Cybersecurity attorney Michael Sussmann’s defense team dueled prosecutors in opening statements on the second day of Sussmann’s trial on Tuesday.
Sussmann is facing up to five years in prison on a single charge of making false statements to the FBI during a 2016 meeting with the bureau’s general counsel in which Sussmann made later-debunked claims of a secret backchannel between the Trump Organization and a Russian bank. The court wrapped up jury selection on Monday and launched into the first day of testimony the following day.
Prosecutor Deborah Shaw started the day’s proceedings. She said the case will show in the coming weeks that Sussmann’s trial is about “privilege,” possibly a shaded reference to pretrial fights over what is considered protected under attorney-client privilege, according to The Washington Examiner. Prosecutors, led by special counsel John Durham, wrestled with Sussmann’s defense team, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, the investigative firm Fusion GPS, and the Democrat-linked law firm Perkins Coie over communications in the weeks leading up to the trial.
Sussmann, who was an attorney at Perkins Coie in 2016, is accused of intentionally hiding from the FBI his clients: the Clinton campaign and an executive at the computer analytics firm Neustar.
“This was not a mistake or a slip of the tongue, it was a concerted effort to conceal his clients,” Shaw said, according to The Hill. “You’re going to see … how it misled officials into thinking he was acting as a good citizen.”
“The FBI should never be used as a political pawn,” she added.
Defense attorney Michael Bosworth asserted that Sussmann never lied to the FBI, and even if he did, it would not have mattered.
“Michael Sussmann didn’t lie to the FBI,” Bosworth told the jury. “Michael Sussmann wouldn’t lie to the FBI. … His whole livelihood depended on his credibility with these agencies and he’d never throw that away.”
Bosworth stated that Sussmann’s interests were clear to the FBI from the beginning.
“He was someone the FBI knew represented partisan clients,” Bosworth said, according to the Associated Press. “The FBI knew that he represented the Clinton campaign that summer. The FBI knew that he was an attorney for the DNC, the Democratic Party itself.”
In a September 2016 meeting, Sussmann fed then-FBI general counsel James Baker data purportedly showing the Trump Organization secretly communicating with Russia’s Alfa Bank. FBI special agent Scott Hellman, who currently heads an investigative team that specializes in cybercrime, testified on Tuesday that he and a superior vetted the evidence Sussmann provided and dismissed the attorney’s claims within days, according to The Washington Examiner.
“Whoever had written that paper had jumped to some conclusions that were not supported by the data,” he said, referring to a white paper that Sussmann had presented with the data. “The methodology they chose was questionable to me.”
“There was not enough data there to make the conclusion that there was any communication, or the secret communication between the Trump Organization and Russia,” Hellman said.
The agent also testified that the interests of a source impact how the FBI weighs information. “The motivation of whoever is giving me the information is very important,” he testified.