WASHINGTON — The special counsel appointed by President Donald Trump’s Justice Department to probe the Russia investigation has charged a prominent Democratic lawyer with making a false statement to the FBI by not disclosing he was working for multiple clients, including the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.
Special counsel John Durham charged lawyer Michael Sussman over a statement during a Sept. 19, 2016 meeting between Sussmann and the then-FBI general counsel, James Baker, at which Sussman told Baker about suspicions relating to alleged secret communications between the Trump campaign and Russia. The suspicions were later determined to be unfounded.
According to the indictment, “During the meeting, Sussmann lied about the capacity in which he was providing the allegations to the FBI. Specifically, Sussmann stated falsely that he was not doing his work on the aforementioned allegations ‘for any client,’ which led the FBI General Counsel to understand that Sussmann was acting as a good citizen merely passing along information, not as a paid advocate or political operative.”
“In fact, Sussmann acted on behalf of specific clients, namely a U.S. Technology Industry Executive, a U.S. Internet Company and the Hillary Clinton Presidential Campaign.”
The indictment says the lie was material because it misled the FBI “about the political nature of his work.”
President Joe Biden’s Justice Department allowed the indictment to go forward despite a written appeal by Sussman’s lawyers to Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Sussmann has resigned from his law firm, Perkins Coie, to focus on his defense, the firm said in a statement.
“Michael Sussmann was indicted today because of politics, not facts,” the statement said. “This case represents the opposite of everything the Department of Justice is supposed to stand for.”
“Stripped of its political bluster, innuendo, and irrelevant details, what is striking about the allegations in the indictment is how few of them actually relate to the charge the Special Counsel chose to bring. At its core, the Special Counsel is bringing a false statement charge based on an oral statement allegedly made five years ago to a single witness that is unrecorded and unobserved by anyone else. The Department of Justice would ordinarily never bring such a baseless case.”
The indictment says that Sussmann was advising the Clinton campaign in 2016 on cybersecurity matters, and that a partner at his firm served as general counsel for the campaign. It also says that Sussmann billed the Clinton campaign for his time when meeting with the tech executive to discuss the alleged links between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Sussmann’s lawyers have denied that he was working for the Clinton campaign during the 2016 meeting with the FBI’s Baker, a source familiar with the matter said.
Baker told investigators he remembered Sussmann saying he was not meeting him on behalf of any client. In 2017, Sussman told Congress that when he spoke to Baker he was representing an unnamed cybersecurity expert.
Durham, a former U.S. attorney for Connecticut, was appointed to examine how the FBI, the CIA and other agencies investigated Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and potential connections between Russia and the Trump campaign. He negotiated a guilty plea from an FBI lawyer who was sentenced to probation after admitting to lying on a surveillance warrant application.
The Sussmann meeting with Baker has been the subject of sworn testimony by both men before the House Intelligence Committee investigating the Trump-Russia affair. At the time, Sussmann represented the Democratic National Committee and was working on matters related to Russia’s 2016 hacking of its servers, according to his 2017 Congressional testimony.
At the Sept. 19, 2016, meeting, Sussmann passed along analysis by cybersecurity researchers who were asserting that obscure internet data raised the possibility of a secret communications channel between computer servers associated with the Trump Organization and Russia’s largest commercial financial institution, Alfa Bank, according to the source and to Sussmann’s House testimony.
At the time, the Clinton campaign was pushing the Alfa Bank story hard to the news media.
The FBI later ruled out the idea that Alfa Bank was involved in secret Trump-Russia communications, according to a bipartisan Senate report on the Trump-Russia affair.
A source familiar with the matter said Sussmann’s lawyers argued to the Justice Department that regardless of who he was representing, no statement he made to Baker met the test of being “material,” meaning that it influenced the FBI’s actions. The FBI would have investigated the Alfa Bank allegations either way, the lawyers argued, because the New York Times had been working on a story about them.
Typically, legal experts say, people prosecuted for false statements are witnesses or potential defendants who misled FBI agents investigating crimes, as was the case with Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and then was pardoned.