Trial Set to Test Special Counsel Investigation, 2016 Trump Accusations

A trial will begin Monday on whether a lawyer with ties to the Democratic Party lied to the FBI in 2016 in what could be the first major test for John Durham, the special counsel appointed during the Trump administration to investigate the former president’s allegations. of a conspiracy to undermine his campaign.

Michael Sussmann, a former partner at the Perkins Coie law firm, is accused of making false statements to the FBI’s top lawyer during the 2016 campaign when he provided the bureau with data that allegedly showed links between Trump and a Russian bank.

The Durham office alleges that Sussmann, who represented the Hillary Clinton campaign and was a cybersecurity investigator at the time, falsely claimed he did not represent any particular client when he met with then-FBI General Counsel James Baker. , in September 2016.

The FBI investigated Sussmann’s evidence — internet data purportedly showing a line of communication between the Trump Organization and Russia’s Alfa Bank — and found nothing to support the allegations.

The trial will focus on the question of whether Sussmann lied when he said his clients did not give the FBI the tip, and if he did, whether that lie was material in the sense that it affected how the federal police conducted the investigation. research.

In the September indictment, prosecutors wrote: “Sussmann’s lie was material because, among other reasons, Sussmann’s false statement misled FBI General Counsel and other FBI personnel about the political nature of their work and deprived the FBI of of information that could have allowed it. more fully to assess and uncover the sources of relevant data and technical analysis, including the identities and motivations of Sussmann customers.”

Last month, prosecutors from the special counsel’s office released a text message that Sussmann, a former federal prosecutor, had sent to Baker the night before their meeting, in which he wrote: “I am here on my own, not on behalf of anyone.” of a client. or company, wants to help the Office”.

The new evidence will likely bolster Durham’s prosecution at trial, but legal experts say the case is far from a resounding success.

Jeff Robbins, a former federal prosecutor who now represents subjects of government investigations in private practice, says there are a number of hurdles the special counsel’s prosecutors will have to overcome at trial, including convincing a jury that Sussmann affected materially the FBI investigation. supposedly hiding the political nature of his work.

Robbins added that Sussmann’s and his firm’s known connections to Democrats could make it difficult for the prosecution to argue that the FBI was misled into thinking the attorney was offering information untainted by 2016 presidential campaign politics.

“A question to work with if you are the defense is why would a former federal prosecutor lie to the FBI and make a statement, which was patently false, if you believe the prosecution’s version of what he said, when he would be at a minimal subject. to serious doubts with a second of google of your law firm? Robbins said.

“It is almost impossible to believe that the FBI’s general counsel believed that a Perkins Coie associate had no ties to the Clinton campaign or the Democratic Party when they were known to represent them,” he added.

Sussmann’s defense team maintains he committed no crime and has said it will present hundreds of internal FBI emails at trial that show the bureau was well aware of his political clients.

The case of political implications surely looms over the case for the next two weeks.

Trump Attorney General William Barr turned to Durham as early as 2019 to investigate the origins of the FBI investigation into alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Barr appointed Durham as special counsel in October 2020, allowing him to continue the investigation as the Biden administration began.

Trump’s opponents have criticized the Durham investigation as a politically motivated effort to back up the former president’s accusations that his 2016 campaign was haunted by a “deep state” conspiracy by Democratic officials and law enforcement to smear him with baseless claims of Russian collusion.

The Durham investigation appears to be ongoing and has outlasted the special counsel investigation of Robert Mueller. Sussmann is one of three defendants who have been charged as a result of the investigation and is the first to go to trial.

The case will have a lot at stake for both Sussmann, who faces a maximum possible prison sentence of eight years if convicted, and the Durham investigation.

“I think if he loses this case, it will be a huge blow to his reputation and to the company,” Robbins said.

And the decision to indict Sussmann had already drawn attention among legal commentators because it involved a one-on-one meeting that was not recorded and had no other witnesses.

Gene Rossi, who served as a federal prosecutor for nearly 30 years, said the prosecution is questionable in part because it risks pitting one individual’s account of a private meeting against another.

“You do not have audio. You don’t have video. You have no contemporary notes. You just have Michael Sussmann versus Baker in a meeting in September 2016. That’s not a strong case,” Rossi said. “They are going to go to trial for something that was said almost six years ago.”

But he added that there is an opportunity for Durham prosecutors to build a narrative of political deception in court that a jury might find persuasive.

“When you have a jury trial, nothing is guaranteed, so neither party should feel safe going into this trial,” Rossi said.

–Updated May 16 at 5:48 am

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