A slew of current and former FBI officials are slated to take the stand in a trial set to begin Monday of former Clinton campaign attorney Michael Sussmann, offering testimony that could lay bare the FBI’s eagerness to seize on unverified anti-Trump political dirt.
Special counsel John Durham, who is investigating the FBI’s handling of the Trump-Russia collusion accusations, has charged Mr. Sussmann with lying to the FBI.
Prosecutors say Mr. Sussmann lied to the FBI in 2016 about acting on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign when he handed over now-debunked information linking Donald Trump to Russia‘s Alfa Bank. Mr. Sussmann billed the Clinton campaign for the September 2016 meeting with the FBI, according to court documents.
Both sides plan to call a handful of FBI agents and introduce notes and other internal bureau documents. The evidence threatens to put the FBI on trial, at least in the court of public opinion.
“At its heart, this is a simple case: Did Sussmann lie to the general counsel of the FBI? Anything beyond that and the FBI’s credibility is going to be at stake,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative government watchdog group.
At least 10 FBI officials are expected to take the stand in the case, evenly split between prosecution and defense witnesses. The number of FBI officials testifying in one case is unusual, said Lew Schiliro, who used to run the bureau’s New York office.
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“An agent can be called as a defense witness, but it’s not a regular thing,” he said. “Most of the time, the agent is a prosecution witness.”
Prosecutors will also call two CIA officials who will testify that Mr. Sussmann pitched them similar accusations in early 2017 after Mr. Trump became president.
The case has upended the traditional partisan narratives surrounding the FBI’s actions investigating claims of Mr. Trump’s ties to Russia.
Mr. Durham, a holdover from Trump administration Attorney General William P. Barr, is portraying the FBI as innocent dupes while defense attorneys representing a Clinton campaign official are arguing that the FBI was inept and incurious.
Prosecutors say Mr. Sussmann’s lie spurred the FBI to spend time and resources investigating anti-Trump claims that proved to be unfounded. The FBI concluded that the communications were simply marketing emails, and special counsel Robert Mueller concluded that there was no evidence to support the Alfa Bank claims.
As they tell it, Mr. Sussmann met with the FBI to mislead them into investigating Mr. Trump. That enabled the Clinton campaign to peddle Alfa Bank stories to the media ahead of a presidential election with a hook that Mr. Trump was under federal investigation.
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“The strategy was to create news stories … to get the government to investigate … and get to the press to report the government was investigating,” prosecutor Andrew DeFilippis said in court last week.
That has put the defense in the awkward position of arguing that the FBI was fully aware of Mr. Sussmann’s ties to the Clinton campaign but plowed ahead without giving his accusations extra scrutiny.
Defense attorneys say they have more than 300 emails and a note from a March 2017 Justice Department meeting that show the FBI knew of Mr. Sussmann’s Democratic ties.
At best, the defense counsel paints the FBI as incurious, willing to move on the anti-Trump accusations without vetting them first.
Michael Bosworth, a Sussmann defense attorney, wondered aloud in court last month why the FBI didn’t ask more questions of his client. He said the investigators had opportunities to ask about Mr. Sussmann‘s ties to the Clinton campaign and the data he handed over to the FBI.
“Our position is there was never a question that was put to him that required him to answer, ‘Here’s my relationship with the Clinton campaign,’ nor has the special counsel identified any free-standing obligation to disclose any relationship with the Clinton campaign,” Mr. Bosworth said.
When prosecutors later accused Mr. Sussmann of concealing concerns about the internet traffic tying Mr. Trump to Alfa Bank, Mr. Bosworth again asked why the FBI didn’t probe deeper. He noted that officials weren’t interested to know the source of the data.
“A simple question that could have been asked is, ‘Who are the cyberexperts?’” Mr. Bosworth said.
Mr. Fitton said the case presents a conundrum for the FBI because, to defend itself, it would have to argue that “individuals running the FBI didn’t know what was up and what was down.”
The purported evidence Mr. Sussmann presented of covert communication between Mr. Trump and Alfa Bank was investigated by the FBI, which concluded the claims were meritless.
Investigators said the internet traffic between the bank and the Trump Organization was merely marketing.
Mr. Mueller also found no evidence to support Mr. Sussmann’s accusations. He told Congress it simply wasn’t true.
The trial, which is expected to last two weeks, is the first for Mr. Durham and his three-year probe.
Mr. Trump and other conservatives have cheered Mr. Durham’s work, which has racked up three indictments and one guilty plea.
Former FBI attorney Kevin Clinesmith pleaded guilty in 2020 to altering an email used to apply for surveillance warrants for Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. He was sentenced to probation in the case brought by Mr. Durham.
Igor Dancehnko, a key source for former British spy Christopher Steele’s anti-Trump dossier, is also facing charges arising from Mr. Durham’s investigation. He is accused of lying to the FBI about how and where he got information for the dossier, a collection of unverified and salacious claims tying Mr. Trump to Russia.
Some conservatives, including Mr. Fitton, have criticized Mr. Durham for slow-walking the investigation and wasting a lot of time pursuing weak cases. They gripe that three years of work should have produced more than one minor guilty plea resulting in probation.
“Based on Durham’s filings, the Clinton campaign was clearly involved in a criminal conspiracy to target Trump, but rather than going after the big dogs, Durham is trying to walk around it,” Mr. Fitton said.
That makes the Sussmann trial a large test to see whether Mr. Durham can shed any new light on the Clinton campaign’s efforts to smear Mr. Trump. It remains to be seen how a Washington jury will view Mr. Durham’s work.