Russia’s efforts to help Donald Trump win the 2016 election are well established. Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded that Russia tried to damage Hillary Clinton and help Trump win, as did the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee panel that investigated the election. Russian operatives used social media accounts to sow discord and disinformation among the U.S. population and set in motion real-life rallies that helped Trump’s campaign. And Trump’s public embrace of Russia’s efforts are also well-known. During a news conference in July 2016, Trump publicly encouraged Russian hackers to break into Clinton’s email system. And on Oct. 10, 2016, after the website Wikileaks published emails stolen from Democratic National Committee servers, Trump said, “I love WikiLeaks.”
Over the years, some have leveled more sinister or salacious allegations against Trump that didn’t hold water. Special Prosecutor John Durham has been investigating whether the FBI or others broke any laws in doing so. A trial resulting from his investigation is underway in Washington that has made public the details of allegations against Trump that were pushed by Democrats and proved to be false.
Much of the trial has focused on a Sept. 2016 meeting in which a lawyer working with the Clinton campaign and a technology executive brought allegations to the FBI about contact between Trump and a major Russian bank. The FBI looked into it and dismissed it. But not before Clinton’s campaign told reporters the FBI was investigating. Durham does not allege Clinton or anyone else committed a crime in doing so, but he does charge that the lawyer, Michael Sussmann, lied to the FBI by denying he represented any particular client while bringing the bureau the information.
Here are the details of the incident.
What is Alfa-Bank?
Alfa-Bank is one of Russia’s largest banks. In 2020, the bank reported more than 20 million customers and $60 billion in assets. A tech firm with a pending federal contract to do forensic analysis of efforts by other countries to hack the U.S. government concluded there were suspicious contacts between Alfa-Bank computers and servers controlled by Trump’s businesses. The FBI investigated the allegations and the logs and concluded that there wasn’t evidence of such a link.
Who is Michael Sussmann?
Michael Sussmann is a Washington, D.C. lawyer and a former prosecutor with the Department of Justice’s criminal division who had a meeting with a senior FBI official on Sept. 19, 2016, where he presented research that he said showed unusual computer traffic between Donald Trump’s business and Alfa-Bank.
Sussmann is being charged with lying to the FBI when he brought those allegations to the attention of the FBI’s top lawyer, James A. Baker. In that initial meeting, prosecutors allege that Sussmann told Baker that he wasn’t representing a client in bringing the information to authorities, when in fact he was representing the Clinton campaign and the technology executive who had helped compile the data analysis. Sussmann’s defense team denies Sussmann lied in the meeting. The case is being heard in federal court in Washington, D.C., and hinges on whether Sussmann disclosed to Baker in that initial encounter that he was there representing clients.
What does this have to do with Hillary Clinton?
Prosecutors allege that Sussmann was part of a wider effort by the Clinton campaign to tarnish Trump in the weeks leading up to Election Day. Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager Robby Mook testified on May 20 that Clinton agreed with the campaign’s decision to tell reporters about the potential Trump-Russia internet connection.
Trump himself gave voters plenty of reason to believe he welcomed Russian assistance in defeating Clinton. On July 27, 2016, during a televised press conference, Trump looked into the cameras and encouraged the Russian government to intervene to find emails allegedly deleted from Clinton’s personal servers and make them public. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing, I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” That same day, Russian actors sent phishing emails to accounts used by Clinton’s campaign and office, special counsel Robert Mueller found.
Why does this matter now?
The Sussmann trial is the first public airing in a courtroom of how much special counsel John Durham has uncovered in his investigation into whether federal law enforcement officials illegally investigated the 2016 Trump campaign. Trump’s former attorney general William Barr appointed Durham to launch the probe in October 2020, in the final weeks of the 2020 presidential election.
The outcome of the Durham probe will shed light on whether political operatives working for Democrats were able to influence FBI investigations into Trump during the 2016 campaign season. Prosecutors have alleged that the Clinton campaign tried to seed information to the FBI and leaked it to news reporters in an attempt to tar Trump in during the campaign.
The FBI ultimately investigated the allegations of unusual transactions between Trump’s business and the Russian bank and found they were unsubstantiated.
What happens next?
At the end of the trial, the jury will decide if Sussmann is guilty of lying to the FBI. The verdict will be an important test of Durham’s investigative work. It will also reflect on the viability of prosecutors’ larger effort to show that the FBI was duped into chasing unsubstantiated and politically motivated leads in a coordinated effort to leak the investigation to the press and taint Trump.
Durham’s probe will face another test in the fall when the trial of Igor Danchenko is scheduled to get underway. Danchenko was a source for the so-called Steele dossier, a report that included unsubstantiated allegations about Trump that was funded as part of an opposition research effort by the Clinton campaign and put together by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. The dossier was submitted as part of a request for permission from a secret surveillance court that the FBI used to target Trump adviser Carter Page while looking into potential links between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign. Danchenko was indicted in November 2021 and charged with lying to FBI agents about where he got the information. The indictment against Danchenko alleges that some of the information in the dossier came to Danchenko from a Democratic Party operative. Danchenko pleaded not guilty.
Durham’s investigation raises questions about how far Democratic political operatives went in trying to encourage federal investigators to launch an investigation into Trump. It also shines light on the FBI’s handling of a sensitive election year investigation into a major political figure. But it doesn’t change the conclusion that Mueller reached through his earlier investigation, that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election in an effort to help Trump, and that Trump encouraged the Russians to do so.