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Clinton-Linked Lawyer Lied to FBI About Trump Tip, Jury Told (1)

May 17, 2022, 3:27 PM

A cybersecurity lawyer tied to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign lied to the FBI about why he was providing a tip on a suspected link between then-candidate Donald Trump and a Russian bank, a federal prosecutor told jurors on the first day of a politically charged trial.

Michael Sussmann concealed the identity of his client while trying to convince the Federal Bureau of Investigation to open a probe into what he described as a suspicious communications link between Trump Towercomputer servers and Alfa Bank, Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Shaw said Tuesday in Washington.

Michael Sussmann arrives to federal court in Washington, D.C., on May 16.
Photographer: Evan Vucci/AP Photo

The alleged lie was part of a broader effort by Sussmann and the Clinton campaign to sway members of the media to report on the suspected link and damage Trump before the election in a so-called “October surprise,” Shaw said in an opening statement to the jury.

“He told a lie that was designed to achieve a political end -- a lie that was designed to inject the FBI into a presidential election,” she said.

It’s the first trial stemming from Special Counsel John Durham’s probe into the origins and conduct of the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation, which Trump has long argued was a “witch hunt” based on false information. That probe culminated in a report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who identified numerous contacts between Trump and Russia while not finding collusion.

No Reason to Lie

Defense attorney Michael Bosworth, in his opening statement, disputed the government’s allegations. Sussmann had no reason to lie to the FBI about his clients when he provided the tip in September 2016 because the agency was well-aware of his links to the Clinton campaign and Democrats, Bosworth said.

Just a few months before meeting with investigators, the Democratic National Committee had hired Sussmann, a former federal prosecutor, to represent the party in the FBI’s probe of Russia’s hack of DNC servers, Bosworth said. And Sussmann received the server data from another client, Rodney Joffe, a top cybersecurity expert who worked for years with the FBI.

“At a time when questions were swirling about Donald Trump’s connections to Russia,” one of Sussmann’s “longtime clients came to him with information showing another potential connection between Trump and Russia -- a connection that showed weird contact between Trump and a bank run by an associate of Vladimir Putin,” Bosworth said. “Mr. Sussmann took that seriously.”

Internal FBI notes identify Sussmann as a Clinton lawyer, Bosworth said. Sussmann went to the FBI without the Clinton campaign knowing, because an FBI probe would have undermined the campaign’s effort to get the press to report on the servers, the defense lawyer said. The agency delayed a press report on the server link while it investigated, Bosworth said.

To convict Sussmann, prosecutors must convince jurors that the lawyer’s alleged lie to the FBI was material to its investigation into Trump and Russia. If the alleged lie had no discernible impact on the probe, then the jury may clear Sussmann.

Political Impact

A conviction will likely be used by Republicans to portray Democrats as dishonest conspirators. It also may bolster Trump’s potential 2024 run for the White House by giving weight to his claims that the Russia probe was bogus, even though the Sussmann case is limited to a single charge of lying to the FBI about the identity of his client.

An acquittal will likely be used by Democrats to portray Republicans as grasping at straws to discredit Mueller’s investigation, which outlined possible ways that Trump may have obstructed justice by interfering with the probe.

The FBI ultimately determined the disputed computer server was used for sending spam marketing emails and wasn’t a national security threat.

In her opening statement, Shaw urged jurors not to let their political views sway their decision, saying the case was only about Sussman “using and manipulating the FBI.”

“Some people have very strong feelings about politics and Russia,” Shaw said. “And many people have very strong feelings about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.” But the criminal case is not about them, she said. “We are here because the FBI is our institution, it should not be used as a political tool for anyone, not Republicans, not Democrats, anyone,” Shaw said.

Witnesses

The jury will hear from former FBI General Counsel James Baker, who met with Sussmann and who received a text message from the lawyer saying he had information to offer that wasn’t on behalf of any client. Jurors also will hear from various FBI agents who worked on the probe; employees of the company that generated the data on the alleged communications link at Trump Tower; Marc Elias, a top election lawyer for Democrats; and Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager.

The government argues Sussmann’s strategy at the time of the alleged lie was to create news stories about the Alfa Bank issue, get law enforcement to investigate it and “get the press to report on the fact that law enforcement was investigating it.” That all culminated in a late October tweet and press release by the campaign about how Clinton trusted the FBI would investigate it.

(Updates with defense lawyer’s opening statement)

To contact the reporters on this story:
Erik Larson in New York at elarson4@bloomberg.net;
Sabrina Willmer in New York at swillmer2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Katia Porzecanski at kporzecansk1@bloomberg.net

Steve Stroth

© 2022 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.