A top FBI official told jurors Thursday that a Hillary Clinton campaign lawyer repeatedly stressed that he was not representing the campaign while urging the bureau to investigate former President Donald Trump‘s link to a Russian bank.
That official, former FBI General Counsel James Baker said he was “100% confident” that the lawyer, Michael Sussmann, denied working on behalf of Mrs. Clinton‘s team.
“He told me that he was not appearing before me on behalf of any particular client and he had some information that was concerning, related to an apparent surreptitious communication between something called Alfa Bank and some part of the Trump Organization in the United States,” Mr. Baker told the court.
Mr. Baker said had Mr. Sussmann detailed his ties to the Clinton campaign, he wouldn’t have even taken the meeting. Instead, he would have directed him to the agents probing Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private email server. It would have also colored his view of the Alfa Bank allegations, he said.
“It would have raised very serious questions in my mind about the credibility of the source, the veracity of the information and heightened concerns in my mind if we were going to be played,” he said.
Mr. Baker also told the court that he would not have shielded Mr. Sussmann’s identity as a “confidential human source” from others in the FBI.
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Mr. Sussmann is accused of lying to the FBI when, at a September 2016 meeting with Mr. Baker, he said he was not representing a client while encouraging the bureau to probe what turned out to be a false story about Mr. Trump‘s ties to Russia’s Alfa Bank. Prosecutors said it was part of a Clinton campaign scheme to pitch the story to news media outlets about the FBI investigating Mr. Trump.
The defense argues that Mr. Sussmann‘s affiliation with the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee were well known in Washington and to the FBI.
It is the first trial stemming from special counsel John Durham’s probe into the origins of the FBI‘s investigation of Trump-Russia collusion to say the 2016 presidential election.
On the stand in federal court in Washington on Thursday, Mr. Baker told the jury that he relied on Mr. Sussmann‘s assurances when he brought the Russian bank allegations to the bureau’s top brass, including ex-FBI Director James B. Comey and former FBI Deputy Director Andy McCabe.
Mr. Sussmann billed Mrs. Clinton‘s campaign for his time meeting with the FBI, according to court papers.
Defense attorneys grilled Mr. Baker over his varied responses in different probes of the Sussmann meeting. Mr. Baker was interviewed by the Justice Department Inspector General, testified before Congress and spoke with Mr. Durham’s team.
Mr. Baker told Congress that he couldn’t remember if Mr. Sussmann told him the meeting was on behalf of any clients.
Mr. Baker had no explanation for that. He said he couldn’t recall why his answers varied but stressed that he tried to be truthful.
Mr. Baker also confirmed that the FBI was already conducting an investigation into ties between Russia and Mr. Trump in September 2016 when the Russian bank allegations were brought to the bureau’s attention. The investigation was ongoing just weeks away from the Nov. 3 election, in which Hillary Clinton ultimately lost to Mr. Trump
During more than three hours of testimony, Mr. Baker said Mr. Sussmann repeatedly asserted both in a text message and in person that he was acting as a “concerned citizen” and not on behalf of a client.
Following the Sept. 19, 2016, meeting with Mr. Sussmann, Mr. Baker said he immediately took the allegations to FBI Assistant Director for Counterintelligence Bill Priestap and later Mr. Comey and Mr. McCabe.
“It seemed to me of great urgency and great seriousness that I would want to make my bosses aware of this information,” Mr. Baker said. “I think they were quite concerned about it.”
He said that in light of the FBI‘s investigation of Mr. Trump‘s ties to Russia, the information would have been of “high importance.”
In later testimony, Mr. Baker said the FBI looked into the Alfa Bank allegations and concluded “there was nothing there.”
Mr. Baker said he would have treated the allegations differently had he known Mr. Sussmann was representing either the Hillary Clinton campaign or the Democratic National Committee.
As Mr. Baker understood it, he believed that Mr. Sussmann was not working on behalf of a client, but rather alerting the FBI to allegations from “serious cyber” people outside of politics.
When asked why he believed Mr. Sussmann was not working on behalf of a client, Mr. Baker replied, “Because he told me he wasn’t.”
“He told me in his statement that he wasn’t there on behalf of any client,” he said.
Mr. Baker showed jurors a text message sent by Mr. Sussmann on Sept. 18, 2016, the day before their meeting.
“I have something time-sensitive (and sensitive) I need to discuss,” Mr. Sussmann wrote to Mr. Baker. “Do you have availability for a short meeting tomorrow? I’m coming on my own — not on behalf of a client or company — want to help the Bureau. Thanks.”