Clinton OK'd leak to reporter about alleged Trump-Russia tie, her campaign manager says

Hillary Clinton personally approved leaking to the media information alleging a connection between Donald Trump and a Russian bank in 2016, which the campaign itself had not fully confirmed, according to testimony Friday by Clinton’s campaign manager.

Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign chief, said in federal court that as the campaign against Trump heated up in the late summer and early fall of 2016, Marc Elias, who was then a lawyer with the Perkins Coie law firm and served as the campaign’s top legal adviser, told Mook that “people with expertise” in cyberactivity had briefed the campaign on data alleging links between the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank, a Russian financial institution with ties to the Kremlin.

Hillary Clinton
Then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton leaves the stage at a debate with Bernie Sanders at the University of New Hampshire, Feb. 4, 2016. (Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images) (AFP via Getty Images)

Mook’s testimony for the first time puts Clinton in the middle of a leak to the news media that ultimately blew up in the campaign’s face. The FBI quickly determined that the purported connection between the Russian bank and the Trump Organization was implausible, and Michael Sussmann, Elias’s then law partner who brought the claims to the FBI, has since been indicted by Justice Department special counsel John Durham on charges he lied to the bureau’s general counsel to hide his connection to the Clinton campaign.

The account from Mook came on the fourth day of the trial of Sussmann, a cyber and national security law expert who worked at Perkins Coie in 2016. The closely watched case is widely seen as a major test for Durham, the longtime U.S. attorney in Connecticut who had been initially appointed by Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, to investigate alleged wrongdoing by the FBI and other federal agencies in the course of their investigation into alleged Trump-Russia ties.

Even though Durham’s prosecutors have yet to rest their case, the judge presiding over the trial, Christopher Cooper, permitted the defense to call Mook early since he was slated to leave the country for a previously scheduled trip. But the immediate impact of Mook’s testimony on the charge against Sussmann is unclear.

After learning about the Alfa Bank allegations, the source of which Mook said was unknown to him, Mook said his “recollection is we decided to give it to a reporter so the reporter could pin it down more.” He said the Clinton campaign itself did not have sufficient data or expertise to confirm the accuracy of the information itself.

Robby Mook
Robby Mook, campaign manager for Hillary Clinton, talks to reporters en route to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Oct. 28, 2016. (Brian Snyder/Reuters) (REUTERS)

After consulting with Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, Mook said he told Clinton that the campaign wanted to share the Alfa Bank information with the media and “she agreed to that.” One of the main purposes of giving the data to the media was so that a reporter could investigate and try to confirm it, Mook said.

The campaign subsequently did make the information available to Eric Lichtblau, then with the New York Times, as well as a reporter for the online magazine Slate. Mook, though, was vague about precisely who in the campaign’s “press department” did the leaking.

On Oct. 31, 2016, days before the election, Slate published a lengthy story about the purported Alfa Bank/Trump link under the headline “Was a Trump Server Communicating With Russia?” That same day, the New York Times published a story by Lichtblau and another journalist claiming that for much of the summer of 2016, the FBI had been pursuing a “widening investigation” of possible Trump links to Russia that included chasing a lead regarding a possible Trump/Alfa Bank communications link.

The Times, however, noted that the FBI “ultimately concluded that there could be an innocuous explanation” for the Trump/Alfa computer link.

Despite this apparent caveat, Hillary Clinton that day tweeted that “Computer scientists have apparently uncovered a covert server linking the Trump Organization to a Russian-based bank.” Campaign adviser Jake Sullivan also released a statement declaring, “This could be the most direct link yet between Donald Trump and Moscow.”

Attorney Michael Sussmann departs a federal courthouse.
Attorney Michael Sussmann departs a federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday after opening arguments in his trial. (Julia Nikhinson/Reuters) (REUTERS)

But while Mook’s testimony clearly established the Clinton campaign’s role in spreading the unsubstantiated Alfa Bank allegations, Mook may also have bolstered Sussmann’s defense that he approached James Baker, then the general counsel of the FBI, about the Alfa material on his own — and not as a lawyer for the Clinton campaign.

Mook said he had no knowledge that Sussmann had any involvement in commissioning, producing or circulating the Trump/Alfa Bank allegations. Elias, the general counsel for the campaign, had previously testified that he had no knowledge beforehand that Sussmann was taking the Alfa Bank material to the FBI and never approved his doing so.

In trial testimony on Friday afternoon, a retired CIA counterintelligence official identified only as Kevin P. testified that he and another CIA official met with Sussmann at CIA headquarters in February 2017 to discuss the Alfa Bank allegations.

He said Sussmann “said he was not representing a client” and also “made it clear” that although other lawyers at Perkins Coie did represent the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign, “such work was unrelated to his reasons for contacting the CIA.”

He said Sussmann had reached out to the CIA’s general counsel in September 2016, but that nobody got back to him, so he went through third parties, including a former CIA official, to arrange the February meeting. The CIA official said Sussmann told him he had previously contacted Baker at the FBI about similar but unrelated information.

The former CIA official said that at the meeting Sussmann was told by the CIA officials that it was likely the information he provided would be passed on to the FBI.