Michael Sussmann’s jury begins to deliberate on FBI lying charges

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Prosecutors on Friday urged a jury to convict well-connected attorney Michael Sussmann, saying he believed he had “license to lie” at the FBI during the height of the 2016 presidential campaign. Sussmann’s defense attorneys have countered that the case against Sussmann was based on a “political conspiracy theory”.

In a case that reignited the bitter controversies of the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton presidential race, Sussmann is accused of lying to a senior FBI official when he delivered allegations of a secret communications channel between the Trump Organization and Russia-based Alfa Bank.

The case brought by special counsel John Durham accuses Sussmann of lying by claiming he did not bring the information to the FBI on behalf of a client, when he allegedly did so on behalf of two clients: the Clinton campaign and a technology executive, Rodney Joffe. .

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The trial marks the first courtroom test of the investigative work done by Durham, who was appointed by Trump administration Attorney General William P. Barr, to determine whether the federal agents who investigated the 2016 Trump campaign committed wrongdoing.

A conviction of Sussmann would be heralded by Trump and his supporters as validation of their claims that the FBI investigated the Republican flag carrier’s witch hunt before and after the 2016 election. An acquittal would likely fuel calls from the left for the Department of Justice to end the Durham mission.

The jury, which began deliberating around 1 p.m. Friday, is tasked with answering a fairly straightforward legal and factual question — whether Sussmann lied about his client and whether that lie was relevant to the FBI’s investigation. Over the course of two weeks of testimony, however, prosecutors argued that the case really involved a broader scheme by Clinton loyalists to use the FBI and reporters to launch a damaging last-minute revelation against Trump that would swing the election to Clinton. The FBI investigated Alfa Bank’s allegations and decided they were unfounded.

“You can see what the plan was,” Deputy Special Counsel Andrew DeFilippis told jurors in DC federal court. “It was to create a surprise in October by giving information to both the media and the FBI to get the media to write that there was an FBI investigation.”

“Under the law, no one has the right to lie to the FBI,” DeFilippis said. not Democrats.

Despite the trial’s frequent references to Clinton, Trump and other political figures, the prosecutor insisted that “this case is not about politics, it’s not a conspiracy, it’s the truth.” Sussmann lied, DeFilippis said, because if he told the FBI he was acting on Clinton’s behalf, the FBI was less likely to review his evidence or initiate an investigation.

Sussmann’s attorney, Sean Berkowitz, said the prosecution tried to spin a brief 30-minute meeting more than five years ago into a “giant political conspiracy theory”.

The defense attorney said there were many reasons to doubt the account of James Baker, the former FBI official who met Sussmann. Baker has offered various responses in the past about the reunion. During his trial testimony, in response to various questions, he said he could not remember 116 times.

“The days of political conspiracy theories are over, and now is the time to talk about the evidence,” Berkowitz said in a booming baritone. Dressed in a gray suit and black mask, Sussmann listened intently to the lawyers arguing over his fate.

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Prosecutors showed the jury emails, billing records from the law firm and even a Staples receipt for USB drives to link Sussmann to the Clinton campaign. But Berkowitz said much of the testimony showed the Clinton campaign didn’t want the Alfa Bank allegations taken to the FBI because they wanted a report on the matter and feared an investigation would complicate or damage the case. delay these stories.

“There’s a difference,” Berkowitz said, “between having a client and doing something on their behalf.”

He ridiculed prosecutors for painting nefarious efforts to dig up damaging information about Trump for a campaign.

“Opposition research is not illegal,” he said, adding that if it was, “the jails of Washington, DC, would be crawling.”

Berkowitz readily admitted that Sussmann spoke to reporters as part of his job, including reporters from the Washington Post and Reuters. He said prosecutors brought the case because they suffered from “tunnel vision” on two reports in Slate and The New York Times that appeared on October 31, 2016 and – he argued – had little insight. impact on the campaign.

“Is this the story? Is this the leak? Is this the conspiracy? Please,” Berkowitz said.

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The key witness in the trial was Baker, who met Sussmann on September 19, 2016, when Baker was working as the FBI’s top lawyer. Baker told the jury he was “100% confident” that Sussmann had insisted to him that he was not acting on behalf of a client and that if he had known he would have handled the meeting differently and maybe not even accepted the meeting at all.

Baker is the only direct witness to the conversation, and Sussmann’s attorneys have repeatedly challenged his credibility on this point, noting that in a previous interview, Baker said Sussmann represented cybersecurity clients; in another, he seemed to say he didn’t remember that part of the conversation. Prosecutors presented billing records from Sussmann’s law firm showing the time he spent on the matter as work on behalf of the Clinton campaign.

Baker, who now works for Twitter, said Sussmann also told him that a major newspaper – he later learned was the New York Times – was preparing to write about the allegations. This worried Baker: he knew that a report would likely shut down any suspicious communications, so he wanted the FBI to be able to investigate before an article appeared. Prosecutors say it was Sussmann himself who provided the allegations about Trump’s information to the Times.

“It would have worried me if there was an effort to play the FBI and drag us into the ongoing political campaign and make us a pawn in the campaign in some way,” said Baker. “It would have alarmed me, this connection to the press and if there were efforts to create a situation where the FBI would investigate this material and that the press – even if they could not determine the reliability of this material and did not couldn’t’ I wouldn’t report it – I could report that the FBI was investigating it.

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