A top Clinton campaign lawyer knowingly passed false information to the FBI during the 2016 election in an effort to portray Donald Trump as colluding with Russia, federal prosecutors alleged in a bombshell indictment released on Thursday.
Michael Sussmann, a former lawyer at Perkins Coie, was charged by a federal grand jury with lying to the FBI’s top lawyer during a meeting on Sept. 19, 2016. Sussmann allegedly told James Baker, then serving as general counsel of the FBI, that he was not representing a client when he met with Baker to provide computer data purportedly showing a secret channel of communication between Trump’s real estate company and Alfa Bank, a Russian bank owned by a trio of oligarchs. In fact, Sussmann was representing the Clinton campaign, the DNC, and an unidentified tech executive. The FBI debunked the allegations in February 2017, finding no evidence that the Trump Organization was in contact with Alfa Bank.
The indictment paints a damning picture of Sussmann’s efforts to promote the story to law enforcement, members of the media, and within the ranks of the Clinton campaign. Sussmann's alleged smear campaign was successful on all fronts. The FBI opened an investigation into Alfa Bank based on Sussmann’s meeting. Multiple news outlets published stories in the run-up to the election and served as a key source in coverage. Hillary Clinton and her top foreign policy adviser, Jake Sullivan, touted those reports on social media, saying they showed evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Sullivan now serves as President Joe Biden’s national security adviser.
Sussmann, a former Justice Department official, is the second person to be charged in an investigation led by Special Counsel John Durham. Durham struck a plea deal last year with former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith, who admitted to altering an email about Trump aide Carter Page to downplay his past work with the CIA.
Sussmann, who resigned from Perkins Coie after the indictment, has denied wrongdoing. He did not return a request for comment.
According to the indictment, Sussmann worked with the tech executive and a team of computer scientists to investigate computer data between the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank. He also briefed top officials at the Clinton campaign about his efforts, the indictment says. The unidentified executive said they obtained the computer data in July 2016, though the original source of the data remains unknown. Alfa Bank has alleged that someone fabricated links between the bank and the Trump company.
The indictment says Sussmann and his collaborators knew that the allegations about Trump were likely false, but that Sussmann shared the information with the FBI anyway to influence the election. In an Aug. 21, 2016, email cited in the indictment, the executive told his colleagues that he wanted to build a "very useful narrative" regarding the Alfa Bank connection for the Clinton campaign to use. But in the same email, the executive acknowledged that the information that Sussmann would later give the FBI was "a red herring" and not a covert communications channel between Trump and Russia.
Though the researchers had major doubts about the Alfa-Trump link, Sussmann began preparing a series of white papers laying out the evidence for a secret communications channel between the bank and Trump’s company. Sussmann provided the reports to Baker during their Sept. 19 meeting.
Neither the DNC nor a spokeswoman for Hillary Clinton responded to requests for comment.