Michael Sussmann’s trial is over, but the stench lingers. Special Counsel John Durham has done more than expose Hillary Clinton’s political dirty tricks. He exposed the incestuous world of Washington’s elite that allowed these tricks to succeed. America, find the Beltway swamp.
Mr Sussman was acquitted on Tuesday of lying to the FBI, but not before Durham’s team revealed the Clinton campaign’s work in 2016 to use both the FBI and the media to smear Donald Trump. The campaign relied on outside technicians for false accusations of links between Trump and the Russian bank Alfa, which Mr. Sussmann passed on to the FBI. Fusion GPS and Christopher Steele separately forwarded their infamous dossier to the Bureau. Then the Clinton team sold the dirt to the media, using the fact of the FBI investigations as proof that they deserved coverage.
Yet there is still a long way to go between baseless slander and full-fledged FBI investigations. The whole Clinton operation hinged on the FBI’s willingness to bite. The Durham trial was a glimpse of the friendly network of brokers who used their access and influence to make this happen.
One of the revelations from the lawsuit was that Rodney Joffe – the technical manager who used privileged access to non-proprietary data to create the Alfa allegations – was a confidential human source for the FBI in 2016. Yet Mr. Joffe , according to testimonies, did not accept his accusations. to his usual master. He instead gave them to . . . Mr. Sussmann, a lawyer in private practice whose clients included Mrs. Clinton.
Why? Mr. Sussmann was close to the FBI. So tight that according to trial evidence, the office in 2016 allowed him to edit a draft of one of his press releases. Mr. Sussmann was even on a first-name basis with then-FBI General Counsel James Baker. He was able to text his “friend” (Mr. Baker’s description of their relationship) and score a meeting the next day. He assured “Jim” that he didn’t need a badge to enter the building – he already had one. All of this allowed Mr. Sussmann (who later sought to recruit Mr. Baker to his company, Perkins Coie) to avoid the pesky agents and questions that would accompany any average Joe trying to sell out the FBI on wild claims.
Meanwhile, Mr. Joffe called a separate special contact at the FBI (again, not his handler), an agent who had once named the technician for an award. Mr. Joffe again passed on his Alfa data and asked the agent to pass it on but not to tell anyone he was the source. During the trial, the prosecution curtly asked this agent if he was familiar with “circular reporting” – where a source provides information to two different parts of the FBI to make it appear corroborative. It’s a clever tactic, one that most people wouldn’t get the chance to use.
The Steele case also received special treatment. It turns out Fusion GPS picked a guy for his casework who had also worked as an FBI source. Mr. Steele first approached regular FBI agents. But he followed up with his own main contact, former top Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, whose wife worked for (where else?) Fusion. Mr. Ohr turned the file over to FBI Deputy Director Andy McCabe. Mr. Steele gave his file separately to a senior State Department official, Jonathan Winer, who also passed it on to the network.
Getting the dirt to the top made all the difference. Trial prosecutors presented an internal message from FBI Agent Joseph Pientka two days after the Sussmann-Baker meeting, saying, “People on the 7th floor, including the director, are excited about this server. . . . Have you opened a file? . . . His [sic] not an option, we have to do it. This despite testimony from grassroots agents who said they were quick to dismiss the claims as ridiculous.
And the powerful guys at the top continued to exert their influence. Former CIA Director John Brennan briefed Harry Reid on the collusion allegations, prompting the Senate Minority Leader to write a letter that made the accusations public. Mr. Comey crafted a Trump briefing in January 2017 that served as the catalyst for BuzzFeed to release the dossier. Mr. Comey secretly commemorated his privileged conversations with the president, later disclosing them to prompt the appointment of his colleague and mentor Robert Mueller as a special adviser to investigate President Trump. All of this was aided by the Beltway media, who ably served as scribes for their claims, and those of their Fusion GPS cronies, some of whom previously worked for the Journal.
The trial environment was no less intimate. Judge Christopher Cooper worked with Mr. Sussmann at the Clinton Justice Department in the 1990s. Merrick Garland, now the attorney general, officiated the judge’s marriage to Amy Jeffress, an official with the Clinton Justice Department. Obama and now a private attorney representing former FBI attorney Lisa Page. And so on, special circles go all the way to the judge refusing to grant prosecutors’ request to dismiss a juror who admitted his daughter was on the same team as Mr. Sussmann’s child.
None of this – the special access, the abuse of power – would be granted to an average American, and it explains how the Clinton team managed to turn a dirty trick into national hysteria. If Washington’s institutions are to regain public trust, they will first have to remember that the country is rooted in the notion of one set of rules for all. Not a special set for DC operators.
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