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Defense rests in trial of Democrat-linked lawyer accused of lying to FBI

Michael Sussmann faces up to five years in prison if he is convicted of making a false statement to the FBI during a meeting about possible ties between Trump and Russia.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The defense team for Michael Sussmann rested its case on Thursday after announcing that the Democrat-linked lawyer will not testify in his trial, which stems from Trump-era special counsel John Durham’s three-year investigation into the FBI’s 2016 Trump-Russia collusion probe. 

Sussmann, who served as a federal computer crimes prosecutor for 12 years, is accused of falsely stating that he was not representing “any particular client” when he met with then-FBI General Counsel James Baker in 2016 and provided him with data files allegedly containing evidence of secret communications between Russia’s Alfa Bank and then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. 

In resting its case on Thursday, the defense read transcripts into evidence from a March interview, in which Baker told prosecutors that Sussmann's Sept. 18, 2016, text saying that he wanted to meet “on his own and not for a client,” was not a significant factor in his decision to meet Sussmann the next day.  

Baker told investigators he “ordinarily” would have asked his then-executive assistant, Deborah Fine, to schedule a meeting. But Sussmann’s comment that he wanted to meet about a “sensitive” and “time sensitive” matter, coupled with Sussmann’s credibility as a former federal computer crimes prosecutor, is what Baker says prompted the decision to meet his ex-colleague one-on-one the following day at FBI headquarters in Washington.  

That interview was the focus of the defense team’s cross-examination of Baker last week, in which the FBI’s former top lawyer testified that he does not remember telling prosecutors, less than two months ago, that Sussmann's no-client comment did not "factor heavily” his decision to meet.  

“Sitting here today, I don’t recall telling them that,” Baker said. 

His reported comments in the March interview contradict one of prosecutors’ main arguments: that the no-client comment was material to, or had a significant impact on, the FBI’s decision-making process regarding whether to investigate the Trump-Alfa Bank information. 

Prosecutors allege Sussmann — who was working at Perkins Coie law firm as legal counsel for both the Hillary Clinton campaign and cybersecurity expert Rodney Joffe in 2016 — was in cahoots with the firm and the campaign to release an "October surprise" to damage the Trump campaign.

Durham's team claims Sussmann helped assemble the Trump-Alfa Bank information with Joffe, which they gave to New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau. But after Lichtblau held off on publishing, Sussmann allegedly took the information to the FBI hoping that the bureau would launch an investigation, which would prompt Lichtblau to publish a story on the probe in the nation’s paper of record just weeks before the Nov. 8, 2016, election.  

But as Sussmann tells it, Joffe alerted him about the Trump-Alfa Bank information and the campaign leaked it to Lichtblau. Sussmann says he took Joffe’s alert seriously because he has a long history of computer-related contracts with the federal government and is well-respected in the intelligence community. And since the Trump-Alfa Bank information involved a potential national security threat, Sussmann says he wanted to let the FBI know that the New York Times had a pending story because it could impact the bureau’s investigation, if it chose to open one. He also claims he did it out of respect for the bureau, which he worked closely with while serving as a federal prosecutor. 

The detail-heavy case is less focused on whether Sussmann actually told Baker that he was not representing a client at the September 2016 meeting, rather, it largely centers on whether the statement was true and if it was material to the subsequent decision to investigate the Trump-Alfa Bank information, which was found to be unsubstantiated. 

Also on Thursday, attorneys quibbled over which statement jurors could potentially convict Sussmann on – the Sept. 18 text message or the verbal statement during the Sept. 19 one-on-one meeting. The parties agreed on the latter. 

Sussmann’s defense team was also planning to call Lichtblau to testify through a subpoena. But the Pulitzer Prize-winning national security reporter, who was set to provide narrow testimony on his interactions with Sussmann, was removed from the witness list.   

Jurors are expected to hear closing arguments on Friday and could begin deliberations before the weekend.  

Throughout the trial, which entered its ninth day on Thursday, the Justice Department has been trying to focus jurors’ attention on notes – taken by FBI agents and other government officials in meetings about the bureau’s probe into the Trump-Alfa Bank information – that contain references to the word “client,” which it claims show proof that Sussmann was actually at the Sept. 19 meeting with Baker on behalf of a client.  

Meanwhile, the defense team keeps pointing jurors’ attention toward the witness stand, where a handful of the meeting attendees testified that, despite the notes, they recall being told that Sussmann was not representing a client when he provided the Trump-Alfa Bank information to Baker.  

Sussmann, 58, has pleaded not guilty to a single charge of making a false statement to the FBI. His attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper to dismiss the case in March, but the Obama appointee allowed it to proceed to trial.          

The defendant resigned from his position at Seattle-based law firm Perkins Coie after being indicted last September. If convicted, he faces up to five years behind bars. 

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