It doesn’t have to be pages and pages. Sometimes you just need ‘I’m sorry.’ And if you get ‘I’m sorry,’ then we can move on and move past (it) if it’s a sincere apology,” Willis said.

Still, some scoff at the notion of a mea culpa.

“I never thought about apology letters,” former Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter, a Republican, said during a recent episode of the AJC podcast Breakdown. “That always seems like juvenile court stuff.”

Some experts say while the brief notes may not be satisfying for those seeking repentance, it’s legally smart to only provide the basics.

“I’d never let my client sign anything remotely more heartfelt or detailed than this if I represented Powell (same goes for Chesebro)” because they may be under investigation elsewhere, said Anthony Michael Kreis, a constitutional law professor at Georgia State University, on X, previously known as Twitter.

“Folks may feel underwhelmed by the lack of contrition, but them’s the breaks.”

Nicholas Smith, a legal philosophy professor at the University of New Hampshire who wrote the book “Justice through Apologies: Remorse, Reform, and Punishment,” said admissions of regret can be quite common in both civil and criminal cases.

But he added that when an apology is required it can make it difficult assess sincerity.

“A court-ordered apology as an element of a plea agreement makes the offender apologize or risk facing more severe punishment, and this obvious incentive to go through the motions of an apology makes it difficult to know what the offender is actually thinking and feeling,” Smith said.

“If President Trump wins the presidency again in 2024, will they stand by their 2023 apologies or will they return to promoting the story of election fraud in 2020?” he asked of the Fulton defendants.

For some, the letters simply missed the mark, especially considering the seriousness of the crimes at play.

“My eight year old has written better apologies for talking during class,” state Sen. Jason Esteves, an Atlanta Democrat, said. “You’d expect a lawyer who tried to overturn an election to take it more seriously, but it isn’t surprising.”