James Baker, the FBI’s former general counsel, testified he was “100% confident” Democratic cybersecurity lawyer Michael Sussmann told him in a September 2016 meeting he was not there on behalf of a client when pushing false Trump-Russia claims.


Sussmann, a former Perkins Coie lawyer who represented the Democratic National Committee when it was hacked in 2016, 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 Sept. 19, 2016, meeting.

“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 said from the witness stand Thursday.

He said Sussmann told him that “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.”

Sussmann, who also helped the Democratic National Committee handle its response to the 2016 hack, has denied wrongdoing, pleaded not guilty, and unsuccessfully called on the judge to dismiss the case, even relying in part on legal analysis by fired FBI agent Peter Strzok. The judge rejected the defendant’s potential call for a mistrial on Thursday too.

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 an immediate 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 stories based on the existence of FBI investigations in situations in which the press isn’t confident about the allegations and so uses the existence of an investigation as a hook.

“Jim — it’s Michael Sussmann. I have something time-sensitive (and sensitive) I need to discuss,” Sussmann texted 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. Thanks.”

From left to right: Michael Sussmann and James Baker.
From left to right: Michael Sussmann and James Baker. (Graeme Jennings/Washington Examiner; Screenshot/YouTube/MSNBC)

Baker met with him the next day and said on Thursday that he repeated the lie at the meeting.

Baker also discussed how he met with Bill Priestap, who was the assistant director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, and Trisha Anderson, the FBI's deputy general counsel, right after his Sussmann meeting. Priestap wrote that Baker said Sussmann was “not doing this for any client.” Anderson wrote in part: “No specific client.” Baker confirmed Thursday he had told both Sussmann wasn't there for a client.

The Durham team has argued that Sussmann’s meeting with the FBI was motivated by his desire to generate an “October Surprise” that could sink Trump’s candidacy. Baker said Thursday that Sussmann told him at the meeting that a news outlet was on the verge of publishing a story about the Alfa-Bank claims and mentioned that added a sense of urgency.

“It affected my thinking about the urgency of this matter,” Baker said, adding that he knew from prior experience if a news outlet published something about a "surreptitious communications channel," then the channel would disappear, making it harder for the FBI investigate.

He said the FBI was already investigating other Trump-Russia claims, and so news articles on the topic were concerning to him. Baker called the Alfa-Bank claims “very concerning,” “time-sensitive,” and “of great urgency.”

Baker said he alerted then-FBI Director James Comey and his deputy Andrew McCabe about the Alfa-Bank claims, adding: “I think they were quite concerned about it also.”

Baker said he, Priestap, and the bureau’s top press person soon met with reporters Eric Lichtblau and Steve Myers of the New York Times, which had received the Alfa-Bank claims and wanted to write a story. Baker said the goal of the meeting “was to continue asking them to hold off publishing the article for some period of time so we could continue to investigate.”

Baker said Lichtblau tried to probe the FBI “about what we were investigating with regards to Russia” and that “he was trying to understand how seriously we were taking this allegation and the extent to which we thought there was some type of nefarious activity between the Trump Organization and Russia.”

He said the New York Times reporters “weren’t quite persuaded yet about … whether this material showed the existence of a surreptitious communications channel.”

Baker said outlets sometimes report on investigations when they can’t confirm the underlying allegations.

“If reporters learn that we are investigating something, and it is of interest to them, then yes, sometimes they will publish things, for sure,” Baker said. “There’s also a concern at the FBI … where we would be worried that sometimes reporters would want to report about the fact that the FBI was investigating something even if they did not have confidence in the underlying information. … They’re not reporting necessarily about the thing. They’re reporting about the FBI investigating the thing.”

Baker said they had a follow-up meeting with the New York Times within a week or two of the first meeting, and said the FBI relayed it “had concluded that the materials we had obtained by Sussmann” plus whatever FBI did to “augment” and investigate “did not substantiate that there was a surreptitious communications channel.”

Slate reported in 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.” Lichtblau then published a report stating: “The FBI ultimately concluded that there could be an innocuous explanation, like a marketing email or spam.”

Scott Hellman, currently an FBI supervisory special agent leading a team investigating cybercrime, testified this week that he and a supervisor retrieved the thumb drives and other information passed to the FBI the day after the Baker-Sussmann meeting, reviewed the secret communication claims, and quickly rejected them.


Baker said Thursday the FBI spent “several weeks, maybe a month, maybe a month and a half” on completing its Alfa-Bank investigation and that his understanding of the final conclusion of the FBI was that “there was nothing there.”

Defense lawyer Sean Berkowitz worked hard to try to poke holes in Baker’s testimony.

Notes from an FBI briefing in March 2017 showed since-fired FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe relay that Sussmann had told Baker he brought the information to the FBI on behalf of a client, contradicting FBI notes from the day of the September 2016 meeting and the defendant's own text message the night before.

Handwritten notes during the meeting by Associate Deputy Attorney General Tashina Gauhar put “attorney” in quotation marks and said the attorney “brought to FBI on behalf of his client," though it may actually say "clients."

The notes by acting Assistant Attorney General Mary McCord say, “Attorney brought to Jim Baker and d/n [did not] say who client was."

Berkowitz brought this up, but Baker said he didn’t recall anyone at the meeting saying Sussmann had gone to the FBI on behalf of a client.

When asked if seeing someone’s notes refreshed his recollection that Sussmann had said that he did this on behalf of his client, Baker replied, “To the contrary.”

Durham prosecutor Andrew DeFilippis pointed to a text Sussmann sent Baker in October 2018 sharing a letter by Perkins titled “Our Michael Sussmann Is An Honorable Man” and saying Sussmann’s meeting “was on behalf of a client.”

Baker told the Durham prosecutor, “I do not remember reading that paragraph at the time that Michael sent it to me.”

When asked why Sussmann would send him something that contradicts what he said in September 2016, Baker replied to Berkowitz, “I don’t know, you’d have to ask him.”

DeFilippis brought up Baker’s July 2019 interview with an investigator from DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General in which Baker was asked to describe how the meeting with Sussmann came about, and he said Sussmann told him “that some number of people that were his clients, who were, he described, as I recall it, sort of cybersecurity experts.”

Baker said Thursday that he was giving a “high-level description” and was using a “shorthand” but that the use of the word “client” was “imprecise.” He said, “It was an inaccurate statement. It was wrong.”

Berkowitz followed up by saying Baker had chosen to use the word "client" in 2019, and Baker again said, “It was inaccurate. Imprecise. Wrong. Mistake.” The defense lawyer asked if it had been a lie, and Baker said it was not.

“I had no intention of deceiving the IG in any way, shape, or form,” Baker said, and when asked if he believed at the time that the cybersecurity experts had been Sussmann’s clients, he said he didn’t think so.

Berkowitz also brought up a June 2020 interview that Baker apparently had with Durham and DeFilippis in which the defense lawyer said Baker first told the special counsel about the allegation that Sussmann said he didn’t have a client.

Baker said that “I remember at some point in time telling them that.” Berkowitz grilled him on why his memory was allegedly now clear when it had appeared to be fuzzy, and Baker said that was due to repeated and specific questions from Durham, probing his own memory, and looking at Priestap’s notes. He said Priestap’s notes “triggered his memory.” Baker said it was a “combination” of those things and added, “My memory, sitting here at this point, is clear. … Sitting here, I have a present recollection of what Michael said in the meeting.”

Under questioning from the defense team, Baker also insisted that “Mr. Durham and his team have never threatened me in any way.”

Baker has previously defended the Trump-Russia investigation more broadly, including the FBI’s handling of British ex-spy Christopher Steele’s discredited dossier, and he defended that investigation by the bureau again on Thursday. He was involved in the signoff process of at least the first Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant application that targeted former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.