Jury deliberations began Friday in the case of Michael Sussmann, a former lawyer for Hillary Clinton's campaign who is charged with lying to the FBI in hopes of orchestrating an "October surprise" against Donald Trump during the 2016 election.
The two-week trial in Washington, D.C., is the first arising from special counsel John Durham’s investigation into the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation.
An acquittal would be likely to hasten questions about the Durham probe’s purpose and cost to taxpayers, while a guilty verdict could energize Trump supporters who have long looked to Durham to expose what they see as biased mistreatment of the former president. The special counsel's probe began during the Trump administration.
In closing arguments Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Algor told jurors Sussmann "used his privilege as a high-powered Washington lawyer, as a former DOJ prosecutor, and as a friend ...to bypass normal channels and to expedite a meeting with the FBI’s [now former] general counsel" James Baker.
Sussmann, a cybersecurity lawyer, provided Baker with obscure internet data indicating a possible communications channel between computer servers associated with the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank, Russia’s largest commercial financial institution. The FBI later determined Sussmann’s concerns were unfounded.
Prosecutors said Sussmann told Baker during the September 2016 meeting that he wasn't passing on the information on behalf of any client, and was doing so simply as a concerned citizen. Algor told jurors that Sussmann withheld crucial information from Baker: He was representing both the Clinton campaign and Rodney Joffe, the technology executive who oversaw research into Alfa Bank.
“This is nothing related to national security. This is pure opposition research” designed to damage Trump in the waning days of the presidential campaign, Algor said.
Algor went on to say Baker might not have taken the September 2016 meeting if he had been informed about Sussmann's ties to the Clinton campaign — suggesting the lie was important because it led the FBI wasting its time with an investigation into the alleged Trump-Alfa Bank connection.
“You should return the only verdict supported by the evidence in this case: Guilty,” Algor said.
Sussmann's lawyer, Sean Berkowitz, told jurors, "This is a case about misdirection." He said Baker's story about what Sussmann told him has changed over the years, and stressed Baker hadn't taken notes during the meeting.
“If Mr. Baker took notes, maybe we wouldn’t be here today,” Berkowitz added.
Baker testified during the trial that he was "100 percent confident" that Sussmann told him he wasn't requesting a meeting on behalf of any client.
Berkowitz was skeptical of that claim, noting the meeting took place more than five years ago. He also said Baker's legal work for the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign was well-known by the FBI, and they'd had other meetings with Sussmann about Russia's hack of the DNC during the 2016 campaign.
Nevertheless, Berkowitz said, Sussmann was not acting on the campaign's behalf — particularly because the campaign was already furious with the FBI over its well-publicized investigation into Clinton's emails.
He also said Sussmann hadn't asked Baker to do anything on his behalf, and that he was merely passing on his concerns.
“Opposition research is not illegal. If it were, the jails of Washington, D.C., would be teeming over,” Berkowitz said.