A jury acquitted former Hillary Clinton campaign attorney Michael Sussmann on Tuesday of a felony charge of intentionally deceiving the FBI, a major blow to special counsel John Durham’s investigation of misconduct by U.S. intelligence agencies probing conspiracy theories about Trump-Russia collusion.
The jury of seven women and five men deliberated for roughly six hours over two days before acquitting Mr. Sussmann after a two-week trial in federal court in the District of Columbia.
Mr. Sussmann showed no emotion as he stood while the jury forewoman read the verdict.
After the verdict, the jury forewoman, who declined to give her name, spoke to the media. She said charges should never have been filed against Mr. Sussmann in the first place.
“I don’t think it should have been prosecuted,” she said of the case. “There are bigger things that affect the nation than a possible lie to the FBI.
“It was the government’s job to prove it, and they succeeded in some ways and not in others,” she said. “We broke it down, and it did not pan out in the government’s favor.”
She declined to say in which ways she thought the government succeeded. She said those who would complain about the result weren’t in the jury room.
“Politics was not a factor,” she said.
The jury was drawn among residents of the District of Columbia, where Democrats received 92.5% of the vote in the last presidential election.
At least three Clinton donors were among the prospective jurors. One of them also donated to the campaign of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New York Democrat. A prospective juror who didn’t make the final cut told attorneys that she would “always” side with Mrs. Clinton.
Mr. Sussmann thanked the jurors and his attorneys while speaking with reporters.
“I told the truth to the FBI, and the jury clearly recognized that with their unanimous verdict today,” he said. “Despite being falsely accused, I believe justice ultimately prevailed in my case. As you can imagine, this has been a difficult year for my family and me, but we are just so grateful for the love and support of so many during this ordeal, and I look forward to getting back to the work that I love.”
Mr. Sussmann’s attorneys, Sean Berkowitz and Michael Bosworth, were less gracious. They slammed Mr. Durham for bringing the indictment.
“Michael Sussmann should never have been charged in the first place,” they said in a statement. “This is a case of extraordinary prosecutorial overreach. And we believe that today’s verdict sends an unmistakable message to anyone who cares to listen: Politics is no substitute for evidence, and politics has no place in our system of justice.”
Mr. Durham did not speak to reporters as he hurriedly left the federal courthouse. He later issued a terse statement.
“While we are disappointed in the outcome, we respect the jury’s decision and thank them for their service,” he said. “I also want to recognize and thank the investigators and the prosecution team for their dedicated efforts in seeking truth and justice in the case.”
It was the first trial in a case brought by Mr. Durham since he was appointed more than three years ago to look into wrongdoing by federal investigators searching for collusion between Donald Trump and Russia to sway the 2016 presidential election.
More than 20 witnesses detailed the activities of Mr. Sussmann and others promoting a false theory that servers at the Trump Organization were secretly communicating with Russia’s Alfa Bank, a Moscow bank with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Sussmann was facing up to five years in prison. The acquittal restores his reputation, and he is not expected to face any discipline from the D.C. Bar.
Mr. Sussmann was charged with lying to the FBI by telling top bureau lawyer James A. Baker during a meeting on Sept. 19, 2016, that he was not working on “behalf of any client” when he pitched the Alfa Bank story.
Prosecutors argued that billing records, expense reports and other evidence showed he was working for the Clinton campaign to manufacture an “October surprise” to sabotage Mr. Trump’s White House bid.
The FBI spent four months investigating the Alfa Bank claims and, after the 2016 election, concluded that they were meritless. Special counsel Robert Mueller also said there was no evidence to support the accusation.
Jurors were presented with billing records showing Mr. Sussmann was on the clock for the Clinton campaign the day of the Baker meeting. Other evidence included an expense report charging the Clinton campaign for two flash drives. Mr. Sussmann presented Mr. Baker with two flash drives detailing the Alfa Bank theory, though it was not clear whether they were the same ones he handed to Mr. Baker.
“The defendant knew that he had to hide his clients if there was any chance of getting his allegations to the FBI,” prosecutor Jonathan Algor said during closing arguments Friday. “It wasn’t about national security. It was about promoting opposition research against the opposition candidate Donald Trump.”
Defense attorneys insisted Mr. Susmann did not lie, but rather passed along the Alfa Bank information as a good citizen worried about a serious national security threat.
Mr. Berkowitz accused Mr. Durham’s team of trying to “misdirect” the jury by coercing witnesses to land a conviction in a case that they said “should’ve never been brought” in the first place.
“Mr. Sussmann’s liberty is at stake. The time for political conspiracy theories is over,” Mr. Berkowitz said during closing arguments. “The time to talk about the evidence is now.”
Mr. Berkowitz told jurors that Mr. Baker and two other government witnesses were under investigation, suggesting they had incentives to tell prosecutors what they wanted to hear.
“It’s no wonder he delivered on the stand,” Mr. Berkowitz said of Mr. Baker, who was under investigation by the Durham team.
Mr. Sussmann decided against testifying, and his team barely put up a defense. They wrapped up their case in one day.
They called two former Justice Department officials who couldn’t recall key moments of a meeting where Mr. Sussmann’s political ties were discussed. Another two witnesses, former Justice Department colleagues, testified about Mr. Sussmann’s character and integrity but said they had no knowledge of evidence in the case.
The trial was viewed as a major test for Mr. Durham, and an acquittal was a significant defeat for him. It will likely intensify Democrats’ calls for Attorney General Merrick Garland to shut down his 3-year-old investigation.
Democrats viewed Mr. Sussmann’s indictment as a political prosecution undertaken by Mr. Durham to continue his probe during periods of no public activity.
The verdict also will intensify Republicans’ disappointment that Mr. Durham has failed to deliver explosive indictments or stunning revelations that Mr. Trump predicted.
Still, the Sussmann trial delivered several bombshells that Republicans said demonstrated the success of Mr. Durham’s investigation.
Former Clinton campaign chairman Robby Mook testified that Mrs. Clinton personally approved of releasing the Alfa Bank accusations to the media, even though the campaign wasn’t sure about their accuracy.
Current and former FBI employees testified about how top bureau officials took steps to obscure Mr. Sussmann’s identity and ties to the Clinton campaign from field agents working the Alfa Bank case.
In a letter to the Pulitzer Prize Board doubling down on his call to revoke awards to The Washington Post and The New York Times in 2018 for their work on the Russia collusion accusations, Mr. Trump pointed to the revelations in the Sussmann case.
“I call on your Board to pay close attention to the developments in the ongoing criminal trial of Michael Sussmann,” he wrote, highlighting some of the revelations.
The Sussmann case is the only case brought by Mr. Durham to reach trial.
Mr. Durham’s first indictment, brought against former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith, resulted in a guilty plea. Mr. Clinesmith admitted to doctoring an email to justify the surveillance of a former Trump campaign aide.
He has also indicted Igor Danchenko, a Russian analyst accused of lying to the FBI about where he compiled information that ultimately found its way into the dossier of anti-Trump accusations distributed by former British spy Christopher Steele.