The judge presiding over the case against Democratic lawyer Michael Sussmann said he was “professional acquaintances” at the Department of Justice with Sussmann in the 1990s, and the judge’s wife represents former FBI lawyer Lisa Page — issues special counsel John Durham’s team has not raised to push for recusal.
The grand jury indictment against Sussmann, a former DOJ veteran, 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 that Sussmann told Baker he was not working for any specific client, the special counsel contends Sussmann was secretly doing the bidding of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign as well as working on behalf of a yet-unnamed technology company executive.
Page worked as a lawyer with Baker at the FBI and helped with the Crossfire Hurricane Trump-Russia investigation.
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Judge Christopher Cooper, appointed to the federal bench by President Barack Obama following a unanimous Senate confirmation, was assigned the high-profile case. Cooper raised his relationship with Sussmann at the start of a Zoom call hearing on Wednesday, during which Sussmann made his first appearance at the district court following his “not guilty” plea last week.
“I worked in the 90s at the deputy attorney general’s office two years following law school. Mr. Sussmann also worked at the building at the same time in the criminal division. We did not work together or socialize, but I think it’s fair to say we were professional acquaintances,” Cooper said. “I don’t believe that this creates a conflict, but my regular practice is to disclose these sorts of relationships with lawyers or with parties on the record. And I would advise you that I would be happy to entertain a motion if either side believes there is a conflict on that basis or any other.”
Cooper was a special assistant to then-Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick from 1994 to 1996. He was later a volunteer for Obama For America in 2008, served as a member of the vice presidential candidate vetting team in the summer of 2008, which selected now-President Joe Biden, and served on President-elect Obama’s transition team from November 2008 to January 2009 as part of the DOJ agency review team.
Cooper and his wife, Amy Jeffress, were married in 1999, and Merrick Garland, now the attorney general, officiated their wedding.
Jeffress has represented Page since at least 2018, including in a 2019 and current lawsuit by Page against the Justice Department, which claimed that the DOJ “violated the Privacy Act" by releasing her FBI texts to the media. The banner picture for Page’s Twitter profile appears to feature herself and Jeffress.
Kash Patel, a former top Trump official at the Pentagon, and Tom Fitton, the president of the conservative Judicial Watch, expressed serious concerns with the connections between Cooper’s wife and Page.
Jeffress’s LinkedIn profile indicates she worked for the Justice Department from 1994 to 2014, and she was a “counselor on national security” to former Obama Attorney General Eric Holder. Jeffress currently works at Arnold and Porter law firm, and the firm’s representation of Lisa Page is touted on its website.
Special counsel lawyer Andrew DeFilippis told the judge on Wednesday: “The discovery in this case will be more voluminous, we think, than in an average case. It will be a combination of government records, records obtained from parties in the private sector by grand jury subpoena and otherwise, and so we will work quickly to get everything that the defense is entitled to as quickly as possible. ... There are classification issues with regards to some of the discovery.”
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Sussmann lawyer Sean Berkowitz said Durham’s team was working “expeditiously” on getting him a security clearance. He also suggested the defense team might end up filing motions related to the “materiality” of Sussmann’s alleged lie and to “strike surplusage” — perhaps related to Durham’s lengthy indictment laying out the involvement of an unnamed tech executive, computer scientists, and others.
Durham has secured one guilty plea thus far, against ex-FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith, who admitted last year that he falsified a document during the bureau’s efforts to renew FISA surveillance authority against Trump campaign associate Carter Page.