A federal grand jury has indicted cybersecurity lawyer Michael Sussmann as part of a special counsel’s probe into the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation, alleging he lied to the FBI general counsel.
The indictment comes as special counsel John Durham is nearing the conclusion of his more than two-year-long probe and faces a looming deadline on whether to seek charges over the handling of evidence used in the probe, according to people briefed on the matter.
According to the indictment, Sussmann — a prominent cybersecurity lawyer whose law firm Perkins Coie worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign — lied at a September 2016 meeting with then-FBI General Counsel James Baker in which Sussmann shared information about possible connections between the Trump Organization and a Russian bank.
Sussmann told Baker he wasn’t working on behalf of any client, yet prosecutors allege he was representing the Clinton campaign as well as a tech industry professional who had provided the server data, according to the indictment.
Prosecutors allege Sussmann repeated the lie to other government employees.
An FBI investigation didn’t find evidence of surreptitious communications between the Russian Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization, according to a Senate Intelligence Committee report. And the bank and the Trump Organization have denied the claims.
The provenance of a thumb drive provided to the FBI by Sussmann has been a major focus of the probe, the people briefed on the matter said.
The drive contained information about possible connections between Trump’s company and a Russian bank.
The FBI investigated the claims that servers in Trump Tower were communicating with servers belonging to Alfa Bank, a Russian bank, as part of the broader investigation of ties between Trump campaign associates and Russians.
Former Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report didn’t discuss the Alfa Bank claims and when asked about it during a House hearing in 2019, Mueller said he believed the claims weren’t true.
Sussmann’s legal team learned about three weeks ago that Durham investigators are preparing to seek an indictment against him, according to the person familiar with the case, for allegedly making a false statement during a 2016 meeting with then-FBI General counsel James Baker on the Alfa Bank matter.
Sussmann’s team appealed that decision to Justice Department leadership, which is possible in a case like this, but was rejected. An indictment could come as early as Thursday, according to the person familiar with the case.
The plans to seek an indictment were first reported Wednesday by The New York Times.
Attorneys for Sussmann said in a statement to CNN on Wednesday night that he had committed no crime and if he were to be charged, he would go to trial to “vindicate his good name.” The attorneys, Sean Berkowitz and Michael Bosworth, noted that Sussmann has served in the Justice Department during Democratic and Republican administrations.
The Perkins Coie law firm, working for the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party in 2016, paid the research company Fusion GPS to produce a series of reports from a former British intelligence operative detailing connections between Russians and Trump and his associates.
Separately, a group of cyber experts in 2016 said that they had analyzed thousands of unexplained computer connections between Alfa Bank and Trump Organization servers, and the claims made their way to the FBI through various intermediaries, including Sussmann.
Durham’s probe falling short of Trump’s expectations
Durham was appointed by then-Attorney General William Barr in early 2019 to pursue Trump’s and Barr’s suspicions that the FBI and US intelligence agencies had committed wrongdoing in their pursuit of the Trump-Russia investigation. In a review that has now lasted longer than Mueller’s investigation, Durham largely has failed to deliver what Trump wanted.
The former President publicly said he wanted charges against former top FBI and intelligence officials and that he expected Durham to present a public report before last year’s election.
After initially examining the role of the intelligence community in the Russia investigation and finding no wrongdoing, according to Barr, Durham turned his sights back to reexamining the FBI, which already has been the subject of a scathing inspector general report that found multiple missteps by the bureau.
Durham brought a relatively minor case last year against a former FBI lawyer who admitted to falsifying information used to obtain a surveillance warrant against a former Trump campaign associate, Carter Page, but there was no big October surprise from Durham as Trump expected. That failure, in Trump’s eyes, added to tensions between Barr and the then-President in the closing months of the Trump presidency, former administration officials say.
Final stages of Durham probe
As part of Durham’s appointment as special counsel, he is expected to produce a final report to Attorney General Merrick Garland, with the intent that at least some of it will be made public.
The Durham probe is in its closing stages, people briefed on the matter said, and a possible deadline on any charges looms.
Sussmann met with Baker on September 19, 2016, to hand over the thumb drive with some of the Alfa Bank claims. There is generally a five-year time limit, or statute of limitations, on bringing charges in certain nonviolent crimes. This means that if Durham plans to bring charges alleging that a crime occurred in the handover of the Alfa Bank information, the five-year time limit expires as soon as this weekend.
The possible false statement charges arise from Sussmann allegedly telling Baker in the 2016 meeting that he was not meeting him on behalf of any client, the person familiar with the case said.
At the time, Sussmann was representing both a cybersecurity expert who had provided him the data and the Clinton campaign. He has maintained, including in his own congressional testimony, that he met with Baker on behalf of the cybersecurity client.
The Clinton campaign hadn’t directed Sussmann to meet with Baker, Sussmann’s legal team argued to Durham, the person familiar said.
Baker testimony to Congress
Baker also testified to Congress in October 2018 that he knew Sussmann had gotten the information he was sharing from cyber experts. Baker told Congress he didn’t remember Sussmann “specifically saying that he was acting on behalf of a particular client.”
Sussmann’s attorneys, Berkowitz and Bosworth, said in their statement: “Any prosecution here would be baseless, unprecedented, and an unwarranted deviation from the apolitical and principled way in which the Department of Justice is supposed to do its work.”
Durham’s investigators have interviewed Baker and other former FBI officials about the information Sussmann provided, people briefed on the matter told CNN.
Durham has been presenting evidence to a grand jury as part of his investigation, CNN previously reported. One witness who has provided testimony in recent weeks told CNN that based on the questions asked, they believe Durham plans to seek charges over the handling of the Alfa Bank matter.
At the time of the Sussmann meeting with Baker, the FBI had already opened the probe of ties between Russians and Trump campaign associates. It’s not unusual for outsiders to provide information for the FBI to investigate.
An attorney for Baker declined to comment. Spokesmen for the Justice Department and Durham also declined to comment.
This story has been updated with the indictment of Sussmann.
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