Special counsel John H. Durham and indicted Hillary Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann have squared off in an intense paper war leading to a scheduled May 13 trial. If a District Court judge refuses Mr. Sussmann’s bid to dismiss a one-count indictment, I suspect it will be because of the lies he was spreading around Washington tying a Moscow bank with former President Donald Trump.
The indictment of Mr. Sussmann is the first case brought by Mr. Durham against a former Clinton campaign operative. The Sussmann narrative is not about the infamous Kremlin-sourced dossier the campaign funded and distributed to bring down Mr. Trump in a heap of falsehoods.
Rather, Mr. Durham is focusing on an auxiliary scandal that never received a lot of investigative attention in 2017-2020 as Republican representatives and senators autopsied the dossier and all its dangling tales of Trump crimes that never happened.
Mr. Durham, with the previous indictment of prime dossier source, Kremlin-connected Igor Danchenko, has already snuffed out any lingering liberal belief the dossier was true, or as the author, Christopher Steele puts it, “70-90% true.” Perhaps only Rep. Adam Schiff, California Democrat, is the last Steele disciple.
With an appointed task of looking at how the Russia-Trump saga began in 2016, Mr. Durham decided a financial giant called Alfa Bank needed studying. Clinton operatives such as Mr. Sussmann at law firm Perkins Coie, dossier organizer Fusion GPS, and even Mrs. Clinton herself, spun the election yarn that Moscow’s Alfa Bank was in cahoots with Mr. Trump.
What the September indictment of Mr. Sussmann showed for the first time is how a group of computer scientists gained access to Mr. Trump’s confidential Domain Name System logs — in other words, who he was communicating with and who was communicating with him. They were spying on Mr. Trump, his family and the Trump Organization.
You and I don’t have routine access to such personal data. But the people feeding Mr. Sussmann were able to rummage through DNS tables because of their association with a Pentagon agency and one well-connected high-tech firm in Virginia, the indictment says.
The folly of this exercise is that their focus was a third-party computer server in Pennsylvania used for Trump Organization hotel marketing. If you ever stayed at a Trump hotel, it is a good bet you automatically received such emails.
The exercise began in the summer of 2016, with Mr. Sussmann taking the DNS footprints to the Clinton campaign, the Washington press corps, the FBI and eventually the CIA. His stop at FBI headquarters on Sept. 19, 2016, started the entire bureau investigation. It is also what got him into trouble with Mr. Durham.
The indictment said he lied to then-FBI General Counsel James Baker when he offered that he was not working for a client as he turned over a “white paper” on complex Internet interactions. He was just being a good citizen. Not trying to bring down the opponent of Mrs. Clinton, who was paying him.
Today, as a trial nears, the question is: Was there an actual backchannel between a bank controlled by Vladimir Putin oligarch billionaires and Trump Tower?
The overwhelming evidence is that there was not. If he goes to trial, I expect Mr. Sussmann to challenge this. It would look much better to a heavily Democratic D.C. jury if, in fact, Mr. Sussmann was bravely taking on a billionaire Republican candidate in bed with Putin oligarchs. Hired cybersecurity experts could testify to this as defense witnesses.
I submit these points as the ground truth:
• The FBI investigated Mr. Sussmann’s data, including examining computer servers where the supposed communication happened. The FBI concluded in February 2017 that no Alfa-Trump link existed. The FBI was biased the other way. It surely wanted to nail Mr. Trump. Lead Agent Peter Strzok texted during the campaign he planned to “stop” the candidate.
• Not one morsel of email or text messages has emerged. Nor has any evidence of any financial transaction. It would have been the standard operating procedure for the FBI to check with the intelligence community, particularly the cyber-focused National Security Agency, to see if it ever saw or vacuumed any incriminating Alfa-Trump chitchat. Obviously, it never did.
• In his March 2019 final report, Special Counsel Robert Mueller thought so little of the Alfa story he didn’t mention it. He interviewed one of the oligarchs, Petr Aven, who knew no Trump associates.
• At a post-probe House hearing that July, Mr. Mueller was asked about the supposed Alfa conspiracy. A guarded Mr. Mueller answered, “Because I don’t believe it’s not true doesn’t mean I would not have investigated it. It may have been investigated, although my belief at this point, it’s not true.” The FBI’s exoneration was contained in a footnote that December in a Justice Department inspector general report.
• Press reports tantalized the Alfa story by saying that the Trump email domain (mail1.trump-mail.com) in Pennsylvania suspiciously disappeared in September 2016 just as journalists began inquiries with Trump people. In 2020, Republican senators obtained and published additional Peter Strzok texts. In one, he tells of notifying the server provider that very same month –– in September 2016 –– that it still hosted the Trump domain even though it had been consolidated with another company, GoDaddy. The old provider then deleted it. The Trump domain disappeared. There was no mystery. This is the domain at which supposedly Alfa Bank servers made a number of DNS “Lookups.” Mr. Strzok said the domain dated back to 2009 and “was never used.”
• Mr. Durham has analyzed the entire FBI case file. He reiterated in the Sussmann indictment that the bureau found no secret Alfa-Trump backchannel.
• Alfa-Bank hired American cybersecurity firms to investigate the domain traffic supposedly linking Mr. Trump and Alfa. One concluded that the 2016 DNS logs show automatic market spam mail to Alfa employees. Alfa lawyers contend that cybercriminals used a made-up domain name, “mail.trump-email.com.moscow.alfaintranet,” and bombarded Alfa Bank’s servers with “lookups” thousands of times. (Lawyers for Georgia Tech researcher David Dagon, who compiled data used by Mr. Sussmann, said in a filing in a civil court case that Alfa’s hacking explanation is not plausible. The researcher stands by his work, they said.)
After Mr. Durham filed a court update with new surveillance details, I sent emails to a dozen Senate Democrats — some of whom complain about government snooping on private citizens. I asked if it is OK for campaigns to gain access to their opponents’ private DNS logs? I received no response.
• Rowan Scarborough is a columnist with the Washington Times.