WASHINGTON — A federal trial begins Monday for a lawyer for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign who is accused of lying to the FBI as it investigated potential ties between Donald Trump and Russia in 2016.
The case against Michael Sussmann, a cybersecurity attorney who represented the Clinton campaign in 2016, is the first trial arising from the ongoing investigation by special counsel John Durham and will test the strength of evidence he and his team have gathered while scrutinizing the early days of the Trump-Russia probe for potential misconduct.
An acquittal is likely to hasten questions about the Durham probe’s purpose and cost to taxpayers while a guilty verdict will almost certainly energize Trump supporters who have long looked to Durham to expose what they see as biased mistreatment of the former president.
Sussmann is accused of misleading the FBI’s then-general counsel during a September 2016 meeting in which he presented research showing what he said might be a suspicious backchannel of communications between computer servers of the Trump Organization and Russia-based Alfa Bank.
Prosecutors allege Sussmann lied by saying that he wasn’t attending the meeting on behalf of any particular client when they say he was actually acting on behalf of two clients: the Clinton campaign and a technology executive who had helped assemble the computer data.
Durham’s team says that had the FBI been told the truth, it would have factored into the bureau’s assessment of the credibility of the Alfa Bank claims as it weighed whether to begin investigating. The FBI did look into the matter but ultimately found nothing suspicious.
Sussmann’s lawyers deny he lied but say the alleged misstatement isn’t relevant in any event since there’s no evidence that what the FBI knew or didn’t know about his political affiliations had any bearing on its decision-making.
Jurors will be selected in Washington’s federal court on Monday. In a nod to the politically loaded nature of the case, prospective jurors are being asked questions such as whether they voted in 2016 and whether they or anyone they are close with was involved in investigating potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Durham was appointed in 2019 by then-Attorney General William Barr to look for any misconduct as the U.S. government was examining potential coordination between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign to tip the outcome of the election. An investigation by an earlier special counsel, Robert Mueller, did not find a criminal conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign though it did find that Russia sought to aid Trump’s election bid.
Durham’s work has resulted in three criminal cases, but only the one against Sussmann has reached trial.
In 2020, a former FBI lawyer named Kevin Clinesmith pleaded guilty to altering an email related to secret FBI surveillance of an ex-Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page. In applying for warrants to eavesdrop on Page, the FBI relied on a dossier of anti-Trump research known colloquially as the “Steele dossier” that contained rumors and uncorroborated claims.
Last year, Durham charged a Russia analyst who was a source for that dossier with lying to the FBI about his own sources of information — among them, a longtime Hillary Clinton supporter. Igor Danchenko has pleaded not guilty. The case is pending and set for trial in October.