Michael Sussmann, an attorney who worked on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential election campaign, has come up short in his attempt to avoid going on trial for lying to the FBI. Sussmann, who was indicted by a grand jury in 2021, is being prosecuted by John Durham, the special counsel investigating the genesis of the FBI’s investigation into alleged links between former President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and the Russian government. The Clinton lawyer, it appears, may have played a role in the FBI’s decision to open an investigation into the Trump campaign. His indictment is highly significant, not because of what he’s being charged with, but because his part in the affair seems to validate the suspicion that the conspiracy theory involving the Russians and the 45th president was, in fact, fabricated by Clinton’s campaign to influence the outcome of the 2016 election.
Sussmann had already entered a plea of not guilty. Still, the case against him hardened after Durham alleged the lawyer sent a text message to then-FBI General Counsel James Baker, just weeks before the 2016 election, requesting a meeting to provide the FBI with evidence of a supposedly “covert communications channel” between Russia’s Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization. According to the special prosecutor’s court filings, Sussmann wrote in the text message, “I’m coming on my own — not on behalf of a client or company — want to help the Bureau. Thanks.” However, the attorney was at the time representing both Rodney Joffe, a tech executive, and the Clinton presidential campaign.
Sussmann worked at the Perkins Coie law firm – the same firm that paid former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele to procure opposition research on Trump for Hillary Clinton. What Steele put together came to be known as the Steele Dossier, which figured prominently in the FBI’s investigation and then Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe, both of which ultimately concluded there was insufficient evidence of any links between the Trump campaign and Russia.
In a motion to dismiss the case filed by Sussmann’s defense team, the lawyer argued that even if he had made a false statement to the FBI regarding his motives for approaching the Bureau, it did not merit a criminal charge. Whether lying to federal investigators constitutes a crime rests upon the definition of a “materially false statement,” which is defined as a statement that has “a natural tendency to influence, or is capable of influencing, either a discrete decision or any other function of the [government] agency to which it was addressed.” Sussmann claims his false statement, which he denies making, was not material, in that it was not capable of having any meaningful impact on the FBI’s decision whether to investigate the Trump campaign or not.
On April 13, US District Judge Christopher Cooper, in a six-page opinion, rejected the motion to dismiss, and Sussmann’s trial is slated to begin on May 16. In a nutshell, Cooper pointed out that the government’s (Durham’s) evidence must be heard before the court can decide on Sussmann’s alleged statement – the very purpose of the trial is to determine whether the account in question was “materially false.”
For his part, Durham argues the FBI might have taken an entirely different approach to the Trump-Russia conspiracy theory had officials been aware that Sussmann was working on behalf of the Clinton campaign rather than just acting as a “concerned citizen,” which is how the lawyer portrayed himself. Additionally, Durham observed, had Sussmann revealed his connection to Joffe, “the FBI likely would have asked certain questions and conducted interviews during the investigation that would bear directly upon the information’s reliability and/or [Joffe’s] motivation in providing the information.” Durham has gathered evidence that Joffe directed a team of researchers to scour computer data mined from Trump Tower for a way to essentially invent a connection between Trump and Alfa Bank. The data was allegedly manipulated and provided to Sussmann, who, in turn, passed it to the FBI.
It is not clear who else, if anyone, could also be indicted as a result of Durham’s investigation – nor is it known when the special counsel will wrap up his work. Michael Sussmann may or may not be convicted, but the outcome of his trial, either way, will stir the 45th president’s followers – and, of course, will keep the name Trump in the news through the November elections and beyond.