WASHINGTON – Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign did not authorize a lawyer to meet with the FBI and provide information that was meant to cast suspicions on rival candidate Donald Trump and possible connections to Russia, according to trial testimony Wednesday.
Michael Sussmann, a lawyer for Clinton's 2016 campaign, is charged with lying to the FBI during a meeting at which he presented the bureau's top lawyer with data that purported to show mysterious contact between computer servers of a Russia-based bank and Trump's company, the Trump Organization.
Prosecutors say Sussmann misled the FBI by saying he wasn't participating in the meeting on behalf of a particular client when he was actually there on behalf of the Clinton campaign and another client, a technology executive who had provided him with the data.
But under questioning from one of Sussmann's attorneys, Marc Elias, the campaign's top lawyer, said Sussmann did not seek his consent to go to the FBI. Elias said neither he nor anyone else from the campaign he was aware of had authorized Sussmann to meet with the FBI.
In fact, he said he would not have supported going to the FBI because he felt the bureau had not been sufficiently aggressive in stopping ongoing leaks of Russia-hacked emails that had been stolen from the Clinton campaign, and because he viewed then-Director James Comey as having put a “thumb on the scale” against Clinton during an earlier investigation into her use of a private email server while secretary of state.
“I’m not sure I would have thought that the FBI was going to give a fair shake to anything they thought was anti-Trump or pro-Clinton,” Elias said.
The defense team's questioning was aimed at distancing Sussmann from the Clinton campaign, and at trying to establish that he had not lied to the FBI by saying he was not representing the interests of a particular client during the Sept. 19, 2016 meeting.
At that meeting, Sussmann presented James Baker, the FBI's then-general counsel, with computer research that he said showed potential contact between servers of Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization. If proven, that information would have been significant given that the FBI at the time was investigating whether the Trump campaign and Russia were coordinating to sway the outcome of the election.
But when the FBI examined the data, it found no secret backchannel and nothing suspicious.
Earlier Wednesday, prosecutors sought to link Sussmann’s work to the campaign by noting that as a lawyer in private practice he repeatedly billed the campaign for meetings and legal work.
When Baker himself testified at the end of the day, prosecutors entered into evidence a text that Sussmann had sent him the night before the meeting in which he requested a sit-down about an unspecified sensitive matter and said that he would be coming alone and not on behalf of a particular client.
Defense lawyers have told jurors that Sussmann never lied, and that it was impossible for prosecutors to prove precisely what he said because only he and Baker attended the meeting and neither of them took notes. But in presenting the text message to the jury, prosecutors are attempting to rebut any efforts by the defense to chip away at Baker's credibility as a witness or his memory of what was said.
The case against Sussmann was brought by John Durham, the prosecutor appointed as special counsel during the Trump administration to investigate potential misconduct by government officials and others during the early days of the FBI's probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and potential ties to the Trump campaign.
Durham has brought three criminal prosecutions, and the Sussmann case is the the first to reach trial. An earlier case against an FBI lawyer charged with altering an email ended in a plea deal in 2020, and another case against an analyst charged with lying to the FBI is pending.
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