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Clinton lawyer Elias: Michael Sussmann wasn't representing Hillary's campaign in FBI meeting

Laura Seago, a computer researcher for Fusion GPS, which contributed to the Trump opposition research, also testified Wednesday.

Published: May 17, 2022 11:13pm

Updated: May 18, 2022 10:14pm

Marc Elias, a top 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign attorney, testified Wednesday that he doesn't believe fellow and former campaign attorney and law firm partner Michael Sussmann was representing the campaign in the 2016 FBI meeting over which he's now in trial. 

Special Counsel John Durham has charged Sussmann with lying to the FBI, alleging that in meeting, weeks before the presidential election and in which he pitched the Trump-Russia collusion plot to the bureau without disclosing he was working for stakeholder clients.

Sussmann provided evidence at the meeting that purported to prove communications between the Trump Organization and Russia's Alfa Bank, a backchannel to the Kremlin.

Elias at the time was general counsel for the Clinton campaign and a partner with Sussmann at the Perkins Coie law firm.

Before the court recess Wednesday, the prosecution established through Elias' testimony that he had hired opposition research firm Fusion GPS for the Clinton campaign in spring 2016, when Donald Trump was emerging at the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.

Elias said that he had weekly in-person meetings with the firm and daily check-ins over the phone regarding its efforts and progress.

Most of what Fusion GPS focused on for the Clinton campaign was Trump-related litigation.

The prosecution asked Elias who knew of the relationship between Fusion GPS and the Clinton campaign.

Elias explained that it was largely on a need-to-know basis so as to prevent people in the campaign from reaching out to Fusion GPS without having attorney-client privilege and to prevent leaks from the law firm side from getting out to the public and hurting the client.

Prosecutor Andrew DeFilippis asked Elias about how Perkins Coie's clients were billed, setting up a framework for later questioning regarding Sussmann's alleged billing of the Clinton campaign for his meeting with the FBI.

Elias said that he believed a news story on the Trump-Russia allegation would benefit the Clinton campaign but that he didn't recall starting the story or the campaign deciding to take it to the press. He said he learned from Susssmann about the news story on the allegation.

The top Democrat election lawyer also said that going to the FBI with the allegations wouldn't have helped the campaign since the agency could slow it down by asking the news outlet to not publish the story or the publication might wait on the FBI before publishing it. Elias added that the FBI didn't do anything with stopping the release of the hacked DNC emails and that then-Director James Comey took unfair public stances against Hillary Clinton.

However, he did mention that the FBI could help a story move forward that gets "stuck." He explained that if the FBI could help speed up a story, then that would be beneficial to the campaign.

Elias also noted that an "October surprise" would take place in late October, right before the election. He said that he had hoped the New York Times article on the Trump-Russia allegation would have been published earlier than it was. Elias mentioned that he didn't leak the allegation to the press or the FBI investigation.

He also said that from his standpoint Sussmann didn't go to the FBI about the allegation on behalf of the Clinton campaign, and he believes Sussmann didn't tell him about the meeting until shortly after it occurred. Elias said that he did not tell Sussmann to go to the FBI with the allegation.

Elias was asked about calendar invites for meetings with Sussmann, Fusion GPS, and then-Neustar executive Rodney Joffe as they were compared to Sussmann's billing records to the Clinton campaign for those corresponding dates. Most questions regarding billing records came from the prosecution, as they were working to establish that Sussmann was billing meetings he had on behalf of the Clinton campaign, which the special counsel's legal team is alleging he did for the FBI meeting.

Former FBI General Counsel James Baker, with whom Sussmann met to give the information on the Trump-Russia allegation, also began his testimony on Wednesday, and is expected to complete it on Thursday.

Baker testified that he understood Sussmann to represent the DNC and Clinton campaign in cyber matters, but not political issues.

He also said that he was "not out to get Michael," whom he described as a friend and colleague, and that it was the prosecution's investigation, not his.

The prosecution on Tuesday night had listed at least five witnesses it intended to bring to the stand Wednesday, including Elias, fellow Clinton campaign lawyer Debbie Fine and Fusion GPS computer researcher Laura Seago.

Seago was prepared to invoke her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination if she was not granted immunity by the court, compelling her to testify at trial. Cooper granted Seago limited immunity and ordered her to testify at Durham's request.

She testified about her work at Fusion GPS researching Trump but said she was unaware of who the client was until after the election.

Seago said that she had met Sussmann once in summer 2016 at Perkins Coie in addition to Elias, Fusion GPS founding partner Peter Fritsch, and Sussmann's client, Joffe, regarding the allegations of the Trump Organization's secret communications with Alfa Bank.

She, Fritsch, and another Fusion GPS researcher also met with then-Slate reporter Frank Foer in fall 2016 prior to the election regarding the allegations as Foer was already investigating them.

Seago also worked on the Alfa Bank allegations directly with Joffe, who she said seemed knowledgeable about matters related to servers and was the one who suggested the potential contact between the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank servers.

She mentioned that she had no knowledge of the FBI investigating the allegations.

Fine, a Clinton campaign lawyer who worked for Elias, said that she worked with Fusion GPS regarding Trump-related litigation but was unaware of the Alfa Bank allegations.

The trial is being held in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia before Judge Christopher Cooper. The proceeding started Monday with the seating of 16 jurors, four of whom are alternates who will not be announced until just before jury deliberations.

Sussmann, a former federal prosecutor, has pleaded not guilty to the charge. If found guilty, he faces up to five years in prison.

In opening statements, the Durham team suggested Sussmann attempted to use his influence to manipulate the FBI and create an "October surprise" to swing the presidential race for Clinton over GOP nominee Donald Trump.

He is the first person to go to trial in Durham's probe into the origins of the now-discredited Trump-Russia collusion tale.  

On Tuesday, FBI Special Agents David Martin and Scott Hellman were the prosecution's first two witnesses, followed by Neustar employee Steve DeJong.

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