Durham grand jury indicts Clinton lawyer in probe of Trump-Russia investigation

John Durham (Photo: Public Domain / US Attorney’s Office, Graphic: Ethanb822)

John Durham, the special prosecutor assigned with probing the US Government’s 2016 investigation into Russian election interference, has charged a Democrat-tied cybersecurity lawyer with lying to the FBI.

An indictment unsealed Thursday charged Michael A. Sussmann, a partner of Perkins Coie LLP in Washington, with one count of making a false statement to the FBI. The federal case against the lawyer comes as the second prosecution tied to Durham’s probe, which has been in action for two-and-a-half years.

The indictment accuses Sussmann of lying to the FBI during a 2016 meeting at the bureau’s headquarters between Sussmann and the bureau’s then-general counsel, James Baker. The indictment says Sussmann gave Baker three “white papers” and data files that allegedly contained evidence of a secret email server between the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank, the largest private bank in Russia.

During the meeting, the indictment claims, Sussmann hid from Baker that he was working for the Clinton campaign, leading federal authorities to “understand that Sussmann was acting as a good citizen merely passing along information, not as a paid or political operative.”

That alleged deception, the indictment says, was important because it misled the FBI and deprived them of information that could have “permitted it to more fully assess and uncover the origins of the relevant data and technical analysis, including the identities and motivations of Sussmann’s clients.”

The FBI eventually concluded that the communication server was owned by a mass marketing email company that hosted advertisements for Trump hotels and other clients, and concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support Sussmann’s allegations.

Sussmann’s lawyers said his indictment was politically motivated and not supported by facts.

“Stripped of its political bluster, innuendo, and irrelevant details, what is striking about the allegations in the indictment is how few of them actually relate to the charge the Special Counsel chose to bring,” Sean Berkowitz and Michael Bosworth said in a joint statement. “At it’s core, the Special Counsel is bringing a false statement charge based on an oral statement allegedly made five years ago to a single witness that is unrecorded and unobserved by anyone else. The Department of Justice would ordinarily never bring such a baseless case.”

In 2019, former Attorney General Bill Barr tapped Durham, then the US Attorney for the District of Connecticut, to oversee a Justice Department probe into the origins of the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The inquiry has been described as “investigating the investigators” who looked into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.

Durham’s probe, which scrutinizes the conduct of the FBI and CIA as well as private individuals, came as an answer to concerns raised by Trump and his supporters, who have accused the DOJ and FBI of illegally spying on the former president’s campaign. Democrats have called Durham’s probe a “cover-up” for Trump, and say it has been used to distract from the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team. The indictment unsealed Thursday doesn’t negate any of Special Counsel Mueller’s findings.

According to Special Counsel Mueller, who charged several Trump associates and campaign officials with crimes but didn’t find sufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy, Russia interfered in the election in a “sweeping and systematic fashion” that was welcomed by the Trump campaign, who expected to benefit from the efforts.

The Special Counsel determined that Russia meddled in the election in two ways. The first was through an online influence organization linked to Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Internet Research Agency (IRA). The organization conducted massive disinformation campaigns through social media in the United States to sow division between voters with an end-goal of influencing the election in Trump’s favor.

Those campaigns were conducted on networks including Twitter and Facebook, and focused on disparaging 2016 presidential candidates including Hillary Clinton. The IRA bought political advertisements, posed as US citizens, and attempted to communicate electronically with Trump campaign officials to set up rallies.

IRA-controlled twitter accounts amassed tens of thousands of followers, and had their content retweeted by US political figures. A Facebook representative testified in 2017 that the company had identified over 400 accounts controlled by the IRA that made over 80,000 posts and reached as many as 126 million people.

The second element was more complicated: it involved government-led computer hacking. The Special Counsel determined that individuals affiliated with Russian intelligence infiltrated computers and obtained emails from people affiliated with the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign through spearphishing, and publicly shared that information through third-parties such as WikiLeaks. Tens of thousands of emails documenting Clinton campaign communications were stolen, resulting in the indictment of several Russian military officers for conspiring to hack into government computers.

While a half-dozen Trump aides were charged with crimes as a result of the Mueller investigation, and several interactions were documented between them and Russians, investigators said they didn’t find enough evidence to charge any official with conspiring with Russia.

Until Thursday, Durham had only brought one charge against a low-level FBI lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, who altered an important email used to justify the surveillance of Trump campaign official Carter Page. Clinesmith pleaded guilty to making a false statement and was sentenced to probation.

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