WASHINGTON (CN) — “This case is about the privilege of a well-connected D.C. lawyer,” federal prosecutors told jurors on Tuesday during opening arguments in Trump-era special counsel John Durham’s case against Democrat-linked lawyer Michael Sussmann.
Painting Sussmann as the mastermind behind a lie “designed to inject the FBI into a presidential election,” U.S. Attorney Brittain Shaw told a federal jury in Washington, D.C., that he falsely stated that he was not representing any clients 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 then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and Russia’s Alfa Bank.
“Many people have strong feelings about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but we are not here because [of] these … allegations involved either,” she said. “We are here because the FBI is our institution — it should not be used as a political tool for anyone.”
The prosecutor said Sussmann told the FBI’s top lawyer at the time that he was bringing information “not on behalf of any client,” but as a good citizen. But she said that’s a lie because it was his “golden opportunity to deliver a big win” for not just one client, but two: Hillary Clinton’s 2020 presidential campaign and cybersecurity expert Rodney Joffe.
At the time, she said Sussmann was a partner at Perkins Coie, where he was serving as counsel for the Hillary Clinton campaign in litigation related to Russian hacking groups’ accessing Democratic National Committee computer servers. And the Democrat-linked law firm hired opposition research company Fusion GPS to “find dirty stuff” on Trump and instructed Joffe to do the same.
Once Joffe compiled data allegedly showing abnormal internet communications between the Trump organization and Russian-backed Alfa Bank, Shaw said they leaked it to a New York Times reporter with the “hope and expectation” that it would run as a story.
But the reporter decided not to run the story right away, and Shaw said that’s when Sussmann texted “his friend Baker on his personal cell phone” that he urgently needed to share “sensitive” information with the FBI “not on behalf of a client or company,” and that he “want[s] to help the Bureau.”
Sussmann knew if he told the FBI he was representing a political candidate at the time — weeks before the election — the bureau “might not meet with him right away, let alone open up an investigation,” she said.
He misled an FBI official into thinking he was a good citizen, so that the bureau would use its resources to figure out that the alleged Trump-Alfa internet communications came from a spam email server and were not a national security issue, she said.
“No one should be so privileged as to have the ability to walk into the FBI and lie for political reasons,” she said. “The FBI should never be used as a political pawn.”
Meanwhile, defense attorney Michael Bosworth tried to convince jurors that Sussmann, not the bureau, was the victim.
Bosworth said Sussmann received the Trump-Alfa tip from Joffe at a time when questions were swirling about Trump’s links to Russia so he “took it seriously.”
“The plan from the start was to go public with serious information,” he said.
But Sussmann worked as a cybersecurity attorney for the Justice Department for 12 years, and if he had not “worked a long career with the FBI and didn’t care about the FBI — we wouldn’t be here,” Bosworth said.
Sussmann told the FBI so they would not be “caught by surprise” and the bureau “effectively shut down” the NYT story by asking the news outlet to hold off on publishing, which is the “exact opposite of what the Clinton campaign would’ve wanted.”
The Clinton campaign, Bosworth said, would have wanted “a big story that hurts Trump and helps them.”
“The government’s theory doesn’t make sense. The evidence will not support this charge,” he said.
And while prosecutors claim Sussmann was hiding his political affiliations, Bosworth insisted the fact that Sussmann was working as an attorney for the DNC and the Clinton campaign was “out and about, loud and clear for everyone to see.”
He told jurors to judge the FBI by “what they did — not by what they’re saying now.”
“This case is an injustice and I suspect when all of the evidence is in, you will agree,” the defense counsel said.
The jury also heard from three witnesses, including an FBI Special Agent who reviewed the Trump-Alfa data and said he was frustrated that Baker would not tell him who provided it and that he “thought that the data and the narrative had some questionable motives.”
Hellman said it appeared the person who drafted one of the data documents “was suffering from some mental disability.” The FBI determined that the data did not support any Trump-Russia collusion claims.
Prosecutors are also expected to call Baker, former Perkins Coie attorney Marc Elias and Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz as witnesses during the trial, which is expected to resume on Wednesday with testimony from Perkins Coie attorney Debbie Fine.
Sussmann 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 he allowed it to proceed to trial.
Sussmann resigned from his position at law firm Perkins Coie after being indicted last September. If convicted, he faces up to five years behind bars.
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