WASHINGTON – A lawyer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign was acquitted Tuesday of lying to the FBI when he pushed information meant to cast suspicions on Donald Trump and Russia in the run-up to that year's election.
The case against Michael Sussmann was the first courtroom test of special counsel John Durham since his appointment three years ago to search for government misconduct during the investigation into potential ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign.
The verdict marks a clear setback for Durham’s work, especially since Trump supporters have looked to the probe to expose what they contend was egregious bias by law enforcement officials who investigated the ex-president's campaign. The outcome is likely to hasten questions about the purpose of the inquiry and its cost to taxpayers, especially since the three criminal cases Durham has brought so far have fallen short of establishing any sort of sweeping conspiracy to frame Trump or derail his candidacy.
The jury deliberated for several hours Friday afternoon and Tuesday morning before reaching its verdict.
Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse after the verdict was delivered, Sussmann said he “told the truth to the FBI, and the jury clearly recognized that with their unanimous verdict today.”
He added, “Despite being falsely accused, I am relieved that justice ultimately prevailed in this case.”
In a separate statement, Durham said that though he and his team were disappointed in the outcome, they respected the jury's decision. He thanked the investigators and prosecutors on his team for their "dedicated efforts in seeking truth and justice in this case."
The trial focused on a narrow issue: whether Sussmann, a cybersecurity attorney and former federal prosecutor himself, concealed from the FBI that he was representing Clinton’s campaign when he passed along computer data that he said showed a possible secret communication backchannel between Russia-based Alfa Bank and Trump’s business company, the Trump Organization.
The FBI, which was already investigating potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, examined the data but quickly determined that there was no suspicious computer contact.
The FBI's then-general counsel and the government’s star witness, James Baker, testified that he was “100% confident ” that Sussmann had told him he was not representing any client during a September 2016 meeting the two men had.
Prosecutors alleged Sussmann was actually acting on behalf of the Clinton campaign and another client, a technology executive, and that he hid that information to make the data seem more credible and to boost the chances of getting the FBI to investigate. They pointed to a text message Sussmann sent to Baker the night before the meeting in which he requested a sit-down and said he'd be coming on his own and not on behalf of any client.
Lawyers for Sussmann denied to jurors that he lied, saying it was impossible to know with certainty what he told Baker in the meeting since they were the only participants and neither of them took notes.
They argued that though Sussmann legally represented the Clinton campaign, he didn't attend the meeting on the campaign's behalf and hadn't asked the FBI to take any action to benefit the campaign. They elicited testimony from former campaign officials who said Sussmann had not been authorized by the campaign to visit the FBI.
And they said that even if he did make a false statement, it was ultimately irrelevant since the FBI was already investigating Russia and the Trump campaign and, given the urgency of that probe, would have looked into the Alfa Bank data no matter the source.
Sussmann's lawyers, Sean Berkowitz and Michael Bosworth, said in a statement that Sussmann should never have been charged in the first place.
“This is a case of extraordinary prosecutorial overreach. And we believe that today’s verdict sends an unmistakable message to anyone who cares to listen: politics is no substitute for evidence, and politics has no place in our system of justice,” the lawyers said.
During the two-week trial, jurors heard from a slew of witnesses, including current and former FBI officials who described efforts to assess the legitimacy of the Alfa Bank data, ex-Clinton campaign aides and lawyers and colleagues and friends of Sussmann who vouched for his character.
Jurors were instructed to put politics aside, but Trump's supporters took note of the fact that the jury pool was taken from heavily Democratic Washington. The former president wrote on his social media platform that the legal system was “corrupt” and referenced the acquittal as one of several examples of “our country going to HELL.”
The original Trump-Russia investigation, overseen for two years by former special counsel Robert Mueller, found multiple efforts by Russia to interfere on the Trump campaign’s behalf but did not establish that the two sides had worked together to sway the outcome of the election.
After Mueller’s work was done, then-Attorney General William Barr named a new Justice Department prosecutor, then-Connecticut U.S. Attorney Durham, to examine whether anyone from the FBI or other agencies violated the law as the government opened its investigation into Russian election interference and the Trump campaign.
Durham has brought three criminal cases so far, though only one has been against a federal government employee — and none have undone the core findings of Mueller's investigation. The Alfa Bank matter, for instance, was peripheral to the Trump-Russia probe, with the since-discredited allegations not even warranting a mention in Mueller's 448-page report.
A former FBI lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, was given probation after pleading guilty in 2020 to altering an email related to secret surveillance of an ex-Trump campaign aide, and a Russian analyst, Igor Danchenko, who contributed to a dossier of Democratic-funded research into ties between Russia and Trump awaits trial this October on charges of lying to the FBI about his sources of information.
Follow Eric Tucker on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP