The first week of the Michael Sussman criminal trial has now ended.
Sussman stands accused by Special Counsel John Durham of “lying to the FBI.” Lying to the FBI is a crime. (It’s covered by 18 USC Section 1001.). The alleged lie happened at a meeting that occurred on September 19, 2016. That was about a month and a half before the 2016 presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and thus at the very height of the campaign. At the time, Sussman was a partner at the Perkins Coie law firm, and Perkins Coie was counsel both to the Democratic Party and to the Clinton Presidential campaign.
On the September 19 date, Sussman met at his request at FBI headquarters with Bureau General Counsel James Baker. In the meeting, Sussman asserted he had learned of something the Bureau should investigate, namely a supposed secret “back channel” between Russia’s Alfa Bank and the Trump campaign. Special Counsel Durham alleges that both before and at the meeting Sussman represented that he was acting as a private citizen, and not on behalf of any client, in bringing this information to the attention of the Bureau.
The theory of the prosecution is that the representation by Sussman that he was not representing any client was false because in fact Sussman was acting as a representative of the Clinton campaign in making his assertions to the FBI. Theoretically, this representation was material in leading the FBI to pursue a wild goose chase into false allegations of Trump/Russia collusion, which they never would have done had they suspected that this was merely a partisan operation against a campaign rival.
Just curious: What do you believe was really going on here?
Taking the narrative above at face value, Durham appears to have Sussman dead to rights. Durham’s team introduced into evidence a text message from Sussman to Baker dated September 18, 2016, in which Sussman requested the meeting. In the text, Sussman states, “I’m coming on my own — not on behalf of a client or company — want to help the Bureau.” Meanwhile, the Indictment in the case alleges that the time Sussman spent assembling the information he presented to the FBI was billed to the Clinton campaign; and apparently Durham has collected the Perkins Coie time records to prove those allegations.
If that doesn’t seem airtight enough, yesterday Baker himself took the stand as a witness for the prosecution. The New York Post reports on Baker’s testimony with the headline “James Baker buries Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann in probe.” The heart of Baker’s testimony was apparently that at the September 19 meeting Sussman reiterated his statement that he was not acting on behalf of any client:
A former FBI official delivered devastating testimony Thursday against former Hillary Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann — saying he’s “100% confident” the defendant denied acting “on behalf of any particular client” when he handed over since-debunked information linking Donald Trump and Russia. “I think it was pretty close to the beginning of the meeting. Part of his introduction to the meeting,” former FBI general counsel James Baker told jurors in Washington, DC, federal court.
And to put a little icing on the cake, Baker then testified that he promptly briefed Bill Priestap, head of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, about the meeting. And Priestap just happens to have made a note of that conversation, reading “Said not doing this for any client.” And Baker also briefed one Trisha Anderson, another FBI lawyer, who made a note saying “No specific client.”
So was the FBI really fooled here? Or were the FBI representatives all too willingly playing along to help the Clinton campaign to smear Trump? I’ll go with the latter. Every one of the FBI people involved in this matter fully knew that Michael Sussman’s principal job was to be a top lawyer for the Clinton campaign. So a top lawyer for the Clinton campaign wants to come in with some dirt on rival Trump a few weeks before the election, says “I’m coming on my own” — and they supposedly take that at face value? And of course the guy gets a one-on-one sit-down meeting at headquarters with the General Counsel of the Bureau on one day’s notice, because that’s just how the FBI does business.
This stinks to high heaven for the FBI. But now put yourself in Baker’s position testifying. What’s he going to say? “Of course we knew this was a set up so the Clinton campaign could get the press to report an FBI investigation of Trump”? Not likely. That taints both himself and the entire Bureau with the stench of corruption. Most likely is that in an oral conversation with Sussman before the meeting Baker told Sussman that he could have the meeting if he would state in writing that he was not representing any client in coming forward. That would give the FBI plausible deniability, and without a document no lawyer at a trial would ever get either Baker or Sussman to admit that such a conversation occurred.
Most likely Durham’s game plan was never to convict Sussman on this claim at trial, but rather use it to get him to turn on others, most notably Hillary herself. So far, that hasn’t happened.