The FBI’s former top lawyer, James Baker, testified Thursday that he would not have met with Michael Sussmann if he had known Sussmann was doing so on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
Sussmann has been charged by special counsel John Durham with concealing his clients, Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign and former Neustar executive Rodney Joffe, from Baker when he presented since-debunked allegations of a secret back channel between the Trump Organization and Russia’s Alfa-Bank during a September 2016 meeting.
“I don’t think I would have,” Baker told Durham prosecutor Andrew DeFilippis when asked if he would have met with Sussmann if he’d known he was pushing the Alfa-Bank claims on behalf of the Clinton campaign. Durham has presented billing records and other evidence showing Sussmann did this on behalf of the campaign.
Durham has repeatedly argued that Sussmann’s alleged lie to Baker was “material” and that it mattered. Sussmann’s team argued he didn’t lie and that even if he had, it was immaterial. Baker’s testimony would seem to hurt the defendant’s arguments.
“We look at the identity of the source of information and make an assessment of the reliability and credibility of that information,” Baker contended. “We would have looked at it differently. We would have taken more time with it. We would have subjected it to more scrutiny.”
Baker said the FBI would take information from “anybody of any stripe" but that the source matters. He said that if the source was “the opponent in the presidential election,” then “we would’ve looked at that information very, very carefully.”
He said knowing about the Clinton campaign involvement would have made the FBI treat it “differently” and that they would have subjected it to more “scrutiny” because it would have raised questions about the credibility of the source and the veracity of information and would have heightened the bureau’s fear of being “played or pulled into the politics about this.”
JIM BAKER "100% CONFIDENT" SUSSMANN SAID HE WAS ACTING ALONE
Baker noted Clinton had been under investigation by the FBI for her illicit email server and said the email investigation, known as the "Midyear Exam," was “not technically closed,” although “we had completed our work.” He noted FBI Director James Comey briefly reopened the Clinton email investigation in October 2016, which happened when the FBI found thousands of emails belonging to Clinton on the laptop of disgraced Democratic New York Rep. Anthony Weiner, who was married to Clinton aide Huma Abedin.
“If you’re meeting on behalf of Clinton, you shouldn't come to see me,” Baker says he would have told Sussmann had he known the defendant was pushing the Alfa-Bank allegations on behalf of her client, saying he may have told Sussmann to meet with Midyear Exam case agents instead.
Baker said if he had known the person bringing the FBI the claims was doing so on behalf of former President Donald Trump’s political opponent, then "it would have raised very serious questions … about the credibility of the source, the veracity of the information, and heightened a concern in my mind about whether we were going to be played."
"I was willing to meet with Michael alone because I had high confidence in him and trust," Baker said. "I think I would have made a different assessment if he said he had been appearing on behalf of a client."
Baker told DeFilippis that knowing Sussmann was pushing the claims on behalf of a client definitely would have mattered because of “multiple dimensions.”
He pointed to “logistical reasons,” including “would I meet with Michael alone, would I meet with him with someone else, would I meet with him at all.” Baker said another consideration would have been “how I would assess the reliability of the information” and said that “the identity might impact my assessment of that.”
Baker also said that knowing of the client would’ve raised “whether and how we prioritize the information that he gave us” as well as “the extent to which I needed to have my team of lawyers conduct a legal review.” He added that “lawyers would’ve delayed the matter, I think.”
He continued, “I think I would’ve made a different decision and a different assessment if he had said he wanted to meet on behalf of a client.”
The former FBI general counsel added that if Sussmann’s text the evening before their meeting had directly mentioned “Russia and Trump,” then he “certainly would have referred this to the Crossfire Hurricane team” — the investigation opened into the Trump campaign by since-fired FBI special agent Peter Strzok.
“Michael started to explain why he was there. He said he was not appearing before me on behalf of any particular client. In essence, in the meeting, he said, ‘I’m not here on behalf of any particular client.’ … I’m 100% confident that he said that in the meeting,” Baker also said.
He said Sussmann told him “he was coming to see me as a good citizen,” and because he was a friend as well as a former colleague, Baker "believed it and believed the statement was truthful.”
DeFilippis also asked how Baker would have responded if Sussmann had been honest about his other client, Joffe.
“If I had understood Mr. Joffe’s connection to Neustar … then I would’ve wanted to have a team of attorneys with me,” Baker said, adding that if he had known that Sussmann’s client had business interests, then he might have wanted to have other FBI employees in the meeting or may have simply decided not to hold the meeting at all.
The judge presiding over the case instructed Durham’s team earlier this week not to bring up the fact that Joffe had been cut off as an FBI source in 2021.
DeFilippis asked what Baker would have done had he known one of the clients was a confidential human source for the bureau.
Baker said, “If you have a confidential human source, typically speaking, that source will have a handler … and so it’s that person’s job, that handling agent, to deal with the CHS.” He said information a CHS has “should be … dealt with by the handler, the field office” and that “I think I would’ve referred all that to the handler and the field office … all of which, again, takes more time.”
Baker also insisted that “we were aware of and wary of being played” and wanted to avoid a “press report on something that is otherwise flawed or incomplete.” He said the media doesn’t want to report on a “nothingburger” but that some outlets “might report that the FBI is investigating a nothingburger.” Durham’s team has said Sussmann was trying to generate an “October surprise” to hurt Trump and help Clinton.
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Sussmann’s lawyers said their client met with the FBI “to pass along information that raised national security concerns” simply “to provide a tip.” They claimed their client was “charged with making a false statement about an entirely ancillary matter.”
But Durham had said that if Sussmann had told the truth, it could have affected how the FBI chose to proceed.