Sussman trial: what you need to know about the Durham probe

RRussia’s efforts to help Donald Trump win the 2016 election are well established. Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded that Russia tried to harm Hillary Clinton and help Trump win, as did the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee panel that investigated the election. Russian operatives used social media accounts to sow discord and misinformation among the American public and sparked real rallies that helped Trump’s campaign. And Trump’s public endorsement of Russia’s efforts is also well known. At a press conference in July 2016, Trump publicly encouraged Russian hackers to break into Clinton’s email system. And on October 10, 2016, after the Wikileaks website published stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee’s servers, Trump said, “I love WikiLeaks.”

Over the years, some have made more sinister or salacious allegations against Trump that have not held water. Special Prosecutor John Durham has investigated whether the FBI or others broke any laws in doing so. A lawsuit stemming from his investigation is underway in Washington that has released details of the allegations against Trump that were pushed by Democrats and found to be false.

Much of the trial focused on a September 2016 meeting in which an attorney working with the Clinton campaign and a technology executive brought allegations to the FBI about contacts between Trump and a major Russian bank. The FBI reviewed it and dismissed it. But not before the Clinton campaign told reporters the FBI was investigating. Durham is not alleging that Clinton or anyone else committed a crime in doing so, but he is accusing the attorney, Michael Sussmann, of lying to the FBI by denying he represented a particular client while providing the information at the office.

Here are the details of the incident.

What is Alfa-Bank?

Alfa-Bank is one of the largest Russian banks. In 2020, the bank reported over 20 million customers and $60 billion in assets. A tech company with a pending federal contract to conduct a forensic analysis of other countries’ efforts to hack into the US government has concluded there were suspicious contacts between Alfa-Bank computers and servers controlled by Trump companies. The FBI investigated the allegations and the logs and concluded that there was no evidence of such a link.

Who is Michael Sussmann?

Michael Sussmann is a Washington, D.C. attorney and former Justice Department Criminal Division prosecutor who had a meeting with a senior FBI official on September 19, 2016, where he presented research he says has showed unusual computer traffic between Donald Trump’s business and Alfa-Bank.

Sussmann is accused of lying to the FBI when he brought the allegations to the attention of the FBI’s top lawyer, James A. Baker. In that first meeting, prosecutors allege Sussmann told Baker he was not representing a client in taking the information to authorities, when in fact he was representing the Clinton campaign and the technology manager who helped compile data analysis. Sussmann’s defense team denies that Sussmann lied during the meeting. The case is being heard in federal court in Washington, DC, and hinges on whether Sussmann disclosed to Baker during that first meeting that he was there to represent clients.

What does this have to do with Hillary Clinton?

Prosecutors allege Sussmann was part of a broader Clinton campaign effort to tarnish Trump in the weeks leading up to Election Day. Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager Robby Mook said on May 20 that Clinton agreed with the campaign’s decision to brief reporters on the potential Internet connection between Trump and Russia.

Trump himself gave voters plenty of reason to believe he welcomed Russian help in defeating Clinton. On July 27, 2016, during a televised press conference, Trump examined the cameras and encouraged the Russian government to intervene to find allegedly deleted emails from Clinton’s personal servers and make them public. “Russia, if you listen, I hope you can find the missing 30,000 emails, I think you will probably be richly rewarded by our press.” On the same day, Russian actors sent phishing emails to accounts used by Clinton’s campaign and office, special counsel Robert Mueller found.

Why is this important now?

The Sussmann trial is the first public broadcast in a courtroom of everything Special Counsel John Durham has uncovered in his investigation into whether federal law enforcement officials unlawfully investigated the 2016 Trump campaign. Former Trump Attorney General William Barr appointed Durham to launch the investigation in October 2020, in the final weeks of the 2020 presidential election.

The outcome of Durham’s investigation will reveal whether political operatives working for Democrats were able to influence FBI investigations of Trump during the 2016 campaign season. Prosecutors alleged that the Clinton campaign attempted to pass information to the FBI and had leaked them to reporters for the purpose of tar Trump during the campaign.

The FBI eventually investigated allegations of unusual dealings between Trump’s company and the Russian bank and found them to be unfounded.

What happens next?

At the end of the trial, the jury will decide if Sussmann is guilty of lying to the FBI. The verdict will be an important test of Durham’s investigative work. It will also reflect on the viability of prosecutors’ broader efforts to show that the FBI was duped into pursuing unsubstantiated, politically motivated leads in a coordinated effort to leak the investigation to the press and smear Trump.

Durham’s investigation will face another test in the autumn when Igor Danchenko’s trial is due to begin. Danchenko was a source for the so-called Steele Dossier, a report containing unsubstantiated allegations about Trump that was funded as part of an opposition research effort by the Clinton campaign and prepared by the former intelligence officer British Christopher Steele. The filing was submitted as part of a secret surveillance court clearance request that the FBI used to target Trump adviser Carter Page while looking into potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. from 2016. Danchenko was indicted in November 2021 and accused of lying to FBI agents about where he got the information. The indictment against Danchenko alleges that some of the information in the case came to Danchenko from a Democratic Party operative. Danchenko pleaded not guilty.

The Durham investigation raises questions about the extent to which Democratic political operatives have gone to try to encourage federal investigators to launch an investigation into Trump. It also shines a light on the FBI’s handling of a sensitive election-year investigation into a major political figure. But that doesn’t change the conclusion Mueller reached in her earlier investigation that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump, and that Trump encouraged Russians to do it.

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