WASHINGTON (AP) — A lawyer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign was acquitted Tuesday of lying to the FBI when he pushed information meant to cast suspicions on Donald Trump and Russia in the run-up to that year’s election.
The case against Michael Sussmann was the first courtroom test of special counsel John Durham since his appointment three years ago to search for government misconduct during the investigation into potential ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign. The verdict represents a setback for Durham’s work, especially since Trump supporters had looked to the probe to expose what they contend was egregious bias by law enforcement officials who investigated the ex-president’s campaign.
The jury deliberated for several hours on Friday afternoon and Tuesday morning before reaching its verdict.
Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse after the verdict was delivered, Sussmann said he “told the truth to the FBI, and the jury clearly recognized that with their unanimous verdict today.”
He added: “Despite being falsely accused, I am relieved that justice ultimately prevailed in this case.”
In a separate statement, Durham said that though he and his team were disappointed in the outcome, they respected the jury’s decision. He thanked the investigators and prosecutors on his team for their “dedicated efforts in seeking truth and justice in this case.”
The trial focused on whether Sussmann, a cybersecurity attorney and former federal prosecutor himself, concealed from the FBI that he was representing Clinton’s campaign when he presented computer data that he said showed a possible secret communication backchannel between Russia-based Alfa Bank and Trump’s business company, the Trump Organization. The FBI investigated but quickly determined that there was no suspicious contact.
The bureau’s then-general counsel and the government’s star witness, James Baker, testified that he was “100% confident “ that Sussmann had told him that he was not representing any client during a September 2016 meeting the two men had. Prosecutors alleged Sussmann was actually acting on behalf of the Clinton campaign and another client — a technology executive — and that he hid that information to make the data seem more credible and to boost the chances of getting the FBI to investigate.
Lawyers for Sussmann denied to jurors that he lied, saying it was impossible to know with certainty what he told Baker since they were the only participants in the meeting and neither of them took notes.
They argued that if Sussmann said he wasn’t acting on the Clinton campaign’s behalf that that was technically accurate since he didn’t ask the FBI to take any particular action, and campaign officials didn’t authorize him to meet with the FBI. And they said that even if he did make a false statement, it was ultimately irrelevant since the FBI was already investigating Russia and the Trump campaign and, given the urgency of that probe, would have looked into the Alfa Bank data no matter the source.
During the two-week trial, jurors heard from a slew of witnesses, including current and former FBI officials who described efforts to assess the legitimacy of the Alfa Bank data, ex-Clinton campaign aides and lawyers and colleagues and friends of Sussmann who vouched for his character.
The original Trump-Russia investigation, overseen for two years by former special counsel Robert Mueller, found multiple efforts by Russia to interfere on the Trump campaign’s behalf but did not establish that the two sides had worked together to sway the outcome of the election.
After Mueller’s work was done, then-Attorney General William Barr named a new Justice Department prosecutor, then-Connecticut U.S. Attorney Durham, to examine whether anyone from the FBI or other agencies violated the law as the government opened its investigation into Russian election interference and the Trump campaign.
Durham has brought three criminal cases so far, though only one has been against a federal government employee and none of them has established any sort of sweeping conspiracy to frame Trump or derail his candidacy. The Alfa Bank matter, for instance, was peripheral to the Trump-Russia probe, with the since-discredited allegations not even warranting a mention in Mueller’s 448-page report.
A former FBI lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, was given probation after pleading guilty in 2020 to altering an email related to secret surveillance of an ex-Trump campaign aide, and a Russian analyst, Igor Danchenko, who contributed to a dossier of Democratic-funded research into ties between Russia and Trump awaits trial this October on charges of lying to the FBI about his sources of information.