A federal jury acquitted a cybersecurity lawyer in the first trial of special counsel John Durham’s investigation into what sparked the FBI investigation into Russian election meddling in 2016.
The verdict was the first outside assessment of Durham’s three-year investigation. Durham has charged three men with lying to or for the FBI, one of whom has pleaded guilty and another who is awaiting trial.
When he reported concerns about communications between Russia-based Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization, Michael Sussmann was charged with lying to the FBI about whether he represented Hillary Clinton’s Democratic presidential campaign.
Sussmann told reporters outside the courthouse that the past year has been difficult for him and his family, but he thanked his legal team and the jury for their service.
“I told the FBI the truth, and the jury clearly recognized that today with their unanimous verdict,” Sussmann said. “Despite being falsely accused, I am relieved that justice was eventually served in my case.”
Because the 2016 election was less than two months away, the allegation had the potential to be incendiary. Former President Donald Trump claimed the FBI spied on his campaign and made baseless accusations to justify its surveillance.
Trump has claimed that the FBI and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigations were improper. However, the speed with which Durham’s investigation, which began under Trump and has already lasted far longer than Mueller’s 22-month investigation, has been widely questioned – including by Trump.
Federal prosecutors claimed Sussmann conveyed the allegations on behalf of Clinton’s campaign when he met with then-FBI general counsel James Baker on September 19, 2016.
“He told a lie to achieve a political goal, a lie to inject the FBI into a presidential election,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Brittain Shaw said.
“We respect the jury’s decision and thank them for their service,” Durham said in a statement. “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.”
Baker testified that he was “100% confident” Sussmann was not acting on behalf of a specific client.
“Michael is a friend and colleague of mine, and I believed and trusted that the statement was true,” Baker said.
The FBI quickly assessed the information and determined that there was no actual suspicious or covert contact between Russia and the Trump campaign. “There’s nothing there,” Baker said.
Sussmann, Clinton’s campaign counsel, denied lying to Baker. His attorneys stated that he made the allegations on behalf of no client and was simply passing along a tip.
“The FBI was aware that he was representing the Clinton campaign that summer,” defense attorney Michael Bosworth said. “The FBI knew that he was an attorney for the DNC, the Democratic Party itself.”
Sussmann, who did not testify, billed the taxi ride to the FBI building to his law firm at the time, Perkins Coie, rather than the Clinton campaign, according to defense lawyers.
Sussmann did not seek permission to visit the FBI, according to the campaign’s top lawyer, Marc Elias.
“I’m not sure I would have thought the FBI would give anything they thought was anti-Trump or pro-Clinton a fair shake,” Elias said.
In addition to Sussmann, Durham has charged a key source of information in the explosive 2016 Trump dossier with lying to the FBI.
Igor Danchenko, a Russian national and former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele’s associate, was charged with five counts of lying to investigators about the sources of information he provided to Steele.
Danchenko’s trial is set for October 11 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
In another case, Kevin Clinesmith, a former FBI lawyer, pleaded guilty to tampering with an email used to justify the surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page during the Russia investigation. Clinesmith was sentenced to one year of probation in January 2021.
Former Attorney General Bill Barr directed Durham in May 2019 to investigate allegations regarding the 2016 campaign’s investigations. Barr appointed Durham special counsel in October 2020, which ensured his work would continue under the Biden administration.