Sussmann’s trial is the first courtroom test of the investigative work done by Special Counsel John Durham, appointed by Trump administration Attorney General William P. Barr, to determine whether federal agents who investigated the 2016 Trump campaign committed wrongdoing. Somewhat surprisingly, in this lawsuit and another scheduled for this fall, the Durham team argues not that FBI officials committed crimes but were victims of the lies of others.
Sussmann, a cybersecurity lawyer who has represented Democrats and tech companies, denied breaking the law. His defense team argues that what prosecutors suggest was a devious plot to smear Trump was in truth people acting independently and with good intentions to sound the alarm about what they viewed as suspicious behavior.
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Suspicions were already high in political and government circles in September 2016 when Sussmann arranged a meeting with the FBI’s top lawyer, James Baker, to share important computer data and analysis. suggesting a secret communication channel between the Trump Organization and Russia-based Alfa-Bank.
When the two men sat down in a conference room on the 7th floor of the J. Edgar Hoover Building, the FBI feared being played by political operatives. Two months earlier, then-FBI Director James B. Comey had ended the investigation into Clinton’s use of private email for sensitive government matters, holding a highly unusual press conference to publicly criticize her conduct. .
Still furious over the issue, the Clinton campaign had refused to meet with FBI agents to discuss security amid a Russian campaign of hacks and leaks. And the Clinton campaign and the FBI suspected that people in the Trump campaign might conspire with Russia to interfere with the election.
In testimony that spanned three days last week, Baker insisted Sussmann told him he brought the computer data not on behalf of a client or company. Baker said if he had known, as accusations, that Sussmann was acting on behalf of the Clinton campaign and a tech executive, he would have treated the information differently — and perhaps wouldn’t have. not even be accepted the meeting.
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Baker is the only direct witness to the conversation, and Sussmann’s attorneys have repeatedly challenged his credibility on this point, noting that in a previous interview, Baker said Sussmann represented cybersecurity clients; in another, he seemed to say he didn’t remember that part of the conversation. Prosecutors presented billing records from Sussmann’s law firm showing the time he spent on the matter as work on behalf of the Clinton campaign.
Baker told the jury that while his prior statements may be inconsistent, he is “100% satisfied” from his memory that Sussmann claimed to act alone.
He testified that Sussmann also told him that a major newspaper – he later learned was the New York Times – was preparing to write about the allegations. This worried Baker: he knew that a story would likely shut down any suspicious communications, so he wanted the FBI to be able to investigate before an article appeared. Prosecutors say it was Sussmann himself who provided the information to the Times.
“It would have concerned me if there was an effort to play the FBI and drag us into the ongoing political campaign and make us a pawn in the campaign in some way,” said Baker. “It would have alarmed me, this connection to the press and if there were efforts to create a situation where the FBI would investigate this material and that the press – even if they could not determine the reliability of this material and did not couldn’t’ I wouldn’t report it – I could report that the FBI was investigating it.
Eventually, the FBI investigated the computer data and decided there was nothing suspicious.
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Baker’s account underpins the central assertion of the prosecution’s case – that Sussmann lied about the client he was representing in an attempt to trigger both an FBI investigation and reporting on an issue that would harm the public. Trump’s electoral chances.
The unsaid was another reason Baker might have reacted differently had he known Sussmann was acting on Clinton’s behalf: Of all the senior Comey advisers who worked on the Clinton email case, Baker was arguably the most critical of the way she and her team communicated on sensitive topics, according to those who worked with him at the time, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
If Baker had known Sussmann’s information came from a Clinton campaign opposition research effort, he could have had a much more negative reaction. It is unclear whether Sussmann was aware at the time of Baker’s views on the Clinton email affair.
The Sussmann trial is being closely watched by lawyers, government officials and political operatives for potential fallout. On the witness stand, Baker lamented the “maelstrom” of false accusations leveled against him by Trump and other supporters since his meeting with Sussmann.
The case even caught the attention of the world’s richest person, Elon Musk, who tweeted about it several times last week – a particularly awkward situation for Baker since Musk is trying to buy Twitter, where Baker now works as a lawyer.
“I bet most people still don’t know that a Clinton campaign lawyer, using campaign funds, created an elaborate hoax about Trump and Russia. Wonder what else is wrong,” Musk tweeted on Friday, after Baker finished testifying.
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Baker told the jury that a few days after Sussmann’s meeting, he spoke to the Times reporter working on the story, Eric Lichtblau, and asked that story do not publish until the FBI can investigate further.
Baker said it’s unusual but not unheard of for a government agency to make such a request.
The newspaper told Baker they needed more time to investigate – which he testified gave the FBI more time to do the same.
Lichtblau, an award-winning journalist who has since left the paper, is expected to be called as a defense witness as early as next week. There are unresolved questions about what he would talk about if he testified. Lichtblau agreed to discuss his conversations with Sussmann and Joffe, but the journalist’s lawyers say he shouldn’t have to answer questions on other matters. US District Judge Christopher Cooper signaled last week that he may hold a hearing on the matter before Lichtblau speaks.
The prosecution argues that what Sussmann and the Clinton campaign were really looking for was some sort of “October surprise” – a damaging revelation against Trump shortly before voting began. At times, the prosecution team suggested that journalists might be suckers in this strategy.
“I’m sure you know that journalists often publish things that aren’t true?” Deputy Special Counsel Andrew DeFilippis asked former Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook.
Mook appeared surprised and challenged the notion that the Clinton campaign thought the Alfa-Bank allegation was some sort of “quick fix” against Trump. Mook said he was not informed that anyone had taken Alfa-Bank’s allegations to the FBI, nor had he authorized anyone to do so.
The campaign decided — and Clinton herself agreed — to give the allegations to a reporter, he said. Published slate a story about the allegations on October 31, 2016.
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Mook told jurors that the Clinton campaign “just doesn’t trust” the FBI. “Two or three of the most damaging days of the campaign were caused by James Comey, not Donald Trump,” he said, referring to the FBI’s handling of the email case.
Mook added that Alfa-Bank was just one of many stories at the time about possible ties between Russia and Trump.
If the reports on Alfa-Bank weren’t so important to Mook, they seemed to be important to everyone.
In February 2017 – after Trump took office – Sussmann was still trying to persuade the US government to pursuing the Alfa-Bank issue, and still trying to invoke the Times to make it happen, according to another witness.
Mark Chadason, a former CIA officer, said he met with Sussmann and helped arrange a meeting between the lawyer and agency officials to discuss Alfa-Bank’s claims and a related allegation.
In an email at the time, Chadason wrote that Sussmann said his client wanted the information passed to a senior CIA official, adding that “if there is no interest, he will most likely go to the New York Times.”