Both sides gave their closing arguments in the false statements trial of Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann on Friday, with each accusing the other of using “magic tricks” to try to sway the jury.
Sussmann, a former Perkins Coie lawyer, has been charged by special counsel John Durham with concealing his clients, Clinton's 2016 campaign and tech executive Rodney Joffe, from FBI General Counsel James Baker when he pushed allegations of a secret back channel between the Trump Organization and Russia’s Alfa-Bank during a Sept. 19, 2016, meeting. He has pleaded not guilty and did not take the stand in his own defense.
After closing arguments Friday, the jury began its deliberations, though a verdict is unlikely to be reached until after Memorial Day weekend.
Defense attorney Sean Berkowitz and Durham prosecutor Andrew DeFilippis sparred over which one of them was acting like a magician trying to fool the jurors.
“In 1983, the famous magician David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear,” Berkowitz said. “How did he do it? Something called misdirection.”
Berkowitz said that, similarly, “this is a case about misdirection” and attacked “the special counsel’s magic trick.”
He also put up a “Giant Political Conspiracy Theory” sign and declared that “the time for political conspiracy theories is over.”
HILLARY CLINTON SIGNED OFF ON PUSHING ALFA-BANK CLAIMS TO THE MEDIA
“Ladies and gentleman, it is appropriate that the defense started with a magic trick — because what you just saw was a magic trick,” DeFilippis said during his rebuttal. “The defense is trying to lawyer away that lie. … Don’t let them do it.”
DeFilippis added: “It’s just a magic trick to say none of this happened. To say none of this mattered. You know it happened. You know it mattered.”
The special counsel attorney also pointed to Berkowitz’s reference to “Lady Liberty” and said: “I want you to think of the Statue of Liberty, holding her light aloft — and your guiding torch in that deliberation room is the truth, the evidence, and nothing else.” He added, “It’s not about politics. It’s not about conspiracies. It’s about the truth.”
Durham prosecutor Jonathan Algor had delivered the first hourlong closing statement, arguing that Sussmann had used his privilege as a respected national security lawyer, former DOJ veteran, and friend of Baker to push false allegations to the FBI to try to generate an “October surprise” to hurt Trump ahead of the election.
“The evidence has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant made a false statement to the FBI general counsel Jim Baker on Sept. 19, 2016. On that day, the defendant used his privilege … to bypass normal channels and to expedite a meeting with the FBI’s general counsel,” Algor said. “And in that meeting, the defendant made a false statement when he told Mr. Baker not on behalf of any client. … And why did the defendant do this? Because he knew that he had to conceal his representation of the Clinton campaign and Rodney Joffe to push the Alfa-Bank allegation to the FBI.”
Algor went through a host of billing records showing Sussmann repeatedly billed his work on the Alfa-Bank allegations to the Clinton campaign.
British ex-spy Christopher Steele created his discredited dossier on Trump after being hired by the opposition research firm Fusion GPS, which was itself hired by Perkins and Marc Elias, the general counsel for Clinton’s campaign.
Durham's team presented evidence this week showing Sussmann billed Clinton’s campaign for the thumb drives he used to push the allegations to the FBI in 2016. Fusion also drafted one of the “white papers” Sussmann gave Baker.
Berkowitz tried to push back on all of that.
“Michael Sussmann, a serious national security lawyer, got what he believed was credible and reliable data from world-leading DNS expert Rodney Joffe,” the defense lawyer said. “Sussmann gave a heads up to the FBI and did not ask for anything.”
Berkowitz spent a significant amount of his closing argument focused on a text that Sussmann had sent Baker the night before, trying to argue it might actually help the jury acquit his client, even though it seemed much more like evidence in the prosecution’s favor.
“What’s charged in this case is what’s charged on Sept. 19,” Berkowitz said and then claimed, “It is highly unlikely that Mr. Sussmann would’ve repeated that comment on Sept. 19. … Isn’t it probable, at least likely, that the information about no specific client came on Sept. 18th, which is not charged, and not on Sept. 19?”
“Jim — it’s Michael Sussmann. I have something time-sensitive (and sensitive) I need to discuss,” Sussmann wrote to Baker the night before their meeting. “Do you have availability for a short meeting tomorrow? I’m coming on my own — not on behalf of a client or company — want to help the Bureau.”
Baker met with him the next day and testified last week he was “100% confident” Sussmann told him in the meeting he was not there on behalf of a client.
Berkowitz also urged the jury to scrutinize the FBI’s actions and to “look at what they did back then, not what they’re saying now.” Slides displayed by the defense team included “The FBI’s Shoddy Investigation” and “The Special Counsel's Smoke and Mirrors.” He contended that “the FBI knew that the data came from a partisan source” and "never interviewed the cyber experts.”
He argued Sussmann had not lied, but even if he had, it hadn’t mattered, and told the jury, “It’s your turn to do justice, to prevent injustice.”
Baker testified in detail about Sussmann’s alleged lie. The FBI’s former top lawyer also told the court how the defendant’s allegations created a sense of urgency inside the highest levels of the FBI to investigate the Trump-Russia back channel claims, how the Alfa-Bank claims were quickly dismissed as baseless within the FBI, and how the bureau worries about reporters writing about the existence of investigations even when they don't have a full grasp on the allegations.
After the argument by Algor and the statement by Berkowitz, DeFilippis did his closing.
DeFilippis said Baker was reluctant about taking the stand: “He didn’t want to testify against his friend, but he did it because he had to and because it was the right thing to do.”
The Durham prosecutor also pointed to Sussmann allegedly repeating his lie about not having a client when meeting with the CIA in February 2017.
“His plan was the same for both of these meetings. … It was to say he wasn’t there for a client.”
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DeFilippis said Sussmann’s goal was “to create an October Surprise by giving information to the media and to the FBI and to get the media to write that there was an FBI investigation.”
The prosecutor conceded “the FBI didn’t necessarily do everything right here” but argued that “the fact that the FBI may have made mistakes here … had no bearing on whether the lie took place.”
The FBI, the CIA, former special counsel Robert Mueller, a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee investigation, and Durham’s team have all cast doubt on or shot down the Alfa-Bank claims.