A federal jury delivered a major setback to special counsel John Durham, acquitting well-connected lawyer Michael Sussmann on a charge that he lied to the FBI in 2016 while acting on behalf of the Hillary Clinton campaign — a trial that sought to revive old controversies about the FBI’s role in that election.
Durham, the special prosecutor appointed during the Trump administration wasted three years and millions of dollars trying to find wrongdoing among federal agents who probed Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential campaign.
The jury acquitted Sussmann, 57, on a charge that he lied when he allegedly denied he was acting on behalf of any client in alerting the FBI to claims that a secret server linked Trump and a Moscow bank.
As alleged in the indictment, on Sept. 19, 2016, Sussman, a lawyer at a large international law firm, met with the FBI General Counsel at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. to provide certain data files and “white papers” that demonstrated a covert communications channel between the Trump Organization and a Russia-based bank.
Sussmann, who had previously represented the Democratic National Committee in connection with a cyber hack, informed officials that he was not bringing these allegations to the FBI on behalf of any client.
The verdict, coming after less than a full day of deliberations spread over parts of Friday and Tuesday, was not a close call or a hard decision, according to two of the jurors.
“Politics were not a factor,” the jury forewoman said. “We felt really comfortable being able to share what we thought. We had concise notes and we were able to address the questions together,” she said, declining to give her name as she left the courthouse.
U.S. District Court Judge Christopher Cooper said the jury deliberated for about six hours before acquitting Sussmann.
“Personally, I don’t think it should have been prosecuted,” she added, saying the government “could have spent our time more wisely.”
A second juror said that in the jury room, “everyone pretty much saw it the same way.”
During a two-week trial in federal court in Washington, Durham’s prosecutors argued that Sussmann was acting on behalf of the Clinton campaign and an internet executive when he took two thumb drives of data and white papers on the purported link to FBI General Counsel James Baker about six weeks before the 2016 presidential election.
Sussmann’s defense said the case was flawed on a variety of grounds, including that prosecutors could not prove with certainty exactly what the cybersecurity lawyer and former federal prosecutor said to Baker.
Sussmann’s attorneys also stressed that there was no evidence the Clinton campaign authorized Sussmann to go to the FBI, although he and researchers working for Clinton appeared to have spent an extensive amount of time dealing with the server allegations and were actively encouraging The New York Times to write about the issue in the closing weeks of the presidential race.
Durham also persuaded a federal grand jury to return an indictment in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia charging Igor Danchenko, 43, a Russian citizen residing in Virginia, with five counts of making false statements to the FBI.
Danchenko, who works as a Eurasia political risk, defense, and economics analyst, was a source for Orbis Business Intelligence which produced the dossier authored by Christopher Steele, a former head of the Russia Desk for the British intelligence agency known as MI6.
While the Steele dossier played a central role in the seeking of FISA warrants on Carter Page, it did not play any significant role in the intelligence community’s assessment of foreign interference in the 2016 election.
The Steele dossier was also not the trigger for the opening of the Crossfire Hurricane was the code name for the counterintelligence investigation undertaken into whether Trump or his associates were coordinating with the Russian government’s interference during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Trump was not personally under investigation until May 2017, when his firing of FBI Director James Comey raised suspicions of obstruction of justice, which triggered the Special Counsel investigation led by former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, who found evidence of both Russian interference in the 2016 election and obstruction of justice by the President.
“The first volume of the report details numerous efforts emanating from Russia to influence the election. This volume includes a discussion of the Trump campaign’s response to this activity, as well as our conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy,” said Mueller. “And in the second volume, the report describes the results and analysis of our obstruction of justice investigation involving the President.”