Sussman Trial: What to Know About Durham Probe

Russia’s efforts to help Donald Trump win the 2016 election are well established. Robert Mueller, Special Counsel to Russia, concluded that Russia attempted to undermine Hillary Clinton in order for Trump’s victory. The bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee panel which investigated the election also found Russia guilty. Russian operatives used social media accounts to sow discord and disinformation among the U.S. population and set in motion real-life rallies that helped Trump’s campaign. And Trump’s public embrace of Russia’s efforts are also well-known. During a news conference in July 2016, Trump publicly encouraged Russian hackers to break into Clinton’s email system. And on Oct. 10, 2016, after the website Wikileaks published emails stolen from Democratic National Committee servers, Trump said, “I love WikiLeaks.”

Over the years, some have leveled more sinister or salacious allegations against Trump that didn’t hold water. John Durham is the special prosecutor and has been investigating whether any law was broken by FBI agents or other FBI employees. His investigation led to the opening of a Washington trial that revealed details about allegations made against Trump by Democrats.

The trial has largely focused on the Sept. 2016 meeting where a Clinton lawyer and a tech executive made allegations about Trump’s contact with a Russian bank. After investigating the matter, the FBI dismissed them. But not before Clinton’s campaign told reporters the FBI was investigating. Durham claims that Clinton and no one else did it, however he also charges Michael Sussmann with lying to the FBI. He claimed Sussmann denied that he had ever represented any specific client, while giving the FBI the information.

These are all details about the incident.

What does Alfa-Bank mean?

Alfa-Bank is one of Russia’s largest banks. The bank had more than 20,000,000 customers in 2020 and assets of $60 billion. A tech firm with a pending federal contract to do forensic analysis of efforts by other countries to hack the U.S. government concluded there were suspicious contacts between Alfa-Bank computers and servers controlled by Trump’s businesses. The FBI investigated the allegations and the logs and concluded that there wasn’t evidence of such a link.

Michael Sussmann is who?

Michael Sussmann is a Washington, D.C. lawyer and a former prosecutor with the Department of Justice’s criminal division who had a meeting with a senior FBI official on Sept. 19, 2016, where he presented research that he said showed unusual computer traffic between Donald Trump’s business and Alfa-Bank.

Sussmann is being charged with lying to the FBI when he brought those allegations to the attention of the FBI’s top lawyer, James A. Baker. In that initial meeting, prosecutors allege that Sussmann told Baker that he wasn’t representing a client in bringing the information to authorities, when in fact he was representing the Clinton campaign and the technology executive who had helped compile the data analysis. Sussmann’s defense team denies Sussmann lied in the meeting. This case is currently being heard at Washington, D.C. federal court. It hinges on whether Sussmann revealed to Baker during that first encounter that he was representing clients.

How does all this relate to Hillary Clinton?

Prosecutors claim that Sussmann is part of an effort to discredit Trump during the week leading up to Election Day. Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager Robby Mook testified on May 20 that Clinton agreed with the campaign’s decision to tell reporters about the potential Trump-Russia internet connection.

Trump gave his voters ample reason to believe that he would welcome Russian help in defeating Clinton. On July 27, 2016, during a televised press conference, Trump looked into the cameras and encouraged the Russian government to intervene to find emails allegedly deleted from Clinton’s personal servers and make them public. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing, I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” That same day, Russian actors sent phishing emails to accounts used by Clinton’s campaign and office, special counsel Robert Mueller found.

Why is this important?

Sussmann is the first courtroom public display of what special counsel John Durham discovered during his investigation into whether federal officials improperly probed the 2016 Trump campaign. Trump’s former attorney general William Barr appointed Durham to launch the probe in October 2020, in the final weeks of the 2020 presidential election.

This investigation will reveal whether or not political operatives for Democrats could have influenced FBI investigations into Trump in 2016. In an effort to paint Trump as a traitor, the Clinton campaign is accused of trying to leak information to the FBI.

The FBI ultimately investigated the allegations of unusual transactions between Trump’s business and the Russian bank and found they were unsubstantiated.

The next steps?

The jury will determine if Sussmann was guilty of lying about the FBI at the conclusion of the trial. The verdict will be an important test of Durham’s investigative work. It will also reflect on the viability of prosecutors’ larger effort to show that the FBI was duped into chasing unsubstantiated and politically motivated leads in a coordinated effort to leak the investigation to the press and taint Trump.

Durham’s probe will face another test in the fall when the trial of Igor Danchenko is scheduled to get underway. Danchenko was the source of so-called Steele, an unsubstantiated report about Trump’s character that was funded through an opposition research campaign by Clinton. It was created by Christopher Steele, former British intelligence officer. It was presented as part of a request from a secret surveillance court. The FBI used the dossier to find possible links between Russia’s 2016 Trump campaign and Trump advisor Carter Page. Danchenko, who was charged with lying about the source of the information to FBI agents in November 2021 was indicted. Danchenko is charged with lying to FBI agents about where he got the information. Danchenko has pleaded not guilty.

Durham’s investigation raises questions about how far Democratic political operatives went in trying to encourage federal investigators to launch an investigation into Trump. It also shines light on the FBI’s handling of a sensitive election year investigation into a major political figure. But it doesn’t change the conclusion that Mueller reached through his earlier investigation, that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election in an effort to help Trump, and that Trump encouraged the Russians to do so.

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