A Washington attorney who specializes in cybersecurity issues has been indicted for allegedly lying to the FBI ahead of the 2016 election in a conversation about possible ties between Donald Trump and Russia.
Michael Sussmann, a former federal prosecutor who had worked at a law firm with longstanding links to the Democratic Party, is the second individual to be charged in special counsel John Durham's investigation into the origins of the FBI's Trump-Russia probe.
Sussmann is facing a single false statements count in connection with a conversation he had with then-FBI general counsel Jim Baker on Sept. 19, 2016. In that meeting, Sussmann shared information about possible ties between a Kremlin-linked Russian lender, Alfa Bank, and a computer server at the Trump Organization.
The indictment alleges that Sussmann "lied about the capacity in which he was providing the allegations to the FBI."
Sussmann told Baker that he wasn't passing the information along at the behest of any client. But prosecutors allege he was providing the materials on behalf of a technology industry executive and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
That alleged lie mattered, the indictment says, because it misled the FBI and deprived it of "information that might have permitted it more fully to assess and uncover the origins of the relevant data and technical analysis, including the identities and motivations of Sussmann's clients."
Sussmann's attorneys, Sean Berkowitz and Michael Bosworth, said their client will "fight this baseless and politically-inspired prosecution."
"The Special Counsel appears to be using this indictment to advance a conspiracy theory he has chosen not to actually charge," they said in a statement. "At its core, the Special Counsel is bringing a false statement charge based on an oral statement allegedly made five years ago to a single witness that is unrecorded and unobserved by anyone else. The Department of Justice would ordinarily never bring such a baseless case."
Sussmann worked on cybersecurity and privacy issues at the law firm Perkins Coie. The firm's political law group represented Clinton's presidential campaign and has long provided counsel to the Democratic National Committee.
After the indictment was handed up Thursday, Sussmann resigned from Perkins Coie in order to focus on his legal defense, a spokesperson for the firm said in a statement.
The indictment says the DNC retained Sussmann in April 2016 to represent it in connection with Russia's hacking of DNC servers, and Sussmann also advised the Clinton campaign on cybersecurity issues.
It also details meetings that Sussmann had with a partner at his law firm who was general counsel to the Clinton campaign as well as a tech executive who was a client of Sussmann's and researchers about purported links between Trump Organization computer systems and a Russian bank.
Sussman billed these meetings to the Clinton campaign, according to the indictment. He also billed the Clinton campaign for meetings with journalists about the same materials.
Congressional investigators asked Sussmann in 2017 about this episode with Baker.
Sussmann testified he passed the information along on behalf of a client, who is a cybersecurity expert. Sussmann said he didn't have a specific request for the FBI; he just wanted the bureau to be aware of the information.
In separate congressional testimony, Baker told lawmakers that Sussmann told him "that he had cyber experts that had obtained some information that they thought they should get into the hands of the FBI."
The mysterious computer communications became the subject of several news articles in the fall of 2016. The FBI and congressional investigators both examined the pings between the computer systems and determined they were innocuous.
According to the indictment, Sussmann provided Baker with two thumb drives and hard copies of the materials, including a document Sussmann had helped write, one written by a researcher and another written by the political research firm working for the Clinton campaign to dig up opposition research about Trump.
Durham was tapped in 2019 by then-Attorney General William Barr to look into the genesis of the FBI's investigation into connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. So far, only one other individual — a former low-level FBI attorney named Kevin Clinesmith — has been charged in the investigation.
Clinesmith, who pleaded guilty to doctoring an email that was used to get surveillance on a former Trump campaign adviser, was sentenced to one year of probation.
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
A Washington lawyer with close ties to the Democratic Party has been indicted on charges that he lied to the FBI. His indictment is part of the Justice Department's investigation into the origins of the FBI's Trump-Russia probe. That investigation was launched during his administration.
NPR's justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is here to explain what's going on. Ryan, let's start with, who was charged and why?
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: The guy who's been charged is Michael Sussmann. He's a former federal prosecutor. He specializes in cybersecurity and privacy issues. He worked for the law firm Perkins Coie, which has a longstanding relationship with the Democratic Party. It represents the Democratic National Committee and represented Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2016. Now, as for the charges, Sussmann faces a single count of making false statements to the FBI.
MARTINEZ: What'd he allegedly lie about?
LUCAS: Well, this all revolves around a meeting that Sussmann had in September of 2016 with the FBI's top lawyer at the time, a man by the name of Jim Baker. And at that meeting, Sussmann gave Baker information about possible links between Trump Organization computers and a Russian bank. Prosecutors say Sussmann told Baker that he wasn't providing this information at the behest of any client. And according to prosecutors, that was a lie. They say Sussmann was acting on behalf of a tech executive who was his client and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. The indictment details meetings that Sussmann had with the campaign's top lawyer and others about the information that Sussmann eventually gave the FBI. And prosecutors say Sussmann billed the Clinton campaign for the time that he spent on this project.
MARTINEZ: Has Sussmann or his lawyers said anything?
LUCAS: His attorneys put out a statement last night calling this prosecution baseless and politically inspired. The important context here is that this case was brought by John Durham. Durham is the special counsel investigating the origins of the FBI's Trump-Russia probe. And Durham was appointed by former Attorney General William Barr during the Trump administration.
Now, Sussmann's attorneys say, yes; Sussmann did meet with Baker and pass along this information. But they say he did so on behalf of a client who is a cyber expert because the two of them thought this information raised serious national security concerns. His lawyers also say it's irrelevant who Sussmann's clients were. They say this case boils down to something that Sussmann allegedly said five years ago to a single person and no other witnesses. In other words, in their view this is a very thin case.
MARTINEZ: I know former President Trump accused the Mueller investigation of being a political witch hunt. And he wanted the investigators to be investigated. Durham was appointed to do that. So what has Durham found so far?
LUCAS: You're right. Trump and Barr both built up the Durham investigation. They suggested that Durham would find evidence of stunning misconduct and expose what Trump, as we heard time and time again, claimed was a biased Mueller investigation. Trump had hoped that Durham would deliver before the 2020 election. That didn't happen. And Durham, in his work, hasn't uncovered anything along the lines of what Trump envisioned.
Sussmann is just the second person to face charges in Durham's probe. The other was a low-level FBI attorney who pleaded guilty to doctoring an email. And look, Durham was appointed in May of 2019 to lead this investigation into the origins of what became Mueller's Russia probe. And at this point, Durham's investigation has now been going on longer than Mueller's original Russia investigation did.
MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas. Ryan, thanks.
LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.