WASHINGTON (AP) — A lawyer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign who is charged with lying to the FBI early in the Trump-Russia probe sought to “use and manipulate” federal law enforcement to create an “October surprise” in the final weeks of the presidential race, a prosecutor alleged Tuesday at the start of his trial.
Michael Sussmann is accused of lying to the FBI during a September 2016 meeting by telling the bureau’s top lawyer that he wasn’t acting on behalf of the Clinton campaign when he presented information that he said might connect Russia to then-candidate Donald Trump.
“He told a lie that was designed to achieve a political end, a lie that was designed to inject the FBI into a president election,” Shaw said.
Sussmann’s trial is the first arising from special counsel John Durham’s investigation into the FBI’s original probe into Russian election interference and potential ties with the Trump campaign.
Sussmann misled the FBI into thinking that he was there as simply a “good citizen,” prosecutor Brittain Shaw told jurors, because he knew that if he was honest about his work for the Clinton campaign, the “FBI might not meet with him right away, let alone open an investigation.”
In presenting the information, Sussmann bypassed proper channels by going straight to his friend, the FBI’s general counsel, and concocted a lie that was designed to use the FBI as a “political tool,” Shaw said.
The information, computer data purporting to show furtive contact between computer servers of the Trump Organization and Russia-based Alfa Bank, was presented to the FBI after Sussmann had been unable to get a newspaper reporter to write about the material. The FBI did investigate the data but found nothing nefarious.
In early recognition of the politically loaded nature of the case, Shaw urged jurors to put aside any feelings they might have about Trump, Russia or Clinton.
“Some people have very strong feelings about politics and Russia, and many people have strong feelings about Donald Trump and Russia. But we are not here because these allegations involved either of them, nor are we here because the client was the Hillary Clinton campaign,” Shaw said.
Rather, she added, “We are here because the FBI is our institution. It should not be used as a political tool.”
Sussmann’s lawyers, who are to give opening statements later Tuesday, deny he lied but say the alleged misstatement isn’t relevant in any event since there’s no evidence that what the FBI knew or didn’t know about his political affiliations had any bearing on its decision-making about whether to investigate.
Durham was appointed in 2019 by then-Attorney General William Barr to look for any misconduct as the U.S. government was examining potential coordination between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign to tip the outcome of the election. An investigation by an earlier special counsel, Robert Mueller, did not find a criminal conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign though it did find that Russia sought to aid Trump’s election bid.
The Alfa Bank matter was a peripheral part of the FBI’s investigation and the allegations of furtive contact were not even mentioned in Mueller’s 2019 report.
Durham’s work has resulted in three criminal cases, but only the one against Sussmann has reached trial.
In 2020, a former FBI lawyer named Kevin Clinesmith pleaded guilty to altering an email related to secret FBI surveillance of an ex-Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page. In applying for warrants to eavesdrop on Page, the FBI relied on research files of anti-Trump information known colloquially as the “Steele dossier” that contained rumors and uncorroborated claims.
Last year, Durham charged a Russia analyst who was a source for that dossier with lying to the FBI about his own sources of information — among them, a longtime Hillary Clinton supporter. Igor Danchenko has pleaded not guilty. The case is pending.
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