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WASHINGTON, D.C. – The jury on Tuesday found Michael Sussmann not guilty of making a false statement to the FBI in September 2016 when he said he was not working on behalf of any client, when he brought information alleging a covert communications channel between the Trump Organization and Russia’s Alfa Bank.
After a two week trial, and more than a day of deliberations, the jury found that Special Counsel John Durham’s team had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Sussmann’s statement was a lie, and that he was, in fact, working on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and technology executive Rodney Joffe when he brought two thumb drives and a white paper alleging a Trump-Russia connection.
Michael Sussmann was found not guilty of making a false statement to the FBI. (Reuters/Julia Nikhinson)
Sussmann was charged with one count of making a false statement to the FBI during his meeting with then-FBI General Counsel James Baker on Sept. 19, 2016.
In remarks following the verdict, Sussmann said that he had been falsely accused.
“I told the truth to the FBI, and the Jury clearly recognized this in their unanimous verdict today,” he said. “I’m grateful to the members of the jury for their careful thoughtful service. Despite being falsely accused I believe that Justice ultimately prevailed in my case. As you can imagine this has been a difficult year for my family and me. But right now we are grateful for the love and support of so many during this ordeal.”
Durham issued a terse statement expressing his office’s disappointment.
“While we are disappointed in the outcome, we respect the jury’s decision and thank them for their service,” Durham said. “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.”
The jury included one federal government employee who told the judge they donated to Democrats in 2016 and another government employee who told the judge they “strongly” dislike former President Trump. Both of those jurors told the judge they could be impartial throughout the trial.
The jury also included a teacher, an illustrator, a mechanic and more. One juror had a child who was on the same high school sports team as Sussmann’s child.
The overwhelming majority of jurors selected told Cooper they had not heard of the case prior to jury service.
Durham’s team presented billing records dated beginning on July 29, 2016, and through October 2016, revealing Sussmann repeatedly billed the Clinton campaign for work on the Alfa Bank opposition research against Trump.
The government, during closing arguments, reminded jurors of a key text message Sussmann sent to Baker on the night before his FBI meeting on Sept. 19, 2016. Durham’s team alleged Sussmann put his “lie in writing” in his Sept. 18, 2016, text to Baker.
Special Counsel John Durham departs the U.S. federal courthouse after opening arguments in the trial of attorney Michael Sussmann in Washington, May 17, 2022. (Reuters/Julia Nikhinson)
The text message stated: “Jim — it’s Michael Sussmann. I have something time-sensitive (and sensitive) I need to discuss,” the text message stated, according to Durham. “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.”
Baker replied, “OK. I will find a time. What might work for you?”
Durham’s team on Friday during closing arguments said that text message had “43 words” and said “20” of those words were “a lie.”
Sussmann did not testify in his defense.
The FBI, at the time of receiving the information from Sussmann, was already conducting an investigation into alleged connections between the Trump campaign and Russians. The code name for that investigation in the bureau, which eventually turned into Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, was “Crossfire Hurricane.”
The FBI, after receiving the data from Sussmann, went on to investigate whether there was a covert communications channel between the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank and found that there was “nothing there.”
Several current and former FBI officials and agents testified that the FBI was “unable to substantiate any of the allegations in the white paper.”
One official even testified that the white paper describing the DNS data on the thumb drives was drafted by someone who was “5150.” The official clarified on the stand that meant he believed the individual who came to the conclusion of a Trump-Russia connection “was suffering from some mental disability.”
James Baker, who served as FBI general counsel, left the bureau in 2018. (Official FBI photo)
Baker himself took the stand and testified that the FBI’s investigation “did not reveal there was some kind of surreptitious communications channel.”
“We concluded there was no substance. We couldn’t confirm it. We could not confirm there was a surreptitious communications channel,” Baker said, noting the investigation was “several weeks, maybe a month, maybe a month and a half.”
“There was nothing there,” he said.
Several high-profile witnesses took the stand in Sussmann’s trial, which lasted for more than two weeks.
Baker, and other former top FBI officials like former head of the bureau’s counterintelligence division Bill Priestap, and former deputy counsel Trisha Anderson took the stand, among others.
Former Clinton campaign general counsel Marc Elias, who worked with Sussmann at the law firm Perkins Coie in 2016, also took the stand and testified that he hired opposition research firm Fusion GPS on behalf of the Clinton campaign.
Elias also said that Fusion GPS at the time was doing work for the Democratic National Committee, related to its work for the Clinton campaign.
Attorney Marc Elias outside the Sandra Day O’Connor U.S. Courthouse in Phoenix, Arizona, on Aug. 3, 2016. (David Jolkovski for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Elias went on to testify that Clinton campaign officials, including campaign manager Robby Mook, campaign chairman John Podesta, policy director Jake Sullivan — who now serves as White House National Security advisor in the Biden administration — and communications official Jennifer Palmieri, were aware of the opposition research Fusion GPS was conducting against Trump.
Fusion GPS is the opposition firm which commissioned the now-infamous anti-Trump dossier, which contained allegations of purported coordination between Trump and the Russian government. The dossier was authored by Christopher Steele, an ex-British intelligence officer.
The Clinton campaign and the DNC funded the dossier through law firm Perkins Coie, where both Elias and Sussmann were employed at the time.
Former Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook testified that Hillary Clinton approved the leak of materials to the media alleging a back channel between the Trump Organization and Russia’s Alfa Bank. (Reuters/Brian Snyder)
The following day, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook took the stand and testified that Hillary Clinton herself approved the dissemination of materials alleging a covert communications channel between the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank to the media, despite campaign officials not being “totally confident” in the legitimacy of the data.
The prosecution had argued that the information was brought to the FBI, and shared with the media, as part of an effort to create an “October Surprise” against then-candidate Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Hillary Clinton and former President Donald Trump (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images | Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Sussmann’s trial was the first out of Durham’s years-long investigation into the origins of the Trump-Russia probe.
Durham was tapped in 2019 by Attorney General Bill Barr to investigate the origins of the FBI’s original investigation into the Trump campaign, which led to the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel.
At the time, Durham was serving as U.S. attorney for Connecticut.
Mueller’s investigation yielded no evidence of criminal conspiracy or coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian officials during the 2016 presidential election.
In October 2020, Barr appointed Durham as special counsel to ensure he would be able to continue his investigative work — regardless of the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
Special counsel Robert Mueller speaks at the Department of Justice in Washington, May 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
Durham has indicted three people as part of his investigation: Sussmann in September 2021, Igor Danchenko in November 2021 and Kevin Clinesmith in August 2020.
Clinesmith was also charged with making a false statement. Clinesmith had been referred for potential prosecution by the Justice Department’s inspector general’s office, which conducted its own review of the Russia investigation.
Specifically, the inspector general accused Clinesmith, though not by name, of altering an email about Trump campaign aide Carter Page to say that he was “not a source” for another government agency. Page has said he was a source for the CIA. The DOJ relied on that assertion as it submitted a third and final renewal application in 2017 to eavesdrop on Page under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
Clinesmith pleaded guilty in 2020.
Danchenko was charged with making a false statement and is accused of lying to the FBI about the source of information he provided to ex-British intelligence officer Christopher Steele for the anti-Trump dossier.
Danchenko’s trial is set to begin on Oct. 11.
A special counsel scope order states that Durham “is authorized to investigate whether any federal official, employee or any other person or entity violated the law in connection with the intelligence, counter-intelligence or law-enforcement activities directed at the 2016 presidential campaigns, individuals associated with those campaigns, and individuals associated with the administration of President Donald J. Trump, including but not limited to Crossfire Hurricane and the investigation of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller, III.”
Under U.S. code, the special counsel would produce a “confidential report” and is ordered to “submit to the Attorney General a final report, and such interim reports as he deems appropriate in a form that will permit public dissemination.”