By Jeff Carlson and Hans Mahncke
On Sept. 17, former Perkins Coie partner and Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann was arraigned on a single-count charge of lying to the FBI. The charge stems from special counsel John Durham’s investigation into the origins of the Russia probe that plagued the presidency of Donald Trump.
The indictment of Sussmann, a cybersecurity specialist, makes clear that a group of individuals worked with him to devise allegations regarding a secret communications channel between the Trump Organization and Russia’s Alfa Bank. The Durham indictment takes pains to note that Sussmann assisted in the drafting and dissemination of materials that were provided to the FBI and media.
The allegations were passed by Sussmann to the FBI in a successful attempt to instigate an FBI investigation of Trump under false pretenses. The Alfa allegations also were used to lend weight to the allegations made in the Steele dossier, which up to this point, had failed to gain material traction within the FBI and the media.
Sussmann is charged with lying to former FBI General Counsel James Baker during a Sep. 19, 2016, meeting that had been initiated by Sussmann. At this meeting, in which Sussmann informed Baker of the Alfa allegations, he allegedly told Baker that he was there only in his capacity as a private citizen. Sussmann would later repeat his claim that he was acting in a personal capacity when he reported the Alfa allegations to another undisclosed government agency.
Although Sussmann told Baker that he wasn’t delivering the information on behalf of any client, the indictment details that Sussmann billed his meeting with Baker to the Clinton campaign.
As a result of the allegations that Sussmann provided to Baker, the FBI opened an investigation examining if Alfa Bank was used as a conduit between Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin. According to Durham, the FBI wouldn’t have opened an investigation without the manufactured information that had been provided by Sussmann.
Notably, Durham’s indictment, which included only the single-count charge of lying to the FBI, could have been presented to the court in just a few paragraphs. However, Durham chose to submit a 27-page indictment that included many specific details which aren’t immediately relevant to the false statement charge.
The level of details in the Sussmann indictment gives potential insight into the direction Durham’s investigation may have taken.
Why Indictment Reads Like Conspiracy Indictment
Although the indictment is nominally about Sussmann’s false statement, in reality, it’s more akin to a conspiracy charge, specifically a conspiracy to use false pretenses to trigger an FBI investigation of Trump.
Durham never mentions the word conspiracy, but almost the entirety of his indictment is dedicated to detailing the coordinated actions of the parties involved.
The Sussmann indictment begins by stating that in October 2016, “multiple media outlets reported that U.S. government authorities had received and were investigating allegations concerning a purported secret channel of communications between the Trump Organization, owned by Donald J. Trump, and a particular Russian bank.”
The unwritten allegation expressed in Durham’s opening is that a group of Clinton campaign operatives conspired to provide the FBI with false information in the hope that this would trigger an FBI investigation that would damage Trump’s chances in the Nov. 2016 presidential election. By focusing on October 2016 news reports about the FBI’s investigation of Trump, Durham established at the outset that the object of the conspiracy was achieved.
By their own admission, the purported conspirators understood that anyone with the requisite technical knowledge would ultimately dismiss the data that Sussmann gave the FBI. Durham’s indictment noted that one of the participants in Sussmann’s group privately called the secret communications channel allegation “a red herring.”
Another participant admitted that they would need “to expose every trick we have in our bag to even make a very weak association,” adding “The only thing that drive[s] us at this point is that we just do not like [Trump].”
But the leaders of the purported conspiracy weren’t particularly concerned if the allegations would stand up to scrutiny. Nor did they expect that Trump or any of his associates would actually be prosecuted. The desired outcome was media reporting that the FBI was looking into the Trump–Russia allegations–which is precisely what transpired.
As the indictment emphasizes, the purported conspiracy was about shaping a narrative about secret communications between Trump and the Kremlin. That narrative would then be amplified by media reports of an FBI investigation which, in turn, would reinforce the Clinton campaign’s messaging.
Why the Sussmann Indictment Matters
Other than Sussmann himself, none of the individuals involved in the purported conspiracy are named in the indictment but their generalized description provides some insight into their identities. The main parties are described by Durham as “Tech Executive-1,” a long-standing client of Sussmann’s who is alleged to have provided Sussmann with data about alleged contacts between the Trump and Alfa servers, and “Originator-1,” the person who allegedly compiled the data.