WASHINGTON (AP) — Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign did not authorize a lawyer to meet with the FBI and provide information that was meant to cast suspicions on rival candidate Donald Trump and possible connections to Russia, according to trial testimony Wednesday.
Michael Sussmann, a lawyer for Clinton’s 2016 campaign, is charged with lying to the FBI during a meeting at which he presented the bureau’s top lawyer with data that purported to show mysterious contact between computer servers of a Russia-based bank and Trump’s company, the Trump Organization.
Prosecutors say Sussmann misled the FBI by saying he wasn’t participating in the meeting on behalf of a particular client when he was actually there on behalf of the Clinton campaign and another client, a technology executive, who had provided him with the data.
But under questioning from one of Sussmann’s attorneys, Marc Elias, the campaign’s top lawyer, said Sussmann did not seek his permission to go to the FBI. Elias said neither he nor anyone else from the campaign he was aware of had authorized Sussmann to meet with the FBI.
In fact, he said he would not have supported going to the FBI because he felt the bureau had not been sufficiently aggressive in stopping ongoing leaks of Russia-hacked emails that had been stolen from the Clinton campaign earlier that year, and because he viewed then-Director James Comey as having put a “thumb on the scale” against Clinton during an earlier investigation into her use of a private email server while secretary of state.
“I’m not sure I would have thought that the FBI was going to give a fair shake to anything they thought was anti-Trump or pro-Clinton,” Elias said.
The testimony on cross-examination was aimed at distancing Sussmann from the campaign and establishing that he had not lied to the FBI by saying that he was not acting on behalf of the campaign during the Sept. 19, 2016, meeting.
At that meeting, Sussmann presented James Baker, the FBI’s then-general counsel, with research that he said showed potential contact between Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization. The FBI did look into it, but found nothing suspicious.
Defense lawyers have told jurors that Sussmann never lied, and that it was impossible for prosecutors to prove precisely what he said because only he and Baker attended the meeting and neither of them took notes.
Earlier Wednesday, prosecutors sought to link Sussmann’s work to the campaign by noting that as a lawyer in private practice he repeatedly billed the campaign for meetings and legal work.
The case against Sussmann was brought by John Durham, the prosecutor appointed as special counsel during the Trump administration to investigate potential misconduct by government officials and others during the early days of the FBI’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and potential ties to the Trump campaign.
The case is the the first to reach trial. An earlier case against an FBI lawyer charged with altering an email ended in a plea deal in 2020, and another case against an analyst charged with lying to the FBI remains pending.