Democratic lawyer Michael Sussmann was found not guilty Tuesday on the false statements charge of concealing his representation of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign from the FBI when he pushed since-debunked Trump-Russia claims to the bureau in 2016.
The verdict is a significant loss for John Durham’s investigation, with the special counsel losing the first case that he has brought to trial.
“While we are disappointed in the outcome, we respect the jury’s decision and thank them for their service,” Durham said in a statement. “I also want to recognize and thank the investigators and the prosecution team for their dedicated efforts in seeking truth and justice in this case.”
Sussmann gave a very brief statement to the media before getting in a black van without taking questions.
“I told the truth to the FBI, and the jury clearly recognized that with their unanimous verdict today,” Sussmann said outside the courthouse. “I’m grateful to the members of the jury for their careful, thoughtful service. Despite being falsely accused, I believe that justice ultimately prevailed in my case.”
Sussmann, a former Perkins Coie lawyer who represented the Democratic National Committee when it was hacked in 2016, was acquitted after a two-week trial in May after being charged with lying to the FBI about whom he was representing when, in September 2016, he pushed claims of a link between the Trump Organization and Russia’s Alfa-Bank.
SUSSMANN TOLD CIA SIMILAR 'CLIENT' LIE IN 2017, DURHAM SAYS
He was indicted on a single false statements charge of concealing his clients, the Clinton campaign and Neustar executive Rodney Joffe, from FBI General Counsel James Baker.
Sussmann denied lying to the FBI and pleaded not guilty. The jury agreed. He did not take the stand in his own defense.
Sussmann had worked at the Justice Department in the past, and testimony from Baker last week stated that he had a badge that allowed him access to the FBI.
Both prosecution and defense accused each other of "magic tricks" during closing arguments, with the prosecution saying Sussmann was trying to make his crime disappear after the defense team argued Durham was trying to conjure up a crime.
After closing arguments Friday, the jury began its deliberations, which picked back up after Memorial Day weekend. The jury reached a verdict by around 11 a.m. on Tuesday.
The prosecution entered into evidence a host of billing records, attempting to show Sussmann repeatedly charged his work on the Alfa-Bank allegations to the Clinton campaign.
British ex-spy Christopher Steele created his discredited dossier on Donald 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, with whom Sussmann worked closely in 2016.
Durham's team also presented evidence last 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. Sussmann met with Steele and with Fusion in 2016.
Prosecutors repeatedly pointed to a text message that Sussmann sent Baker the night before their meeting, in which they say he put the lie to the FBI down in writing. Baker said he did not find this text until this March — nearly six months after the Durham indictment.
“Jim — it’s Michael Sussmann. I have something time-sensitive (and sensitive) I need to discuss,” Sussmann wrote to Baker on Sept. 18. “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, on Sept. 19, and testified in court that he was “100% confident” Sussmann told him in the meeting he was not there on behalf of a client.
“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.
The jury forewoman spoke to some reporters after the verdict was delivered.
“I don’t think it should have been prosecuted,” she said, according to the Washington Times. “There are bigger things that affect the nation than a possible lie to the FBI.”
“It was the government’s job to prove it, and they succeeded in some ways and not in others,” she added. “We broke it down, and it did not pan out in the government’s favor.”
The jury forewoman also said: “Politics were not a factor. … We felt really comfortable being able to share what we thought. We had concise notes, and we were able to address the questions together,” according to the Washington Post. She contended that the government “could have spent our time more wisely.” The outlet wrote that a juror said the other jurors “pretty much saw it the same way.”
Christopher Cooper, the U.S. district court judge who presided over the Sussmann case, has said he was “professional acquaintances” at the Justice Department with Sussmann in the 1990s. The judge’s wife has represented former FBI lawyer Lisa Page since at least 2018. Page was having an affair with and exchanging anti-Trump texts with since-fired FBI agent Peter Strzok during the 2016 election.
Despite these ties, Durham did not push for the judge’s recusal.
Cooper was appointed by President Barack Obama following unanimous Senate confirmation. He and his wife were married in 1999, and Merrick Garland, now the attorney general, officiated their wedding.
The judge limited some of the evidence that Durham was able to present at trial, including related to the inaccuracy of the Alfa-Bank data pushed by Sussmann, as well as the fact that Joffe had been cut off as a confidential human source for the FBI in 2021 amid the special counsel investigation.
The defense team contended that Sussmann had not lied and that even if he had, it had not mattered, claiming Durham was pursuing a conspiracy theory. A number of FBI mistakes were on display during the trial.
Clinton herself personally signed off on sharing the since-debunked Trump-Russia allegations related to Alfa-Bank with the media during the 2016 election, according to testimony by her campaign manager, Robby Mook.
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.
Durham’s team said in its opening and closing arguments that Sussmann was trying to generate an “October surprise” to hurt Trump and help Clinton.
On Halloween 2016, Clinton tweeted, “Computer scientists have apparently uncovered a covert server linking the Trump Organization to a Russian-based bank.” She included a lengthy statement from campaign adviser Jake Sullivan (now President Joe Biden's national security adviser) titled "New Report Exposing Trump's Secret Line of Communication to Russia."
“This could be the most direct link yet between Donald Trump and Moscow,” Sullivan claimed, in part, adding, "This secret hotline may be the key to unlocking the mysteries of Trump's ties to Russia."
“We can only assume that federal authorities will now explore this direct connection between Trump and Russia as part of their existing probe into Russia's meddling in our elections,” Sullivan said. He continued pushing the Alfa-Bank claims on TV in 2017.
A former CIA officer testified during the trial that Sussmann similarly concealed his representation of Joffe from the agency when pushing Trump-Russia claims in February 2017.
Durham revealed this year that he had evidence Joffe “exploited” domain name system internet traffic at Trump Tower, Trump’s Central Park West apartment building, and the Executive Office of the President.
The special counsel said Joffe also tasked researchers with mining internet data to establish “an inference” and “narrative” tying Trump to Russia. Durham said Joffe indicated he was doing this to please certain “VIPs” on the Clinton campaign.
Many of the members of the broader jury pool, as well as some selected for the jury itself, expressed disdain for Trump and/or support for Clinton.
Among the 12 jurors and four alternates, one said, “I remembered that the 2016 election was kind of a mess and that there were a lot of shenanigans." She said she “strongly” disliked Trump and that she didn’t think she could be impartial if the case was about someone on his team but noted that "if it’s not directly about Trump,” then she could be impartial.
Another man among the selected jurors and alternates, a Treasury Department employee, said he had donated money to the Democratic side during the 2016 primaries but said he believed he could be fair. He was also aware that Robby Mook, one of the names listed on a jury questionnaire, had worked for the Clinton campaign. Mook was the campaign manager.
An additional selected juror or alternate, this one an attorney, said she had heard of Perkins Coie, the law firm that represented the Clinton campaign in 2016, but had no interactions with it and has heard of Sussmann and Durham but didn’t recall any details. She claimed she couldn’t recall if she had donated money in 2016 but said if she had, it would’ve been to Clinton. She did donate money in 2020. The juror said she “certainly had a strong preference for one candidate over the other” but that she believed she could be impartial.
She also revealed during the trial that her high school daughter was on the same crew team as Sussmann’s daughter, although they were in different grades, but she said this would not affect her ability to be impartial. The prosecution fought to remove her from the jury panel, but the judge kept her on it.
The nation’s capital, and thus many of its jury pools, is overwhelmingly Democratic. Clinton received 90.9% of the vote in 2016, while Trump received 4.1%. In 2020, President Joe Biden got 92.1%, while Trump received 5.4%.
The Department of Justice had trouble convicting another Democratic lawyer in Washington fairly recently in a spinoff case from Mueller’s investigation, which had charged Obama White House counsel Greg Craig with misleading the DOJ about his work in Ukraine. He was found not guilty in 2019.
Following the "not guilty" verdict against Sussmann, it remains to be seen whether Durham will pursue further indictments.
Durham has another active case against Steele’s alleged main source, Igor Danchenko, charged with five counts of making false statements to the FBI about the information he provided to the former MI6 agent for his discredited dossier. That trial is slated to start in October.
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The special counsel has obtained one guilty plea from former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith, who admitted he falsified a document during the bureau’s efforts to renew FISA surveillance authority against Trump campaign associate Carter Page.