Special Counsel John Durham's indictment of Democratic lawyer Michael Sussmann will likely have made uncomfortable reading for a key member of President Joe Biden's administration — his beleaguered national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
The grand jury indictment against Sussmann centers on a September 2016 meeting between him and then-FBI General Counsel James Baker in which Sussmann passed along allegations claiming there was a secret backchannel between Russia’s Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization. While Durham says Sussmann told Baker he was not working for any specific client, the special counsel contends he was secretly doing the bidding of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign as well as working on behalf of a yet-unnamed technology company executive. Sussmann pleaded not guilty.
The Durham indictment states that “on or about September 15, 2016, Campaign Lawyer-1 exchanged emails with the Clinton Campaign's campaign manager, communications director, and foreign policy advisor concerning the Russian Bank-1 allegations that SUSSMANN had recently shared with Reporter-1.” Durham wrote that “Campaign Lawyer-1 billed his time for this correspondence” to the Clinton campaign, with the billing entry of “email correspondence with [name of foreign policy advisor], [name of campaign manager], [name of communications director] re: [Russian Bank-1] Article.”
Clinton’s foreign policy adviser was Sullivan, while her campaign manager was Robby Mook, and communications director was Jennifer Palmieri. “Campaign Lawyer-1” was Marc Elias. Sullivan has not been accused of wrongdoing by Durham. The White House National Security Council did not return a request for comment.
On Halloween 2016, Clinton tweeted: “Computer scientists have apparently uncovered a covert server linking the Trump Organization to a Russian-based bank.” And she shared a lengthy Sullivan statement.
“This could be the most direct link yet between Donald Trump and Moscow,” Sullivan claimed. “Computer scientists have apparently uncovered a covert server linking the Trump Organization to a Russian-based bank. This secret hotline may be the key to unlocking the mystery of Trump’s ties to Russia. ... This line of communication may help explain Trump’s bizarre adoration of Vladimir Putin.”
Sullivan added: “We can only assume that federal authorities will now explore this direct connection between Trump and Russia.”
SUSSMANN PLEADS NOT GUILTY IN DURHAM CASE
It was reported by Slate at the end of October 2016 that researchers found “a sustained relationship between a server registered to the Trump Organization and two servers registered to an entity called Alfa Bank.” The New York Times reported, “The FBI ultimately concluded that there could be an innocuous explanation, like a marketing email or spam, for the computer contacts.”
A bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report from 2020 did not find "covert communications between Alfa Bank and Trump Organization personnel."
In March 2017, CNN reported that “federal investigators and computer scientists continue to examine whether there was a computer server connection between the Trump Organization and a Russian bank.”
But DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz said in his December 2019 report that the FBI "concluded by early February 2017 that there were no such links."
When asked about the Alfa Bank claims during House testimony in July 2019, special counsel Robert Mueller said, "My belief at this point is that it’s not true.” Mueller’s report “did not establish” any criminal collusion between Trump and Russia.
Sullivan appeared on CNN the week after the network's story and was asked if he was surprised the investigation was still going.
“I wasn’t surprised because what we learned during the campaign was that very serious computer science experts, people who work closely with the United States government, had uncovered this secret hotline between the Alfa Bank — the Russian bank — and the Trump Organization,” Sullivan said. “Now, of course, we didn’t know for sure if, in fact, that were the case, but we knew it should be investigated. And we knew that, given how serious these computer scientists were, they weren't just making up crackpot theories.”
Palmieri wrote for the Washington Post in March 2017, recounting that she and Sullivan, while at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, "took to our golf carts one afternoon to make the rounds of the television networks’ tents in the parking lot … to get the press to focus on something even we found difficult to process: the prospect that Russia had not only hacked and stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee, but that it had done so to help Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton.” Palmieri claimed she and Sullivan “wanted to raise the alarm."
Sullivan told the House Intelligence Committee in December 2017 much the same thing.
He was asked about Alfa Bank during that testimony, and said: “I knew that it was a series of just sort of computer data forensic experts who had found this and then have analyzed it, the traffic between the two sides, and that had gone and sat down with the author of the Slate story.”
Sullivan said he first met with Fusion’s co-founder Glenn Simpson in February 2017, along with Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta. Sullivan said there may have been another member of Fusion present, and “there might have been somebody else there as well.” The other two apparently at the meeting were Fusion co-founder Peter Fritsch and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s former aide, Dan Jones.
Sullivan said Simpson called Steele “highly credible” and “really effective.”
Sullivan admitted he was in meetings where Elias briefed the campaign on opposition research, saying some of it was related to the Steele allegations. Sullivan said: “Marc wears a tremendous number of hats. So I wasn’t sure who he was representing. In that context, I sort of thought he was, you know, just talking to us as, you know, a fellow traveler in this — in the campaign effort.”
He testified: “Marc, and without going into privilege, would occasionally give us updates on the opposition research they were conducting. But I didn't know what the nature of that effort was, inside effort, outside effort, who was funding it, who was doing it, anything like that.”
In December 2017, Podesta told the House Intelligence Committee he hadn’t heard of Fusion until after the election but described the early 2017 meeting he and Sullivan had with Fusion in greater detail. Podesta said Simpson and Fritsch were both there, and he also indicated Jones may have been present too.
“I was approached by a person who he had been in touch with about whether we would — we would meet and kind of compare notes about what each respectively knew about what the Russian interventions in the campaign were. … And the meeting was essentially about the state of play at that time, in February,” Sullivan said. “They were also interested in trying to raise money to continue their efforts to investigate the, you know, the Russian interference in the campaign."
Podesta said Jones “was in the process of creating a nonprofit organization, as it were, to pursue the issues around Russian intervention in the U.S. election.”
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Jones founded the Democracy Integrity Project in January 2017. Tax records show he funded Steele, Fusion, and others involved with Russia-related inquiries to the tune of millions. Jones’s group also investigated and pushed the Alfa Bank claims after the 2016 election.
Steele testified in a British court that Sussmann provided him with other claims about Alfa Bank’s purported ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a late July 2016 meeting. These allegations made their way into a September 2016 memo that became part of Steele’s dossier, although Steele repeatedly misspells “Alfa” as “Alpha.”