A Washington, D.C., jury acquitted former Clinton campaign attorney Michael Sussmann of lying to the FBI on Tuesday in the first legal test of special counsel John Durham’s investigation into the origins of the Trump/Russia collusion conspiracy theory.
Sussmann was charged with lying to the FBI during a September 2016 meeting with former FBI general counsel James Baker. Sussmann pleaded not guilty to the charges, arguing that he never lied to the FBI, and even if he did, the lie did not impact the FBI’s operations at all. Sussmann decided last week against testifying in his own defense.
Durham released a statement after the verdict, saying, “While we are disappointed in the outcome, we respect the jury’s decision and thank them for their service. I also want to recognize and thank the investigators and the prosecution team for their dedicated efforts in seeking truth and justice in this case.”
Durham alleged in Sussmann’s charging documents that the cybersecurity attorney intentionally misrepresented himself to gain an audience with Baker. Sussmann told the then-FBI lawyer that he was coming to the bureau as a good citizen, when in reality Sussmann was passing shaky opposition research on behalf of his clients: the Clinton campaign and tech executive Rodney Joffe.
Sussmann gave Baker later debunked evidence of a secret backchannel between the Trump Organization and Russia’s Alfa Bank. The FBI agents tasked with looking into the matter dismissed the data and Sussmann’s claims within a matter of days of investigating the probe.
As many as three donors to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sat on the jury, including one who also donated to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Judge Christopher Cooper overruled objections from prosecutors to sit one of the Clinton donors after the man said he would “strive for impartiality as best I can.” It was not immediately clear whether the jurors in question took part in deciding the case or sat as alternates.
Prosecutors pushed Cooper to remove another juror from the panel after she revealed that her high school daughter participates on the same crew team as Sussmann’s daughter. The juror said she was unaware of the connection during jury selection, and Cooper said her willingness to cooperate evidenced how serious she took her responsibilities as a juror.
Baker said during testimony that he is “100% confident” that Sussmann hid his clients during their September 19, 2016 meeting. Sussmann’s defense attorneys pointed out that Baker has made several conflicting statements about his recollection of the meeting before, however.
The charge in the indictment focuses narrowly on whether or not Sussmann lied to the FBI during the meeting with Baker, not whether Sussmann lied to Baker at all. A text Sussmann sent Baker the night before the meeting that Durham obtained after charging Sussmann shows the Clinton campaign attorney telling Baker that: “I’m coming on my own — not on behalf of a client or company — want to help the Bureau.”
After the meeting with Sussmann, Baker passed Sussmann’s information along to other FBI officials. Those officials wrote in contemporaneous notes in their meetings with Baker that Sussmann had represented himself to Baker as a concerned citizen, according to the FBI attorney.
Durham’s team of prosecutors presented billing statements that Sussmann had sent to the 2016 Clinton campaign for work he did the day of his meeting with Baker on a campaign “confidential project.” Sussmann was involved in a campaign effort to get the Alfa-Bank allegations into the press. Around the same time he was organizing the meeting with Baker, Sussmann was also shopping the Alfa-Bank evidence to a reporter at The New York Times.
Sussmann’s defense attorneys attempted to undercut prosecutors’ claims aboout the billing statement by pointing out that it does not detail exactly what Sussmann was doing or reference the FBI.
One of the FBI agents who investigated Sussmann’s purported evidence of an Alfa-Bank backchannel told jurors last week that the FBI’s top brass had claimed that the Sussmann’s data came from the Department of Justice, not the Clinton campaign lawyer. Heide and FBI agent Allison Sands initiated the investigation into the Alfa-Bank claims citing a “referral” from the Justice Department, according to electronic communications viewed by the jury.
This article has been updated with additional information.