WASHINGTON—Clinton campaign attorney Michael Sussmann’s trial for allegedly lying to the FBI about concocted links between the Trump Organization and a Kremlin-linked bank leading up to the 2016 election continues on Monday before U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper in the E. Bartlett Perryman Federal Courthouse.
Sussmann is charged with making a false statement after he told FBI general counsel James A. Baker that he was not representing any clients on Sept. 19, 2016, as he delivered two thumb drives and a binder of “white papers” detailing “secret server” allegations against former President Donald Trump.
Among Sussmann’s clients at the time were the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Rodney Joffe, chief technology officer with Neustar, which had various contracts with the federal government, including handling DNS traffic for the President’s Office. Sussmann’s law firm, Perkins Coie, also represented the Clinton campaign, with fellow firm attorney Marc Elias serving as its general counsel.
The allegations stemmed from Joffe, who allegedly hoped to score a position in the government if Clinton won the election; researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology; and Sussmann, who reportedly helped author the “white papers” that provided the narrative for the claims.
The claims were later deemed illegitimate by the CIA and unsupported by the FBI.
Special Prosecutor John Durham has alleged the Clinton campaign, its lawyers at Perkins Coie, and a company the firm tapped to perform opposition research, Fusion GPS, conspired to push flawed claims about Trump.
Sussmann has denied the charge. His lawyers insist he never meant to mislead the FBI. And they say a lie about who his clients were would be irrelevant because the FBI already knew he worked for the Democrats.
Following all-day jury selection on Monday, May 16, ten witnesses testified Tuesday through Friday: two FBI agents, Neustar executive Steve DeJong, DNC attorney Debbie Fine, FusionGPS technician Laura Seago, Elias, Baker—for nearly nine hours spanning three days, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook, and two retired CIA agents.
Among disclosures gleaned from testimony from Fine and Elias is that the campaign was aggressively soliciting media contacts to publish the allegations. On Friday, Mook confirmed that Hillary Clinton personally approved the effort.
On tap to testify Monday May 23 are former FBI deputy general counsel Tricia Anderson and former FBI counterintelligence official Bill Priestap. Baker met with both shortly after receiving the allegations from Sussmann, and their notes on conversations with Baker differ from statements he has made since.
The trial is expected to conclude by May 27.
A day-by-day recap thus far:
DAY ONE (May 16)
* Jury selection: Seating jurors was a day-long affair, with more than 40 candidates interviewed by Cooper, prosecutor Michael Keilty, and lead defense attorney Sean Berkowitz asking the same questions based on responses to a questionnaire all had completed.
In that questionnaire, potential jurors were asked if they voted in the 2016 election, worked for or volunteered for a 2016 campaign, attended religious services, how often they use social media, and if they’ve had any contact with Durham or members of his team.
Among the questions, juror candidates on the stand were asked if they had “strong feelings” about the 2016 presidential election, reminding them the Clinton campaign isn’t on trial in this case. They were also asked for their views on the CIA and law enforcement, including the FBI.
Cooper told prospective jurors: “We’re not here to re-litigate the 2016 election. … Donald Trump is not on trial. Hillary Clinton is not on trial.”
Several candidates were struck. Prosecutors objected to a Virginia Tech program coordinator who attended the same school as Clinton. Sussmann’s team took issue with an accountant whose firm did taxes for Baker. Cooper dismissed a mortician because serving on the jury would be a hardship for his business.
Ultimately, 16 jurors were sworn in, of whom 12 will be selected to deliberate on a verdict.
* Key witness seeks to limit testimony: Former New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau filed a May 12 motion requesting to restrict the range of questions he can be asked on the stand when he’s called to testify.
On Oct. 31, 2016, the New York Times published an article by Lichtblau titled, “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” An affidavit revealed that Sussmann was the “confidential source” for the report.
According to the indictment against Sussmann, Lichtblau had communicated with Sussmann before Sussmann met with Baker on Sept. 19, 2016.
Sussmann subpoenaed Lichtblau to testify on his behalf at the trial. He was granted a confidentiality waiver to do so.
But Lichtblau’s motion says he still has “concerns about protecting other privileged and still-confidential news sources and unpublished newsgathering information.”
DAY TWO (May 17)
* Opening statements: In the prosecution’s opening statement, Assistant Special Counsel Brittain Shaw said, “The evidence will show this is a case about privilege — privilege of a well-connected DC lawyer with access to the highest level of the FBI” who believed “he could use the FBI as a political tool.”
Sussmann’s “tip” to the FBI “was all part of a bigger plan” by the Clinton campaign to plant stories in the media and spur the FBI to investigate Trump in the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign, she said.
“It was a plan to create an October surprise on the eve of the presidential election,” Shaw said, adding that the plan “largely succeeded.”
In the defense’s opening statement, Sussmann attorney Michael Bosworth said the case wasn’t about privilege but long-term relationships.
Bosworth said Sussmann’s meeting with Baker was not what the Clinton campaign or Joffe wanted, but he did it anyway because he wanted to give the FBI a heads-up that a news story about the alleged Trump-Russian bank connections was to be published soon in the New York Times.
“Relationships matter, especially in the small world of national security lawyers,” Bosworth said. “Do you think Mr. Sussmann would throw his career away, his life away, to tell a lie to that guy?”
Bosworth showed jurors internal FBI emails and reports “littered” with references to Sussmann as a lawyer for Democrats.
* FBI agents say data deemed bogus in less than a day: FBI Cyber Action Team (CAT) Supervisory Agent David Martin testified that he collected the thumb drives and documents the day after Baker got them from Sussmann and, within a day, determined they didn’t support the allegations.
Both Martin and fellow FBI agent Scott Hellman testified that analysts were frustrated that Baker would not reveal the source of the data and documents.
Hellman called the methodology that the paper’s authors used “questionable” and said the claim of a secret backchannel “just didn’t make sense to us.”
“Why would a presidential candidate put their own name on a supposedly secret domain name?” he said, calling Baker’s refusal to identify the origin, other than “a sensitive source,” unusual.
As for the “white paper” providing the narrative, Hellman said: “I think the person who drafted [it] was suffering from a mental disability.”
* Joffe ‘confidential informant’ status terminated ‘for cause’: While questioning Martin, Shaw revealed that Joffe’s status as an FBI “confidential informant” was terminated “for cause” because of his involvement in pushing the spurious claims for what the prosecution maintains were politically motivated reasons.
Berkowitz objected and raised concerns during a closed session, with jurors out of the room, asserting the comments about Joffe were “prejudicial.” Cooper agreed and ordered prosecutors not to discuss the topic again.
* Neustar exec testifies: Steve DeJong, an executive with Neustar, took the stand later on Tuesday, telling the court that Joffe was “very well respected.” He said Joffe asked him, as a favor, in August and September of 2016 to look through data logs to find queries for names in political campaigns.
“In retrospect, it was mostly around the Trump campaign,” DeJong said.
DeJong said he was also doing things for Joffe, like gathering data on “DNS traffic between utility companies during a hurricane.” Sussmann, to his knowledge, was not “in any way involved” in collecting or analyzing the data. He had never heard of Sussmann before.
* Elias takes the stand: The day ended with Clinton campaign general counsel Marc Elias acknowledging that he hired FusionGPS to provide “consulting services in support of the legal advice” and that about “two dozen” Perkins Coie attorneys were engaged in various capacities on behalf of the campaign. He said the firm was paid a flat $130,000 a month to represent the campaign.
DAY THREE (May 18)
* Elias back on stand: After an extensive foray into attorney billing practices—they bill in six-minute blocks—Elias said that he learned of the allegations from Sussman in August 2016 and sought to get media outlets to report it.
“I thought that if there were a news account of the allegations,” it would “benefit the campaign,” he said.
Elias said he did not authorize or encourage Sussmann to meet with Baker. He didn’t think going to the FBI was a good idea because it could have caused the New York Times to delay publishing the article.
Elias said FusionGPS attempted to seed stories about Trump and Russia in news outlets before the 2016 election. Sussmann communicated with Eric Lichtblau, a New York Times reporter, and Franklin Foer, a Slate reporter, among others, he said.
The New York Times and Slate, on Oct. 31, 2016, reported on the claims. The former said that the FBI examined the information and concluded there might be an innocuous explanation for it.
* Clinton campaign lawyer Debbie Fine says it “wasn’t me”: Attorney Debbie Fine, who worked at the campaign’s headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., said her job was to work on thwarting anticipated “Trump-related litigation.”
She said she learned of the allegations during an Aug. 17, 2016, meeting. Before that, she said she did not know FusionGPS was conducting opposition research for the campaign.
“Elias, to my knowledge, he was directing” that effort for the campaign. “He regularly spoke with (FusionGPS) in the campaign, and I was not present” for most of those conversations.
When defense attorney Michael Bosworth asked if she leaked the allegations to the media, Fine said: “It wasn’t me.”
* FusionGPS tech Laura Seago testifies: FusionGPS analyst Laura Seago explained her role was to use open-source resources to analyze the allegations and translate technical data for her colleagues and others to understand. She first learned of the Trump-Alfa Bank claims at a meeting on Aug. 29, 2016, that included Fusion GPS co-founder Peter Fritsch, Elias, Sussmann, and Joffe.
Seago corresponded with Joffe multiple times after the meeting. Those emails were withheld as protected by attorney-client privilege.
Seago recounted a meeting with Franklin Foer, then with Slate, in 2016 about the claims. “We certainly hoped he would publish an article,” she said.
The meeting involved Seago, Foer, Fusion co-founder Peter Fritsch, and Fusion analyst Jake Berkowitz and lasted about an hour. Seago described it as a “verbal briefing” on the claims. She was asked to attend “to explain the technical aspects of these allegations in lay terms that a journalist, like Mr. Foer, would understand.”
On Oct. 31, 2016, Foer published a story that asked: “Was a Trump Server Communicating With Russia?” He cited anonymous sources alleging that there was “a sustained relationship between a server registered to The Trump Organization and two servers registered to an entity called Alfa Bank.”
* Baker takes the stand: On the stand on Wednesday, Baker recounted learning at some point in 2016 that Sussmann was representing Clinton or the DNC but believed that representation was connected with cyber matters, “not with political issues.” He acknowledged that Baker never pressed Sussmann on the sourcing for the data he conveyed.
Now Twitter’s deputy general counsel, Baker testified that Sussmann told him he was not seeking a meeting on behalf of any clients when he texted his personal phone on Sept. 18, 2016. Sussmann wrote he had “something time-sensitive (and sensitive)” and was seeking a meeting not on behalf of any clients but to “help the bureau.”
Prosecutors revealed in April that they had obtained the text but had not indicated how they got it. Baker said he took a picture of the text on his phone and sent it to prosecutors. “The way I thought about it, I’m not out to get Michael. This is not my investigation; this is your investigation,” he said of prosecutors’ discovery request.
Baker ended up meeting with Sussmann a day later. “I kind of wondered how [he] got my personal phone number but didn’t worry about it. He’s a friend. I trust him. I thought I should meet with him right away,” he said.
Baker said he had known Sussmann since they worked together in the Department of Justice and maintain a friendship to this day. He said he generally knew Sussmann was involved with the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
The prosecution and defense grilled Baker about varied responses about the meeting and his subsequent actions.
DAY FOUR (May 19)
* Mistrial bid rebuffed: Sussmann’s attorneys said Elias strayed into improper areas in his Wednesday testimony, prejudicing the defendant, and motioned for a mistrial late on Wednesday.
Cooper on Thursday agreed to strike certain portions of Elias’ testimony but rejected the request for a mistrial.
Berkowitz asked Elias if Sussmann took the information to the FBI on Sept. 19, 2016, on behalf of Clinton’s campaign. He responded: “From my standpoint, I would say no,” before adding, “You’d have to ask Mr. Sussmann.”
“Mr. Elias’s nonresponsive testimony on cross-examination, as well as the repeated, improper questioning by the special counsel, directly suggested to the jury that to answer a key question in this case—whether Mr. Sussmann went to the FBI on Sept. 19, 2016, on behalf of a client—Mr. Sussmann would need to testify,” defense lawyers said. “But as the special counsel and Mr. Elias are well aware, a defendant in a criminal trial has a constitutional right not to testify. And commenting, either directly or indirectly, on a defendant’s decision to testify or not testify is entirely improper.”
After Cooper agreed to strike portions of the testimony, Berkowitz said Sussmann had not yet decided whether he will testify during the trial.
* Cooper retains juror: Cooper denied the prosecution’s request to remove Juror #5, who said she learned on Wednesday night that her daughter and Sussmann’s daughter are on the same crew team.
The woman said she did not know of this until her daughter mentioned it and immediately reported the fact to court officials.
She said she does not know Sussmann’s daughter and still doesn’t even know the girl’s name. There are 30 to 40 girls on the team. she said, adding her daughter is a senior while Sussmann’s daughter is a freshman.
The juror said she’s never seen Sussmann or his wife at any of the meets or practices or other team-related social events.
“The government would have wanted to strike her for cause,” Shaw said. “We have no reason to doubt she is being truthful,” but such contacts “as a parent can really shape” her outlook. “Our position is she should not stand in the jury.”
In rejecting the motion, Cooper said the separation in years between the girls and a large number of students on the team was enough distance for the juror to be impartial. He praised the juror for her honesty in coming forward as soon as she realized what he termed “a tangential link.”
* Baker on stand all day: Baker testified on Thursday that former FBI Director James Comey and his top deputy Andrew McCabe were briefed on the claims. “It seemed to me of great urgency and seriousness that I would want to make my bosses aware of this information,” he said, noting both were “quite concerned” about the allegations.
In recounting their Sept. 19, 2016, meeting at length, Baker said Sussmann said media outlets were preparing to publish stories on the claims and was not there on behalf of clients.
“It was part of his introduction to the meeting, ‘I’m not here on behalf of any particular client.’ I’m 100 percent confident that he said that,” Baker said.
Within minutes of getting the data, Baker said he called Priestap.
“It involved Russia, and this bank had links to the Kremlin. That seemed to me, on its face, to be a potential national security threat,” Baker said, noting that the bureau was already investigating alleged connections between the Trump Organization and Russia. “It was a very high priority for me.”
Baker said he gave the data the next day to Peter Strzok, another top FBI official. “I wanted to get rid of this material as quickly as possible. I hated having it on my desk. I didn’t want to have this material any longer than I needed to,” he said.
Baker said that same day, Priestap asked him to learn what media outlet(s) had caught wind of the allegations. Baker said he called Sussmann to get the identity, which turned out to be Lichtblau.
Baker said he met twice with Lichtblau. During the first meeting, the reporter agreed to delay the story. In the other, FBI officials conveyed they had concluded the materials didn’t substantiate the “surreptitious connection” allegations.
In afternoon cross-examining, Berkowitz portrayed Baker as an unreliable witness, noting that he had told the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General that Sussmann told him in their Sept. 19, 2016, meeting that he had information “that he said related to strange interactions that some number of people that were his clients, who were, he described as I recall it, sort of cyber-security experts, had found.”
Baker also told special counsel John Durham’s team in 2020 that the topic of Sussmann’s clients didn’t come up during the meeting.
On the stand, Baker said his statement to the IG was mistaken and that the truth is that Sussmann told him in person he wasn’t bringing the information on behalf of a client. He said he didn’t consult his texts or prepare before speaking to the DOJ watchdog or prosecutors.
Baker also challenged notes taken of a DOJ meeting involving him and high-ranking officials in 2017, during which the allegations were raised. According to the notes, said to have been taken by a DOJ lawyer, McCabe noted that the allegations were sourced from an “attorney” who “brought [them] to [the] FBI on behalf of his client.”
Baker said he did not recall that moment during the meeting.
Baker said he would not have injected himself in the case if he knew of the Clinton campaign’s involvement. He said he would have directed Sussmann to other FBI personnel—bureau lawyers don’t typically receive information—or would have still met with Sussmann but made sure other personnel were present.
“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.”
On cross-examination, Berkowitz hammered Baker over inconsistencies in his testimony and what he’s said before, such as his 2019 IG statement that he had information stemming from “people that were his clients.”
Baker said he was using a “shorthand way” of describing the cyber experts that Sussman was working with.
DAY FIVE (May 20)
* Baker testimony concludes: On Friday, Berkowitz completed his cross-examination, and prosecutor Andrew DeFillips closed out a redirect, focusing on Baker’s varied responses over the three-year investigation and other related probes.
Baker had been testifying under oath for nearly eight hours when he left the stand Friday.
* Clinton campaign chief says Hilary OK’d planting story in press: Mook, a defense witness allowed to testify Friday so he could leave for a 10-day vacation in Spain, said he was briefed on the claims by Elias, who said they came from cyber experts.
He said the campaign didn’t immediately act on the allegations because it was uncertain if they were credible. They ultimately decided to give them to a reporter so the reporter could “run it down.”
“Our hope was they were going to run it down, that it would be substantive and accurate,” Mook said.
Mook said Clinton approved reaching out to the media with the unfounded allegations but couldn’t recall exactly when she did so.
“All I can remember is she agreed with the decision,” he said. “We told her we have this, and we want to share it with a reporter. She agreed to that. She thought we made the right decision.”
Several stories were published about the claims on Oct. 31, 2016. Hours later, Clinton herself promoted them.
“Computer scientists have apparently uncovered a covert server linking the Trump Organization to a Russian-based bank,” Clinton wrote in a Twitter post.
Like Elias on Wednesday, Mook said the campaign did not authorize Sussmann to go to the FBI. He said he was “not aware” if Clinton approved Sussmann’s meeting. “I don’t know why” she would do so, he said.
* Sussmann made inconsistent statements to CIA officers: In their testimony, two retired CIA officers said Sussmasnn made conflicting claims in 2017 when presenting the allegations to them.
Sussmann’s first meeting was a Jan. 31, 2017, breakfast with Mark Chadason, a retired CIA officer, who said Gilman Louie, who ran the CIA’s venture capital In-Q-Tel fund, asked him to meet Sussmann “because he had information of importance to national security.”
Sussmann said he was representing “an engineer with a number of patents” and “a Republican” who “had some allegations against President Trump that he wanted me to hear,” Chadason testified.
That matches a memo of the conversation that states “Sussmann said that he represents a CLIENT who does not want to be known, but who had some interesting information about the presence and activity of a unique Russian-made phone around President Trump.”
Sussmann told Chadason that he worked for Perkins Coie. He said that he and his firm did a lot of work for the DNC and that he had represented the Clinton campaign.
“My feeling was the information was interesting enough to pass to the CIA to be vetted and validated,” Chadason said. “I had no ability to assess the validity of the information … he seemed loyal … [and] seemed like a credible source.”
Chadason noted in an email to the CIA that they should “remember that this guy is a partisan lawyer who works for the DNC,” adding, “I am not sure what the real story is, but I am sure you guys will figure this out.”
Kevin P., now retired but active in 2017, said he and another CIA officer, Steve M., met with Sussmann on Feb. 9, 2017, at the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Va.
Sussmann said he was not representing any “particular clients” and referred to the sources of his information as “contacts,” Kevin P. testified, noting that Sussmann said he was a member of a law firm and other lawyers at the firm represented Clinton and the DNC, but that he did not have any connection with those activities.
Sussmann said he wanted his contacts to “remain anonymous because of potential threats to them from the Russians.”
Kevin P. took the information and passed it on to CIA technical experts, who dismissed the data as “self-generated.”
Sussmann told Kevin P. that he went to the CIA because he was worried the FBI did not handle the material he handed over properly, musing that the bureau may lack the needed expertise to analyze it.