WASHINGTON (AP) — A lawyer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign who is charged with lying to the FBI early in the Trump-Russia probe sought to “use and manipulate” federal law enforcement to create an “October surprise” in the final weeks of the presidential race, a prosecutor alleged Tuesday at the start of his trial. Defense lawyers told jurors he never lied.
Michael Sussmann is accused of lying to the FBI during a September 2016 meeting by telling the bureau’s top lawyer that he wasn’t acting on behalf of the Clinton campaign when he presented information that he said might connect Russia to then-candidate Donald Trump.
“He told a lie that was designed to achieve a political end, a lie that was designed to inject the FBI into a president election,” Shaw said, adding that it was all part of a plan to create an “October surprise” of FBI investigations into Trump as well as negative news coverage.
But Sussmann’s lawyers sought to counter each of the prosecution’s allegations, telling jurors he never lied during the meeting and that the fact that he represented Democratic clients was well-known to the FBI.
“He was someone the FBI knew represented partisan clients, defense lawyer Michael Bosworth said in his opening statements. “The FBI knew that he represented the Clinton campaign that summer. The FBI knew that he was an attorney for the DNC, the Democratic Party itself.”
Bosworth said it would be impossible to prove that Sussmann had lied because only he and the FBI lawyer he met with, James Baker, were present and neither took notes. Five and a half years after the meeting, Baker’s memory of what was said is “clear as mud,” Bosworth said. And whether
Sussmann’s trial is the first arising from special counsel John Durham’s investigation into the FBI’s original probe into Russian election interference and potential ties with the Trump campaign. Though Durham was first thought to be focused on misconduct by government officials during the course of the investigation, the Sussmann case alleges wrongdoing by a tipster to the FBI rather than the FBI itself.
At issue is a Sept. 19, 2016 meeting in which Sussmann presented Baker with computer data gathered by another of his clients that purported to show furtive contact between computer servers of the Trump Organization and Russia-based Alfa Bank. That connection, if true, would have been explosive at a time when the FBI was examining whether the Trump campaign and Russia were conspiring to sway the election.
The FBI did investigate the data but found nothing nefarious, and the communication instead reflected what Shaw described as a “spam email server” used to send out marketing.
When Sussmann sought the FBI meeting, he misled the bureau into thinking he was acting as simply a “good citizen,” prosecutor Brittain Shaw told jurors, because he knew that if he was honest about his work for the Clinton campaign, the “FBI might not meet with him right away, let alone open an investigation.”
In presenting the information, Sussmann bypassed proper channels by going straight to his friend, Baker, and concocted a lie that was designed to use the FBI as a “political tool,” Shaw said.
In an early recognition of the politically loaded nature of the case, Shaw urged jurors to put aside any feelings they might have about Trump, Russia or Clinton.
“Some people have very strong feelings about politics and Russia, and many people have strong feelings about Donald Trump and Russia. But we are not here because these allegations involved either of them, nor are we here because the client was the Hillary Clinton campaign,” Shaw said.
Rather, she added, “We are here because the FBI is our institution. It should not be used as a political tool.”
Though Shaw said Sussmann took the material to the FBI out of frustration that a newspaper reporter he had been working with had not yet written about it, Bosworth, Sussmann’s lawyer, says he instead was trying to give the FBI a heads-up that a story was imminent.
Durham was appointed in 2019 by then-Attorney General William Barr to look for any misconduct as the U.S. government was examining potential coordination between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign to tip the outcome of the election. An investigation by an earlier special counsel, Robert Mueller, did not find a criminal conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign though it did find that Russia sought to aid Trump’s election bid.
The Alfa Bank matter was a peripheral part of the FBI’s investigation and the allegations of furtive contact were not even mentioned in Mueller’s 2019 report.
Durham’s work has resulted in three criminal cases, but only the one against Sussmann has reached trial.
In 2020, a former FBI lawyer named Kevin Clinesmith pleaded guilty to altering an email related to secret FBI surveillance of an ex-Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page. In applying for warrants to eavesdrop on Page, the FBI relied on research files of anti-Trump information known colloquially as the “Steele dossier” that contained rumors and uncorroborated claims.
Last year, Durham charged a Russia analyst who was a source for that dossier with lying to the FBI about his own sources of information — among them, a longtime Hillary Clinton supporter. Igor Danchenko has pleaded not guilty. The case is pending.