FBI leaders pulled field agents from other investigations in 2016 to pursue a false tip linking presidential candidate Donald Trump to a Russian bank, but they concealed that the probe was spurred by information provided by rival Hillary Clinton’s campaign, an FBI agent testified in court Monday.
Top bureau officials sent an electronic communication marking the opening of the case and saying the investigation was based on a “referral” from the Justice Department rather than a tip from Michael Sussmann, an attorney for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.
The communication was sent four days after Mr. Sussmann provided an FBI lawyer with false data showing the Trump Organization’s computer servers were covertly contacting Alfa Bank, a Moscow bank with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
FBI agents Curtis Heide and Allison Sands wrote the internal communication on Sept. 23, 2016, just weeks before the presidential election, which Mrs. Clinton lost to Mr. Trump.
Mr. Sussmann is accused of lying to the FBI by saying he was not working on behalf of the Clinton campaign when he peddled the Alfa Bank conspiracy theory to FBI General Counsel James A. Baker.
It’s the first criminal trial stemming from special counsel John Durham’s probe of the origins of the FBI’s investigation into Trump-Russia collusion.
SEE ALSO: FBI official struggles to recall key details in Sussmann case, dealing blow to prosecution
Taking the stand in a federal courtroom in the District of Columbia, Ms. Sands, who is no longer with the bureau, said she was misled about the origin of the Alfa Bank tip.
“I still don’t know 100% who the source of all that data was,” she told the jury. She said she believed that the tip from the Justice Department gave it more credibility.
Ms. Sands said she thinks Mr. Heide, who is expected to take the stand later this week, was also unaware of the source of the claims. During cross-examination, Ms. Sands said she doesn’t think FBI leadership lied to Mr. Heide but offered no explanation for the confusion.
Mr. Baker testified last week that he didn’t widely share Mr. Sussmann’s identity but didn’t recall concealing it or refusing to disclose it to others at the bureau.
Jurors on Monday also saw another FBI internal communication, written by agent Joseph Pientka to Mr. Heide. It said bureau leadership, including then-FBI Director James B. Comey, was “fired up” about the investigation.
“People on the 7th floor to include Director are fired up about this server,” Mr. Pientka wrote in an instant message on Sept. 21, 2016. “Reach out and put tools on. [It’s] not an option — we must do it.”
Prosecutors with Mr. Durham’s team say Mr. Sussmann deceived the FBI by telling Mr. Baker that he was not meeting with him on “behalf of any client” when he passed along the now-debunked Alfa Bank claims.
They say he was acting on behalf of the Clinton campaign to sabotage Mr. Trump’s campaign.
Defense attorneys argue that Mr. Sussmann did not lie and his ties to the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee were well known to Mr. Baker and the FBI.
Ryan Gaynor, another FBI agent who took the stand Monday, also detailed efforts by leadership to obscure Mr. Sussmann as the source of the Alfa Bank claims.
Mr. Gaynor said FBI leadership placed a “close hold” on the source of the anti-Trump tip, meaning field agents couldn’t know who provided the data.
“The leaders did not share his identity,” he said. “I don’t remember what reason, if any, they gave me for the close hold. It would have impacted what I viewed as the reason for the close hold.”
Obama-era FBI officials dispatched agents from the bureau’s U.S. cybersecurity division, European cybercrime division and Chicago field office to track down bogus claims about Mr. Trump without knowing the source, Mr. Gaynor said.
If top leadership had disclosed that the Alfa Bank tip came from Mr. Sussmann, Mr. Gaynor said, he wouldn’t have joined the investigation because he was working to shore up the nation’s election infrastructure.
He said the Chicago office, which led the investigation, would have handled the information differently.
“While the investigation was already initiated when I joined, I think that information would have had an impact when they were considering whether to open the investigation,” he told the court. “It would have impacted whether I would have been involved.”
On cross-examination, Mr. Sussmann’s attorney said records of Mr. Gaynor’s interviews with prosecutors never mentioned a close hold until this month.
Defense attorney Michael Bosworth suggested that Mr. Gaynor didn’t recall that Mr. Sussmann’s identity was concealed until after Mr. Gaynor learned he was a subject of Mr. Durham’s investigation and not just a witness.
“I was informed that my status had changed … to a witness,” Mr. Gaynor told the court. He said he wasn’t told his status as a witness had been restored until three meetings later.
Mr. Bosworth continued to assail Mr. Gaynor’s credibility. He said no other witness or document in the case refers to the order to conceal Mr. Sussmann’s identity.
Ms. Sands testified that she did not know a “close hold” was placed on Mr. Sussmann’s identity.
Bill Priestap, a former FBI counterintelligence chief, failed to shed light on the bureau’s reasoning for concealing Mr. Sussmann’s identity. Mr. Priestap, a witness for the prosecution, said he couldn’t remember many of the events from roughly six years ago.
When shown the notes he took about those events, Mr. Priestap said he didn’t remember taking the notes, why he took them or whether he showed them to anyone. He couldn’t recall who gave him the Alfa Bank claims or what he did upon learning the information.
When asked why he wrote an email to Mr. Comey about the Alfa Bank claims, Mr. Priestap said he wasn’t sure.
During his testimony, Mr. Gaynor said he knew only that the decision to withhold Mr. Sussmann’s name was based on information that investigators weren’t able to access.
He read in court from email that agents on the case sent to FBI brass trying to determine the source of the Alfa Bank data.
“We want to interview the source of this information,” the email read. “Any way we can track down who this guy is?”
Mr. Gaynor said the close hold didn’t hinder the investigation, so there wasn’t a compelling reason to lift it. He said agents quickly figured out that the Alfa Bank allegations didn’t have merit, so the source’s identity became less important once the probe was closed.
• Jeff Mordock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
Click to Read More and View Comments
Click to Hide
Please read our comment policy before commenting.