Regardless of Sussmann verdict, trial shows feds' Alfa Bank probe was rooted in falsehoods, secrecy
Both FBI officials and political operatives contributed to the atmosphere of mistrust and deception surrounding the investigation into since-debunked allegations of a Trump hotline to the Kremlin.
Regardless of the verdict in the trial of Michael Sussmann, one constant has emerged: the FBI investigation of Trump-Russia collusion that Sussmann set in motion was rife with secrecy and falsehood.
Special Counsel John Durham charged the former Clinton campaign lawyer last year with making a false statement to the FBI when he allegedly told then-FBI General Counsel James Baker that he was not representing any client in relaying since-debunked allegations about a secret communications channel between Russia's Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization.
Durham's team believes it has presented evidence that proves Sussmann was in fact working on behalf of two clients at the time — the Clinton campaign and tech firm executive Rodney Joffe.
Sussmann has pled not guilty, but if convicted, he faces up to five years in prison.
Examples of falsehoods and concealment that have emerged in the court record over the course of the Sussmann trial include:
- Sussmann allegedly told Baker he was not representing any clients when bringing the Alfa Bank allegation. However, billing records show that Sussmann billed the Clinton campaign for what appeared to be various items related to the Alfa Bank narrative around the time he was pushing it to the FBI, such as calls and meetings with fellow Perkins Coie law partner Marc Elias and Joffe, calls with and regarding the media, work on white papers, and the purchase of thumb drives.
- Joffe, who was a confidential human source for the bureau at the time, allegedly gave the FBI the data about the allegation both through Sussmann and then-FBI agent Tom Grasso. Grasso, who had previously worked with Joffe on FBI investigations and considered him a friend, then passed the additional data along to the Chicago team that was investigating, bypassing Joffe's FBI handler.
- Baker has shown some inconsistency on the central question at issue in the trial — whether Sussmann was transparent with him about whether he was acting on behalf of a client. The defense noted in cross-examination that, in Baker's interview with the DOJ Office of the Inspector General, he said Sussmann had met with him on behalf of clients who were cybersecurity experts. Baker, however, explained that his statement to the OIG was "inaccurate," "imprecise," and a "mistake," but not a lie, as he was just summarizing what he said was already in transcripts from his testimony to Congress in October 2018.
- Baker did not disclose the source of the data underlying the Alfa Bank narrative to the FBI agents collecting it from him. One of those agents was FBI agent Scott Hellman, who found it frustrating that he wasn't told the identity of the source to aid in his analysis of the data.
- FBI agent Ryan Gaynor shielded the identity of the source behind the Alfa Bank story from the FBI Chicago Division team tasked with investigating it, claiming that FBI leadership had placed a "close-hold" on Sussmann's identity. Gaynor, however, did not initially tell the special counsel of the close-hold, prompting prosecutors to change his status in their investigation from a witness to a target. Gaynor later claimed that after reviewing his notes, he realized there was a close-hold and told the special counsel team, which changed his status back to a witness.
- FBI agent Curtis Heide, who is under investigation by the special counsel, testified that a "mistake" was made in citing a DOJ referral as the source of the Alfa Bank allegations in the document formally opening the FBI investigation of the claims. However, former FBI agent Allison Sands — a trainee under Heide at the time he assigned her to work on the investigation — said that she was informed the information came from a DOJ referral and only later found out it was from Baker, before eventually learning that an anonymous third party gave Baker the information. The document closing the FBI investigation into Alfa Bank says the underlying (or pretextual) data in the case came from a DOJ referral. Heide testified that it must have been mistakenly copied and pasted into the document.
- Both Elias, the 2016 Clinton campaign's top lawyer, and 2016 Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook claimed they would not have brought the Alfa Bank tale to the FBI because they didn't trust then-Director James Comey. However, the Clinton campaign trusted the FBI enough to share the Steele dossier with the bureau, as George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley has pointed out.
- Mook denied that taking the allegation to the media, a decision approved by Hillary Clinton, was an "October surprise," labeling that a "myth," despite the resulting article being published on Oct. 31, 2016. He allowed that the campaign wasn't "totally confident" in the allegation, yet decided to feed it to a reporter so they could look into it and decide whether to publish it.
The Facts Inside Our Reporter's Notebook
- making a false statement to the FBI
- working on behalf of two clients at the time
- Sussmann billed the Clinton campaign
- both through Sussmann and then-FBI agent Tom Grasso
- Baker explained that his statement to the OIG
- frustrating that he wasn't told the identity of the source
- "close-hold" from FBI leadership
- FBI agent Curtis Heide
- she was informed the information came from a DOJ referral
- didn't trust the FBI
- taking the allegation to the media