Opening statements set in trial linked to Russia probe
Opening statements are set for Tuesday in the trial of a lawyer for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign who is accused of lying to the FBI as it investigated potential ties between Donald Trump and Russia in 2016.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers in the case of Michael Sussmann spent all day Monday picking a jury for the trial, the first arising from special counsel John Durham’s investigation into the origins of the Trump-Russia probe.
Sussmann is accused of misleading the FBI’s then-general counsel, James Baker, during a September 2016 meeting in which he presented research showing what he said might be a suspicious backchannel of communications between computer servers of the Trump Organization and Russia-based Alfa Bank. Baker is among the witnesses set to testify.
Prosecutors allege Sussmann lied by saying he wasn’t attending the meeting on behalf of any particular client when they say he was actually acting on behalf of two clients: the Clinton campaign and a technology executive who had helped assemble the computer data.
Durham’s team says had the FBI been told the truth, it would have factored into the bureau’s assessment of the credibility of the Alfa Bank claims as it weighed whether to begin investigating. The FBI did look into the matter but ultimately found nothing suspicious.
Sussmann’s lawyers deny he lied but say the alleged misstatement isn’t relevant in any event since there’s no evidence that what the FBI knew or didn’t know about his political affiliations had any bearing on its decision-making about whether to investigate.
Durham was appointed in 2019 by then-Attorney General William Barr to look for any misconduct as the U.S. government was examining potential coordination between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign to tip the outcome of the election. An investigation by an earlier special counsel, Robert Mueller, did not find a criminal conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign though it did find that Russia sought to aid Trump’s election bid.
The Alfa Bank matter was a peripheral part of the FBI’s investigation and the allegations of furtive contact were not even mentioned in Mueller’s 2019 report.
Durham’s work has resulted in three criminal cases, but only the one against Sussmann has reached trial.
In 2020, a former FBI lawyer named Kevin Clinesmith pleaded guilty to altering an email related to secret FBI surveillance of an ex-Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page. In applying for warrants to eavesdrop on Page, the FBI relied on research files of anti-Trump information known colloquially as the “Steele dossier” that contained rumors and uncorroborated claims.
Last year, Durham charged a Russia analyst who was a source for that dossier with lying to the FBI about his own sources of information — among them, a longtime Hillary Clinton supporter. Igor Danchenko has pleaded not guilty. The case is pending.
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