A federal jury on Tuesday found Michael Sussmann, a former lawyer at a firm that represented Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 presidential campaign, not guilty of lying to a top FBI official over an alleged link between Donald Trump and a Russian bank linked to the Kremlin.
A jury foreperson told D.C. District Court Judge Christopher Cooper that jurors unanimously agreed to acquit Sussmann of the criminal charge. The courtroom reacted quietly to the announcement, and the judge then dismissed the jury.
The jury acquitted Sussmann of lying to the FBI about who he was representing when he presented the agency’s lawyer with data and documents raising questions about alleged dealings between the Trump Organization and Russia’s Alfa Bank.
In brief remarks to reporters while leaving the courthouse, Sussmann welcomed the verdict. "I told the truth to the FBI, and the jury clearly recognized that with their unanimous verdict," he said, adding that he was "relieved that justice ultimately prevailed in this case."
"I'm looking forward to getting back to work that I love," Sussmann said.
The verdict is a major setback for John Durham, the special prosecutor appointed by William Barr, Trump's attorney general, to look into the origins of federal investigations into alleged Russian interference in U.S. politics.
Durham, who sat in the courtroom during the trial, left the courthouse Tuesday without commenting to reporters. In a statement released by the Justice Department, he said: “While we are disappointed in the outcome, we respect the jury’s decision and thank them for their service. I also want to recognize and thank the investigators and the prosecution team for their dedicated efforts in seeking truth and justice in this case.”
The case, which is the first Durham brought to trial, presented dueling narratives about the early months of the FBI's investigation into Trump's ties to Russia and the role that Hillary Clinton's campaign played in feeding allegations — some of them unsubstantiated or since discredited — to the bureau.
According to prosecutors, Sussmann, a cybersecurity lawyer for the Clinton campaign, brought claims in September 2016 about a supposed pattern of computer messages between the Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization to the bureau's chief counsel in an effort to gin up an FBI probe that would serve as an "October surprise" that would damage Trump.
Prosecutors said Sussmann deliberately lied that he was not acting on behalf of any client when he was actually serving the interests of the Clinton campaign and another law firm client, cybersecurity researcher Rodney Joffe.
But the defense insisted that Sussmann went to the FBI as a public-spirited citizen who was genuinely concerned about the national security implications of potential communications between the Russians and Trump's business. (The FBI concluded that there was nothing nefarious about the alleged pattern of messages and that they may have been nothing more than computer spam.)
The key witness for Durham's prosecution team was James Baker, a longtime personal friend of Sussmann's who during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election was serving as the FBI's general counsel, or chief lawyer. Baker testified at the trial that Sussmann told him about the allegations during a meeting in September 2016 at FBI headquarters.
During the meeting, Sussmann handed Baker memory sticks and printed materials purportedly documenting the link between the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank. Baker testified, however, that he was "100% confident" that at the meeting Sussmann told him he was not presenting the allegations on behalf of a law firm client.
Arguing that Sussmann actually was acting on behalf of Clinton's campaign and his private cybersecurity client, prosecutors presented the jury with records from Perkins Coie, the law firm where Sussmann worked in 2016, which showed that the firm billed the Clinton campaign for meetings and other communications involving Sussmann during the summer and fall of 2016 that were related to what the billing records described as a "confidential project."
Baker and prosecutors did not produce any written notes of the meeting, which is the focus of Durham's indictment. In a conversation after the meeting with Bill Priestap, the FBI's counterintelligence chief, Baker testified that he told Priestap that the issue Sussmann had raised was urgent and that Sussmann was not representing a particular client.
Notes of the conversation taken by Priestap, which were entered into evidence, stated that, on the one hand, Sussmann told Priestap that he was "not doing this for any client." But Priestap then went on to note that Sussmann "represents DNC, Clinton Foundation, etc."
In the wake of Sussmann's meeting and Baker's conversation with Priestap, the FBI soon opened a full-scale investigation of the allegations Sussmann had presented to Baker, in which an FBI cybersquad based in Chicago played a major role. The field agents looking into the allegations concluded fairly quickly that the allegations of a serious link between the Trump Organization and the Russian bank lacked backup evidence.
Some witnesses said that if the FBI had known that the principal and original sources of the allegations had connections to the Clinton campaign or the Democratic National Committee, the bureau might have been more hesitant to launch a full-scale investigation.
Defense lawyers at one point indicated to Cooper, the judge, that Sussmann was considering testifying in the case, but ultimately he did not appear on the witness stand.
Durham's team told the jury that less than 12 hours after meeting with Baker, Sussmann recorded 4.5 hours of work on written material and a confidential project. But a prosecutor said that two months later, Sussmann moved to revise the billing records to show he billed the Clinton campaign for 3.3 hours work that day.
The defense team told the jury that Sussmann had told Baker to take whatever action he thought was appropriate. "There is a difference between having a client and going somewhere on their behalf," defense lawyer Sean Berkowitz argued.
In his instructions to the jury, Cooper said that in order to convict Sussmann of the offense, the jury must have been convinced by the evidence that he knowingly and willingly made a fraudulent or fictitious statement to Baker intended to deceive the FBI and that the statement was "material" to the FBI investigation.
Marc Elias, a Perkins Coie lawyer who was the top attorney for Clinton's campaign and was called as a prosecution witness, told the jury that he did not authorize or instruct Sussmann to take the Alfa Bank allegations to the FBI. Clinton's 2016 campaign manager Robbie Mook, who testified for the defense, also said he had not authorized Sussmann to tell the FBI about Alfa Bank and Trump.
Last year, Kevin Clinesmith, a onetime FBI lawyer, pleaded guilty after Durham charged him with doctoring an email that other officials used to justify spying on a Trump campaign adviser. Clinesmith was sentenced to only a year of probation.
A false statement indictment brought by Durham is still pending against Igor Danchenko, a Russian who was a source for some of the allegations against Trump, including allegations related to Russia, which were laid out in a controversial anti-Trump "dossier" prepared for Clinton campaign operatives in 2016 by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele.