WASHINGTON (CN) — The government’s own witnesses in its case against Democrat-backed lawyer Michael Sussmann have been poking holes in the Department of Justice's main arguments this week and his defense attorneys have seized on the opportunity to highlight it.
One of the government’s key accusations is that 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 campaign and Joffe as part of an effort to unleash an October Surprise on Trump.
Prosecutors claim Sussmann took records of alleged secret communications between Trump and Russia’s Alfa Bank to a New York Times reporter — but the reporter held off on publishing — so Sussmann took the records to the FBI hoping that the bureau would launch an investigation, which would prompt the NYT reporter and other news outlets to run a story on the allegations.
They called Robby Mook to the witness stand on Friday, with the hope that the then-manager of Clinton’s 2016 campaign could help prove that argument.
U.S. Attorney Jonathan Algor scored a win when Mook revealed that Clinton approved the decision to give the Trump-Alfa Bank information to the media. But his line of questioning backfired when he asked if Mook thought the Trump-Alfa information “was so damning” that it was October Surprise-worthy.
“I did not see it as some sort of October Surprise and I don’t believe other people on the campaign did either,” Mook said.
Because "there were a lot of pretty damning stories” related to Trump and Russia at the time, Clinton’s former campaign manager said he just thought this might be another “one of many of them.”
The prosecutor then asked if he and other chief campaign staffers were still not “totally confident” in the Trump-Alfa information when Clinton approved the media handoff.
Mook paused, then said, “your question implied that we waited.”
“In fact, part of the purpose of giving it to the media was so that a reporter could vet the information then decide [whether or not] to print it,” Mook said.
The prosecutor concluded by asking who did the media handoff and Mook’s answer ran counter to their claim that it was Sussmann.
“We authorized a staff member of the campaign to give it to the media,” Mook said.
Algor concluded by asking if he recalls a media story about the Trump-Alfa Bank claims coming out, and Mook said he recalled a story from Slate.
Sussmann’s defense team then began cross examination and asked Mook to read the Slate story to himself, after which they asked if there were any references to an FBI investigation in the story — which would help prove the government‘s claim that Sussmann went to the FBI with the Trump-Alfa records in hopes to prompt a probe.
But Mook said he did not see any references to the FBI in the story and that, if Perkins Coie employees wanted to share something with the media on behalf of the campaign, he would have "absolutely expected” to be notified of it.
He added that permission would have to be sought if someone who was working on behalf of the campaign, like Sussmann, wanted “to report something to law enforcement about our opponent.”
Friday marks the fifth day of Michael Sussmann’s jury trial, which may last up to two weeks and so far one thing is clear: it is all about the details — but the details are not so clear.
The prosecution and defense alike have peppered witnesses with questions about their recollection of meetings — some of which happened more than three years ago — and whether those memories line up with notes taken during those meetings.
The Justice Department wants jurors to focus on meeting notes containing references to the word “client,” which it claims are proof that Sussmann said he was at the meeting on behalf of a client.
Meanwhile, the defense team keeps pointing jurors’ attention toward the witness stand, where a handful of meeting attendees have testified that, despite the notes, they recall Sussmann verbally telling them during the meeting that he was not there on behalf of any client.
The trial is expected to resume on Monday with testimony from Trisha Anderson, former general counsel for the FBI.
Sussmann resigned from his position at law firm Perkins Coie after being indicted last September. His indictment stems from Special Counsel John Durham's investigation into the FBI’s handling of the 2016 probe into alleged Trump-Russia collusion. The Connecticut federal prosecutor has secured one conviction and is hoping Monday’s jury trial will result in another.
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. If convicted, he faces up to five years behind bars.
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