WASHINGTON (AP) — The first trial resulting from special counsel John Durham’s investigation into the early days of the Trump-Russia investigation hardly looks like an explosive affair. It is a single false statement that a cybersecurity lawyer linked to the Hillary Clinton campaign allegedly made to the FBI in 2016.
However, there is much at stake.
The verdict in attorney Michael Sussmann’s case will help determine the fate and legacy of Durham’s three-year investigation. An acquittal would accelerate questions about the purpose of the investigation and the cost to taxpayers. A guilty verdict would embolden supporters of Donald Trump who have long looked to Durham to expose what they see as biased mistreatment of the former president.
The trial, which begins Monday with jury selection in Washington federal court, will not focus on Trump’s claims of government misconduct during the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. . Jurors will not be asked to decide whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin to tilt the outcome of the race.
But the trial will turn back the clock on a frenetic stretch in recent American history when the FBI was racing to investigate links between Trump and Russia, and the rival Clinton campaign was eager to further its own suspicions.
WHAT IS THE CASE ABOUT?
Sussmann is accused of lying to FBI General Counsel James Baker during a meeting on September 19, 2016, in which Sussmann presented research that he said suggested a possible secret channel of communications between Alfa Bank computer servers. , based in Russia, and Trump’s. company, the Trump Organization.
The covert contact allegation, if proven, would have been explosive at a time when the FBI was already investigating whether the Kremlin and the Trump campaign were colluding to influence the election.
The claim was false, Durham says, but that is not the lie at the heart of the Sussmann case.
The indictment accuses Sussmann of misleading the FBI by denying that he was representing a particular client during the meeting when in fact he was acting on behalf of two clients: the Clinton campaign and a technology executive who had helped piece together the data. Computer.
WHY DOES THAT MATTER AND WHAT DOES SUSSMANN SAY IN HIS DEFENSE?
Had the FBI known that Sussmann represented the interests of the Clinton campaign, prosecutors say, they would have carefully weighed his possible biases and motivations, as well as the reliability of the information he provided, before investigating the Alfa Bank allegations.
Prosecutors insist it wasn’t a missed statement either, pointing to a text they say Sussmann sent to Baker the night before the meeting in which he asked to sit down and said he was coming on his own and “not on behalf of “. a client or company.
Sussmann’s attorneys deny that he lied during the meeting, saying it was not recorded and no notes were taken. They say Sussmann’s Democratic Party affiliations were well known, including to the FBI. Beyond that, they maintain that the false statement Sussmann allegedly made is ultimately irrelevant because they say there is no evidence that it influenced the FBI’s decision to begin investigating the Alfa Bank claims.
In addition, they point to notes from a March 2017 FBI-DOJ meeting in which the then-FBI deputy director is described as telling colleagues that the Alfa Bank claims were presented to police by an attorney acting on behalf of the FBI. of customers. Sussmann’s attorneys say that shows the FBI understood that Sussmann did have a client in connection with the meeting.
They have also argued that allowing the case to proceed could have the effect of discouraging whistleblowers from reporting suspicions or possible wrongdoing to the FBI if they fear their motivations or possible political biases will be scrutinized.
WHAT DOES THIS CASE HAVE TO DO WITH THE WORK OF SPECIAL COUNSEL ROBERT MUELLER?
The indictment focuses on a limited part of the original investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign from 2016, which concluded in 2019 with a report by special counsel Robert Mueller and his team.
Regardless of the jury’s verdict, it will not affect the central findings of the Mueller report: that Russia tried to help the Trump campaign, but there is insufficient evidence to show that the two sides criminally collaborated.
In fact, Mueller’s report ignored Alfa Bank’s allegations. The FBI investigated, but concluded in early 2017 that there was no problematic contact between the servers.
Still, the case makes clear that Clinton associates took advantage of professional contacts to present the FBI with information about Trump that they viewed as pejorative and deserving of investigation. And it will draw attention to the little-known universe of cyber researchers sifting through Internet data for potentially suspicious trends.
WHAT IS DURHAM RESEARCHING?
Durham, the former top federal prosecutor in Connecticut, was appointed in 2019 by then-Attorney General William Barr to examine whether anyone engaged in misconduct as federal agencies investigated Russian election interference.
His investigation has lasted longer than Mueller’s and has so far charged three people, including Sussmann. Although Durham’s initial mandate was thought to focus on government officials, and although his team interviewed FBI personnel, Justice Department attorneys, and CIA officials, the investigation also focused on private citizens like Sussmann, who presented information on Trump.
It’s unclear how much longer the investigation will last, though Attorney General Merrick Garland has shown no public interest in curtailing the work and Durham was given a special special counsel title in the weeks before Barr resigned to ensure he could continue his work in a new administration
In 2020, a former FBI attorney named Kevin Clinesmith pleaded guilty to altering an email related to secret FBI surveillance of a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page. In requesting warrants to spy on Page, the FBI relied on an anti-Trump investigative dossier known colloquially as the “Steele dossier” that contained rumors and uncorroborated claims.
Last year, Durham accused a Russia analyst who was the source of that dossier of lying to the FBI about his own sources of information, including a longtime Hillary Clinton supporter. Igor Danchenko has pleaded not guilty. The case is pending and set for trial in October.
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