Jury to deliberate in trial of lawyer accused of lying over alleged Trump-Russia link

·Contributor
·6 min read

WASHINGTON — A jury began deliberating Friday in the federal criminal trial of Michael Sussmann, a prominent political and national security lawyer charged by a Trump-appointed special prosecutor with lying to the FBI over an alleged link between Donald Trump and a Russian bank.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers on Friday morning presented their closing arguments to jurors, who will now decide Sussmann’s guilt or innocence. Sussmann has denied the charges and strongly challenged prosecutors.

In an hourlong presentation summarizing special counsel John Durham’s case against Sussmann, prosecutor Jonathan Algor showed the jury documentation from Perkins Coie, the law firm where Sussmann worked, which in 2016 represented both Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee. DNC records show that the firm billed the Clinton campaign for meetings and other communications involving Sussmann during the summer and fall of 2016 that were related to what was described in the billing records as a “confidential” project.

Attorney Michael Sussmann, left
Attorney Michael Sussmann, left, departs the federal courthouse in Washington on May 17 after opening arguments in his trial. (Julia Nikhinson/Reuters)

On Sept. 18, 2016, Sussmann, who had once worked for the Justice Department and, due to his continuing involvement in national security cases, had his own FBI headquarters security pass, sent James Baker, a longtime friend who then served as the bureau's general counsel, a text message requesting a meeting to discuss “something time-sensitive (and sensitive).”

Sussmann told Baker he would be “coming on my own — not on behalf of a client or company — want to help the Bureau.”

The next day, Baker met with him at FBI headquarters for around half an hour.

In closing presentations to the jury, two prosecutors on Durham's team reviewed an extensive chronology of message traffic entered into evidence that showed Sussmann's firm repeatedly billing the Clinton campaign both before and after his Sept. 19 meeting with Baker for work related to the confidential project.

Hillary Clinton
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at a rally in Pittsburgh in 2016. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Baker, who testified during the trial as a prosecution witness, told the jury he was “100% confident” that during their meeting Sussmann had told him he was not contacting him on behalf of a particular client.

“I’m not here on behalf of any particular client,” Baker said Sussmann told him. During their meeting, Sussmann handed Baker memory sticks and a sheaf of printed documents outlining allegations about purported computer message traffic between Alfa Bank, a Russian financial institution owned by oligarchs close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the Trump Organization.

Baker and prosecutors did not produce any written notes of the meeting, which is the focus of Durham's indictment. Not long after the meeting, Baker contacted Bill Priestap, the FBI’s counterintelligence chief, to discuss Sussmann’s allegations. Baker testified he told Priestap that the issue Sussmann had raised was urgent and that Sussmann was not representing a particular client.

However, notes of the conversation taken by Priestap that were entered into evidence and cited by prosecutors during closing statements stated that Sussmann did represent the DNC. The FBI subsequently opened a full-scale investigation of the alleged Alfa Bank/Trump link, though investigators concluded before the November 2016 election that the allegations lacked substance.

Algor told the jury that less than 12 hours after meeting with Baker, Sussmann recorded 4.5 hours of work on written material and a confidential project. The prosecutor said that two months later, however, Sussmann moved to revise the billing records to show he billed the Clinton campaign 3.3 hours for work on that day.

Former FBI chief counsel James Baker
Former FBI chief counsel James Baker. (FBI)

Algor told the jury that defense lawyers were "going to try and convince you that this is a misunderstanding," but that jurors should reach the commonsense conclusion that given Sussmann's written message about not representing a client and Baker's testimony that no client was mentioned in their meeting, Sussmann's statement that he was not acting on behalf of a client was untrue.

Defense lawyer Sean Berkowitz described the prosecution's case and argument as a “giant political conspiracy theory,” asserting that because prosecutors lacked evidence, they were trying to misdirect the jury.

Berkowitz said that Sussmann had received what he believed was credible and reliable data from Rodney Joffe, a legal client of his who he viewed as an expert on the kinds of data systems at the center of the Alfa Bank allegations. Berkowitz said Sussmann provided the data to a New York Times reporter.

But he said there was a serious dispute between Sussmann’s defense and prosecutors over what Sussmann actually said to Baker during their Sept. 19 meeting. He said Baker had said on 116 occasions that he did not remember specifics of the conversation.

Michael Sussmann
Michael Sussmann. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Berkowitz said that Sussmann told Baker to take whatever action “you think is appropriate” and added, “There is a difference between having a client and going somewhere on their behalf.”

Berkowitz also noted that Clinton's 2016 campaign manager and Marc Elias, a Perkins Coie lawyer who was the top attorney for Clinton's campaign, both testified that they did not authorize or instruct Sussmann to take the Alfa Bank allegations to the FBI. “It wasn't in their interests for him to go,” Berkowitz insisted.

He asked how Baker could be 100% confident of what Sussmann did or didn’t say at their Sept. 19 meeting, at which he took no notes of what was said.

Responding to Berkowitz’s arguments, Andrew DeFillipis, another member of Durham’s prosecution team, told the jury that five months after going to the FBI, and after Trump had already been sworn in as president, Sussmann met with officials at the CIA about the Alfa Bank allegations, and told the agency he was “not representing a particular client.”

Special counsel John Durham
Special counsel John Durham, who is prosecuting Sussmann on charges that Sussmann lied to the FBI while providing information about allegations of communications between Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and Russia. (Julia Nikhinson/Reuters)

Judge Christopher Cooper asked jurors to consider the verdict but advised that he had to leave the courthouse Friday afternoon and indicated that no verdict in the case was expected to be announced, or possibly reached by the jury, until next Tuesday at the earliest.

The prosecution of Sussmann is the first case Durham’s team has taken to trial since it was set up late in the Trump administration. Last year, Kevin Clinesmith, a onetime FBI lawyer, pleaded guilty to doctoring an email that other officials used to justify spying on a Trump campaign adviser, and was sentenced to a year of probation.

False-statement charges brought by Durham are still pending against Igor Danchenko, a Russian who was a source for some of the allegations against Trump outlined in a controversial anti-Trump "dossier" prepared for Clinton campaign operatives by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele.