Clinton Lawyer Acquitted in RussiaGate Case
What does it all mean? It depends on who you ask.
NPR (“Special Counsel Durham fails first courtroom test in his three-year probe“):
A jury in Washington, D.C., has acquitted lawyer Michael Sussmann on a single charge of lying to the FBI, dealing a blow to the three-year investigation by special counsel John Durham.
Jurors deliberated for six hours, spread over two days, before delivering the unanimous verdict to a courtroom filled with the defendant’s family and members of the news media.
The jury forewoman, who did not give her name, told reporters outside the courthouse that “I think we could have spent our time more wisely.”
“It didn’t pan out in the government’s favor and that’s on them,” she also said.
So, what does it all mean? Well, it depends on who you ask.
Jonathan Chait, writing in New York magazine, tells us “John Durham Tried to Prove Trump’s Russiagate Theory. Instead He Debunked It.”
Donald Trump and William Barr have spent years alleging that the Russia investigation was a criminal plot by the FBI. The Department of Justice’s inspector general found the Russia investigation was adequately predicated, but Barr disagreed. So he selected a prosecutor, John Durham, who would supposedly uncover this scheme and begin frog-marching its perpetrators to justice.
By 2020, Barr was conceding that Durham might not reach all the way up to Barack Obama but would bring down his accomplices. “As to President Obama and Vice-President Biden,” he said that spring, “whatever their level of involvement, based on the information I have today, I don’t expect Mr. Durham’s work will lead to a criminal investigation of either man. Our concern over potential criminality is focused on others.” By the fall, Barr was reportedly “communicating that Durham is taking his investigation extremely seriously and is focused on winning prosecutions.”
However focused he may be, Durham is not winning prosecutions. His investigation has produced one extremely small fish for a likely immaterial error. And now he is losing prosecutions. Durham abused his authority by trying to prosecute Michael Sussmann, a lawyer working for Hillary Clinton, whom Durham tried to convict on a single perjury charge. And the case turns out to have been so pathetically threadbare that it resulted in a rapid acquittal.
The fact Durham even had to bring this case was a testament to the failure of his probe. He had set out to uncover the FBI’s crimes against Mr. Trump. He was reduced to trying, and failing, to prosecute somebody for lying to the FBI.
In the meantime, Durham supplied hours of commentary for Fox News personalities by filling his indictment with lurid claims that were not backed by evidence. Durham attempted to use the Sussmann trial to prove a version of the theory Trump claimed all along: that the Clinton campaign and the FBI had opened an investigation into Trump, knowing its evidence was fake, and then leaked the evidence of the investigation to the media in order to elect Hillary.
At WaPo, Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent observe “John Durham’s flop is only the latest of many Trump coverup failures.”
For three years, conservatives hyped John Durham’s investigation into the origins of the FBI’s original investigation of Russia’s effort to help Donald Trump get elected president in 2016. Durham, a prosecutor appointed in 2019 by then-Attorney General William P. Barr, would blow the lid off the real scandal, they said, which was a conspiracy between Democrats and the FBI to get Trump. This would show there was never anything to the Russiagate scandal.
Durham had all the time and resources he needed. As of last December, a partial accounting found he had spent about $3.8 million. So what did he come up with?
He delivered two indictments, both of people no one ever would have heard of and both for the crime of lying to investigators. On Tuesday, one of them, lawyer Michael Sussmann, was acquitted by a federal jury.
All that time and effort and expense, for one acquittal of one lawyer for supposedly not being upfront with investigators.
Durham does have one more indictment pending, of a researcher who allegedly lied about information he got pertaining to the scandal. But even if he is convicted, one has to ask: Is that all there is?
To appreciate the significance of this moment, you have to remember that Trump and Republicans have spent years working to show that there was never any serious cause for concern about the idea that Russia went to extraordinary lengths to try to swing the 2016 election to Trump.
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III did not find evidence that Trump criminally colluded with Russia. But he found that Russia interfered “in sweeping and systematic fashion” and that Trump’s campaign expected to “benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” Mueller also refrained from explicitly exonerating Trump of criminal obstruction of justice.
Durham had tried to prove that Sussmann had lied to the FBI when he came to them with supposed evidence of some kind of suspicious electronic communication between the Trump Organization and a Russian bank.
Sussmann was accused of concealing the fact that he was working for the Hillary Clinton campaign, and prosecutors painted this as part of a larger scheme by the Clinton campaign to nefariously undermine Trump. Of this Sussmann was acquitted, and jurors indicated that they thought this wasn’t a particularly close call and that the prosecution was politically motivated.
That’s pretty bad! But, wait. Both of those sources are in the lamestream media. What do the fair and balanced voices have to say?
The Washington Examiner‘s Byron York, writing hours before the verdict, tells us “What Durham proved.”
The trial of Michael Sussmann is before a jury in Washington, D.C. Sussmann is the Democratic lawyer who, according to special counsel John Durham, lied to the FBI in 2016 when, working on behalf of the Hillary Clinton campaign, he tried to plant a derogatory story about Donald Trump. The hope was that the FBI would start an investigation and then the campaign conversation would be: TRUMP IS UNDER FBI INVESTIGATION!
There is no doubt Sussmann lied to the FBI. There is no doubt he is guilty. But the trial is taking place in Washington, perhaps the deepest-blue jury pool in the United States. Durham’s prosecutors are “facing a jury that has three Clinton donors, an AOC donor, and a woman whose daughter is on the same sports team as Sussmann’s daughter,” George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley said recently on Fox News. “With the exception of randomly selecting people out of DNC headquarters, you could not come up with a worse jury.”
So the jury might reject Durham’s evidence — juries are free to do that. Or it might convict. Whatever it does, though, Durham has already made some important points about the actions of the Clinton campaign in the 2016 election.
The biggest point Durham has made is that an arm of the Clinton campaign developed a strategy to weaponize the FBI to investigate Clinton’s political opponent. Starting around the time of the 2016 Democratic convention, with the Russian hack of Democratic National Committee emails, the Clinton campaign made a concerted effort to accuse Trump falsely of acting in collusion with Russia. At the Sussmann trial, Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, testified that effort was focused on feeding information to reporters — the old-fashioned way to spread dirt.
But lawyers working for the campaign went beyond the old-fashioned way. They tried to enlist the FBI in the operation, to spur the investigation. That would turbocharge the story, allowing reporters to say the allegations were so serious that federal law enforcement was investigating.
That’s why, when a team of pro-Clinton researchers came up with a theory that there were suspicious computer connections between a Russian bank, Alfa-Bank, and the Trump campaign, Sussmann took it to the FBI. He did it on behalf of the Clinton campaign. He billed the campaign for the work. Yet he specifically told the FBI that he was not acting on behalf of the campaign, that he was just doing it as a concerned citizen. In September 2016, when Sussmann requested a meeting with then-FBI General Counsel James Baker, Sussmann texted, “Jim — it’s Michael Sussmann. I have something time-sensitive (and sensitive) I need to discuss. Do you have availability for a short meeting tomorrow? I’m coming on my own — not on behalf of a client or company — want to help the Bureau. Thanks.”
But Sussmann was doing it on behalf of a client — the Clinton campaign.
Besides showing that an arm of the Clinton campaign sought to weaponize the FBI, the Sussmann trial has shown that the FBI was eager to be weaponized. We learned that a senior FBI agent involved in the Trump-Russia investigation, Joe Pientka, sent a note to another agent about the Alfa-Bank tip: “People on the 7th floor to include Director are fired up about this server. Reachout and put tools on…it’s not an option — we must do it.” The FBI building’s seventh floor is where top management, including then-Director James Comey, had offices.
So those are two major revelations from the Sussmann trial: Elements in and around the Clinton campaign sought to weaponize the FBI, and the FBI welcomed the effort — all in the name of defeating the Republican nominee for president.
So, York is basically right on the substance if not in his analysis. (More on that later.)
While he makes no bones about his partisan leanings, York is, at the end of the day, a professional journalist. For those who are looking for a less newsy take, The Federalist‘s Margot Cleveland will tell them that the prosecution won. Hugely. Writing before the verdict was delivered, she explained, “Even Without The Jury Convicting Michael Sussmann, The Special Counsel Has Won.”
Judging the success of Special Counsel John Durham’s probe into the investigation of President Trump and those associated with the Trump campaign and administration should not rest on the outcome of the Sussmann prosecution, however. In fact, even if the special counsel’s office scores a conviction in its false statement case against Sussmann, that would do little to right the scales of justice unbalanced by more than five years of the politically motivated abuse of power that began as Crossfire Hurricane and continued even after Special Counsel Robert Mueller issued his final report.
So, measuring Durham’s performance by the outcome in United States v. Sussmann would be a mistake. Also, especially in the case of an acquittal, it would ignore the valuable information exposed related to the broader Spygate scandal. Using that gauge as a measure, the special counsel’s office succeeded wildly.
On September 19, 2016, Sussmann provided Baker data and whitepapers purporting to show a secret communications network between the Russia-based Alfa Bank and Donald Trump. In indicting Sussmann for allegedly lying to Baker during this meeting, the special counsel’s office revealed in its 27-page speaking indictment “a scandal much deeper than merely Sussmann’s role in a second Russian hoax — a scandal that entangles the Clinton campaign, multiple internet companies, two federally-funded university researchers, and a complicit media.”
Since then, proof that the Clinton campaign held near-total responsibility for launching the Russia-collusion hoax mounted with nearly every legal filing. It eventually culminated during the Sussmann trial when former Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook testified that Hillary Clinton personally “agreed with the decision” to feed the unverified—and quickly debunked—theory that Trump was communicating secretly with Russia through a back-door Alfa Bank channel.
Other trial evidence confirmed the Clinton campaign paid the law firm Perkins and Coie a flat fee of as much as $130,000 per month during the campaign, and authorized lead counsel Marc Elias to hire Fusion GPS for opposition research. Billing records then showed Sussmann charged his time for working the Alfa Bank hoax—including the time he spent meeting with the FBI’s General Counsel Baker—to the Clinton campaign. In fact, late last week, the jury in the Sussmann case learned that Sussmann even charged the Clinton campaign for two thumb drives purchased at Staples used for the Alfa Bank project.
While the Sussmann case focused on the Alfa Bank hoax, the detailed evidence presented over the course of that prosecution also confirmed the Clinton campaign paid for Fusion GPS to compile the Christopher Steele dossier. Given Mook’s testimony that he sought Clinton’s approval to push the Alfa Bank claims to the media, it is only reasonable to infer she likewise personally green-lighted the peddling of the claims contained in the Steele dossier.
But even if Clinton did not personally approve of peddling the lies contained in the Steele dossier, the Sussmann case established that her campaign paid for the lies—including those emanating from the Russian-national Igor Danchenko. And Special Counsel Durham’s indictment against Danchenko reveals that individuals hired by the Clinton campaign fed that Russian disinformation to U.S. media, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies.
Wow. Why was I not informed?
In a follow-up after the verdict, Cleveland tells us “Jury Acquits Clinton Campaign Attorney, But Prosecutors Prove Corporate Media Guilty.”
After deliberating for less than one day, the jury in the Michael Sussmann criminal case returned a not-guilty verdict today in a D.C. federal court.
Notwithstanding the verdict, in prosecuting Michael Sussmann for lying to former FBI General Counsel James Baker when he provided Baker data and whitepapers purporting to show a secret communication channel between the Russia-based Alfa Bank and Trump, the special counsel revealed several significant realities to the American public.
As I detailed earlier today, United States v. Sussmann exposed that Hillary Clinton holds full responsibility for the Russia collusion hoax, with her former campaign manager Robby Mook testifying she personally approved peddling the Alfa Bank tale to the media. The Sussmann prosecution also dispatched the lingering claims that a secret communication channel between Trump and Russia truly existed as “5150,” or delusional, talk.
Even the acquittal of Sussmann will not erase these facts. So for all posterity, Clinton’s fingerprints will be seen covering the worst political scandal of our country’s history.
That’s pretty compelling. The only thing I can think of worse than a presidential candidate peddling a tale to the media would be if, say, a sitting President tried to steal an election, maybe by sending supporters to intimidate lawmakers or some such. But that’s pretty far-fetched.
But what about the evil corporate media?
The corporate press has long demonstrated anti-conservative bias, but once it became clear Donald Trump would be the Republican challenger to Clinton in her bid for the presidency, the legacy media abandoned all semblance of journalistic integrity. The special counsel’s prosecution of Sussmann, however, shined a spotlight on the self-immolation of the profession in two new ways.
First, the prosecution of Sussmann made public email communications between the Clinton-campaign-funded Fusion GPS and prominent reporters at The New York Times, Washington Post, Reuters, Yahoo! News, ABC News, and Slate. Those emails exposed the supposed journalists collaborating closely with the opposition researchers working at Fusion GPS for the Clinton campaign during the 2016 election.
In one email, Fusion GPS’s co-founder Peter Fritsch pushed ABC News’s Matthew Mosk to run the Alfa Bank story, telling him, “Dude this is huge.” Fritsch took a more aggressive stance with Reuter’s Mark Hosenball, venting in a mid-October 2016 email, “Do the fucking alfa bank secret comms story,” telling him, “it is hugely important.”
When Hosenball pushed back that he lacked the technical expertise to evaluate the data, Fritsch told Hosenball to “call David Dagon at Georgia Tech.” Of course, thanks to the Sussmann trial, it is now public knowledge that, far from being a disinterested expert, Dagon worked with Joffe to craft the Alfa Bank tale sold to the media and the FBI. Dagon was also rabidly anti-Trump.
However, “neither Reuters nor ABC did the story then—but Fusion GPS soon found someone who would” when Fusion GPS’s team “went to see Franklin Foer, then working for Slate, at his home outside Washington, D.C., to brief him about the data suggesting ties between the Alfa Bank and Trump servers.”
Foer would later “break” the Alfa Bank story on October 31, 2016, sending Fusion GPS running back into the arms of the media pals who had previously rejected them. To Hosenball, Fusion GPS wrote, “big story on the trump Alfa server moving early pm,” followed by an “off the record” assurance the “U.S. government absolutely investigating.” Fusion GPS repeated the push with Michael Isikoff at Yahoo! News.
So, you’re telling me the sonsabitches have email addresses where even Democrats and their corporate shills are allowed to send messages? And, even worse, they often don’t then do the bidding of said shills? That just goes to show how clever they are.
Still, they ultimately got their man. Franklin Foer published a story so complicated that most of the seven people who read it almost surely didn’t understand it. And then the bastard had the temerity to publish a follow-up three days later pointing to expert rebuttals.
My tone above is snarky. But there’s more than a grain of truth: the sort of people who get their news mostly from Fox or The Federalist honestly think outlets like NPR, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and New York magazine are de facto Democratic Party propaganda. It’s really hard to have a common set of facts in that environment.
While I must confess to not having paid much attention to this case—I’m not sure I could have told you who Michael Sussmann was yesterday morning—I do think the triumphalism of Chait, Sargent and Waldman is overblown.
Clearly, despite being initially rejected by the larger outlets before Foer ran with it, the story had legs. There were lots of media reports on the broader Russia angle, it was a topic in one of the debates, and it helped launch the Mueller investigation. I must admit, though, that I had completely wiped the phrase “Alfa Bank” from my memory. Then again, it got essentially no attention here at OTB, being the subject of exactly zero posts and one comment before the election and three comments since. (It was also mentioned in a 2014 post on oil prices.)
Do I think the FBI is filled with Democratic operatives? Not hardly. But, in the context of overwhelming evidence that Russia was using its cyber assets to influence the election—and, specifically, to harm the Clinton campaign—they might have been too credulous in accepting this particular tip.
Do I think the Clinton campaign fed the FBI information? Yes.
Do I think they actually believed the information to be true? Yes.
Do I think Sussmann lied to the FBI? Yes.
Were I on the jury, would I have voted to send him to jail for this lie? No.