Prosecutors argued Tuesday, the opening day of a criminal trial testing special counsel John Durham’s Russia investigation, that a Hillary Clinton campaign attorney “used and manipulated the FBI” with anti-Trump dirt to create an October surprise before the 2016 presidential election.
Prosecutors said the lawyer, Michael Sussmann, intended to deceive FBI officials in September 2016 in a scheme to sabotage Donald Trump’s campaign.
“The evidence will show the defendant’s lie was all part of a bigger plan. It was a plan to create an October surprise on the eve of a presidential election — a plan that used and manipulated the FBI,” federal prosecutor Brittain Shaw said in her opening statement. “It was a plan that largely succeeded.”
Mr. Sussmann is charged with lying to federal agents in the first trial of Mr. Durham’s probe of the origins of the FBI’s Trump-Russia collusion investigation.
He is accused of concealing the fact that he was representing the Clinton campaign and was a technology executive when he presented a top FBI official with two white papers and two thumb drives detailing now-debunked evidence of covert communication between the Trump Organization and Russia’s Alfa Bank.
Prosecutors said Mr. Sussmann billed the Clinton campaign for the meeting with FBI attorney James Baker.
SEE ALSO: FBI agent says Sussmann claims of Trump ties to Russia bank ‘didn’t make any sense’
Inside the D.C. courtroom, Ms. Shaw told jurors that Mr. Sussmann exploited his connections with the FBI to spark an investigation of Mr. Trump and then pitch the story to media outlets, using the FBI as a “political tool.”
Michael Bosworth, a defense attorney for Mr. Sussmann, said his client was a good citizen acting on a solid tip from Rodney Joffe, a cybersecurity expert.
He said The New York Times planned to run an article based on the purported internet traffic linking Mr. Trump to Russia. Mr. Sussmann met with the FBI so the agency wouldn’t get caught flat-footed by The Times’ article, he told jurors.
FBI investigators looked into Mr. Sussmann’s tip and concluded it was meritless. Special counsel Robert Mueller also debunked the story. Investigators said the emails between the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank were spam marketing emails, not secret communications.
FBI agent Scott Hellman, who oversees a team of cybersecurity investigators, told jurors that he looked into Mr. Sussmann’s claims and concluded that they strained credibility. He said Russia was too sophisticated to be so brazen about contact with a U.S. presidential candidate.
“Based on the conclusions [Mr. Sussmann and Mr. Joffe] drew, they were not fair nor were they objective in the conclusions they came to,” he said. “The assumptions you have to make were so far-reaching, it didn’t make any sense.”
He said he didn’t know the data was provided by Mr. Sussmann and had not heard of that name until he was contacted by Mr. Durham’s team.
After Mr. Hellman’s team declined to open an investigation, the FBI’s counterintelligence unit pushed to probe Mr. Trump’s ties to Alfa Bank, he said. He told jurors it was “strange” that counterintelligence would move forward with the accusations after his team concluded they were meritless.
At the time, anti-Trump FBI agent Peter Strzok led the FBI’s counterintelligence unit, though Mr. Hellman didn’t say whether he was the one who greenlighted the probe.
Mr. Sussmann’s attorney said the FBI‘s conclusion that there was no evidence linking Mr. Trump to Alfa Bank contradicts the prosecution’s theory.
“The meeting with the FBI was the exact opposite of what the Clinton campaign would have wanted,” he said in his opening statement. “It was something they didn’t authorize him to do, didn’t direct him to do it and didn’t want him to do it.
“And you know what happened?” Mr. Bosworth told the jury. “The FBI effectively shut it down. The exact opposite of what the Clinton campaign wanted. They wanted a big story that hurts Trump and helps them. The FBI shut it down.”
Mr. Bosworth also rebutted prosecutors’ claims that the FBI didn’t understand who Mr. Sussmann’s clients were. He showed jurors internal FBI documents that were “littered” with notes to Mr. Sussmann as a Democratic lawyer.
“Judge the FBI by what they did, not what they’re saying now,” he said.
Ms. Shaw countered that Mr. Sussmann was motivated by a desire to use the FBI to smear Mr. Trump in the news media and thereby boost Mrs. Clinton in the presidential race.
“We are here because the FBI is our institution. It should not be used as a political tool for anyone. Not Republicans. Not Democrats. Not anyone,” she told jurors.
“You will learn that Mr. Baker and the FBI opened a case and devoted FBI resources to the serious allegations,” Ms. Shaw said. “The server did not reflect a crime, nor was it a threat to national security.”
Defense attorneys also slammed the FBI’s Mr. Baker in their opening arguments. They said Mr. Sussmann made it clear that Mr. Baker was the Clinton campaign’s attorney when he presented the Alfa Bank story.
Mr. Bosworth said Mr. Baker noted the Clinton campaign ties during a March 2017 Justice Department meeting after the election. He said Mr. Baker told Justice Department officials about the connection during the meeting.
“This was an important meeting. This is not a casual get-together. This is a briefing of the senior-most officials of the FBI to the Justice Department,” Mr. Bosworth said.
Jury selection in the trial was completed Monday. The 12 jurors and four alternates consist of eight White women, three Black women, two White men, two Black men and one Asian man. Several jurors work for federal agencies, including the Library of Congress and the Treasury Department.
The trial, which is expected to last two weeks, is the first for Mr. Durham and his three-year probe.
Mr. Trump and other conservatives have cheered Mr. Durham’s work, which has racked up three indictments and one guilty plea.
Former FBI attorney Kevin Clinesmith pleaded guilty in 2020 to altering an email used to apply for surveillance warrants for Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. He was sentenced to probation in the case brought by Mr. Durham.
Igor Danchenko, a key source for former British spy Christopher Steele’s anti-Trump dossier, also is facing charges arising from Mr. Durham’s investigation. He is accused of lying to the FBI about how and where he got information for the dossier, a collection of unverified and salacious claims tying Mr. Trump to Russia.
Some conservatives have criticized Mr. Durham for slow-walking the investigation and wasting time pursuing weak cases. They gripe that three years of work should have produced more than one minor guilty plea resulting in probation.