Jury selection began this week in the federal trial of Democrat Party lawyer Michael Sussmann, who has been accused by Special Counsel John Durham of playing a key role in the plot organized and financed by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign to smear Donald Trump with false accusations of collusion with Russia, based upon lies invented by former British spy Christopher Steele in his notorious dossier.
The prosecution of Sussmann is the first serious legal outcome of Durham’s investigation, which was launched three years ago by then-Attorney General Bill Barr. Durham was assigned to investigate how the FBI was persuaded to launch a criminal and counterintelligence investigation into the bogus charges against a presidential candidate during a heated national election campaign, based entirely on the wild and unsubstantiated allegations in Steele’s dossier.
Sussmann promoted the false claim that Trump was secretly communicating with Putin through a Russian bank’s computers, because he had a client who supplied the technical evidence supporting that allegation. That client was Rodney Joffe, a senior executive at the computer tech firm known as Neuster. The firm had a contract with the federal government giving it access to privileged internet data, including Domain Name System (DNS) records that keeps track when computer servers and different email addresses contact each other.
Joffe was an avid Clinton supporter who expected to win a lucrative government cybersecurity contract for his firm if she were elected president. Joffe had networked with a group of internet researchers at other tech companies and Georgia Tech University, and asked them to keep watch for any suspicious computer contacts generated by the Trump campaign.
THE TRUMP-RUSSIA BACK-CHANNEL COMPUTER HOAX
In spring 2016, one of those internet researchers, April Lorenzen, told Joffe that she had found evidence suggesting that Trump could be communicating with Putin through the Alfa Bank’s computers. That evidence was in the form of DNS data showing that the bank’s computers were being “pinged” (electronically contacted) from an Internet domain (computer address) that was associated with the Trump organization.
The computer DNS data was the equivalent of phone company records which show only that one person’s phone had dialed the number of another person’s phone at a particular time, without any indication about what was said during that phone call, or even whether it was the owners of those phone numbers who were talking to each other.
Joffe then tasked the research team to use their special access to computer records for the unauthorized purpose of doing opposition research, in the form of an effort to reveal suspicious communications patterns by Donald Trump and his associates. Joffe also says he informed Clinton lawyers Michael Sussmann and Marc Elias of what his network was doing to uncover Trump’s communication patterns, and that they encouraged him to pursue the effort.
THE CLINTON CAMPAIGN WAS BEHIND ALL THE LIES
Durham’s investigation has led him to conclude that top members of the Clinton campaign, working through their lawyers, first financed the writing of the Steele dossier to lend credibility to the political smear that Trump was a Putin puppet. They and their paid operatives then peddled that narrative to pro-Clinton reporters in the mainstream media and officials in the Justice Department and the FBI who were willing to go to any lengths to see Donald Trump defeated in the 2016 presidential election. The FBI investigation would then enable the Clinton campaign to tout the “evidence” of Trump’s collusion with the Russians as so serious that the Feds were being forced to investigate it.
To cover its tracks, the leaders of the Clinton campaign behind the effort to smear Trump with false charges of collusion left most of the scandal-mongering to its lawyers, including Sussmann and Elias, both members of the politically well-connected Perkins-Coie international law firm.
CLINTON’S LAWYERS MADE THE PAYOFFS
To further insulate the Clinton campaign from direct responsibility for what became the most effective dirty trick in American political history, Elias took money from the Clinton campaign to secretly pay the inside-Washington PR firm known as Fusion GPS to carry out the plot. Fusion co-founder Glenn Simpson then recruited Steele to write the dossier. Other senior members of Fusion GPS were also paid by Clinton’s law firm to peddle the lies the dossier contained about Trump to the pro-Clinton media and government officials eager to believe the worst about the GOP candidate.
According to former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy, the deployment of lawyers to camouflage “their schemes and scandals is a time-tested Clinton modus operandi, enabling them to claim attorney-client privilege to cover their tracks when controversy erupts and investigators start snooping around — a frequent occurrence over the last 30 years.”
Ironically, Sussmann is using now his status as a lawyer for Rodney Joffe, the tech executive whose research team uncovered the computer data used as a basis for one of the bogus Russian collusion charges against Trump, to claim attorney-client privilege, preventing that Joffe from testifying in court about their conversations.
McCarthy writes that Durham’s findings “portrays the Clinton campaign as guilty of… a conspiracy to defraud the government into probing her opponent, the better to slander Trump, in the electorate’s eye, as a nefarious threat to the United States… Durham describes the fraud scheme as the ‘joint venture’ involving the Clinton campaign, its lawyers, a group of Internet researchers, and the so-called ‘information’ firm Fusion GPS.”
WHO IS MICHAEL SUSSMANN?
Sussmann is a former top Justice Department cyber-security lawyer, who represented the Democrat National Committee in the middle of the 2016 presidential campaign when its servers were allegedly hacked by Russia. Sussmann was a relatively minor player in the Steele dossier plot, but as a member of the Clinton law firm which organized the undercover campaign to smear Trump as a Russian colluder and trick the FBI into investigating him, Sussmann knows many of its still hidden details.
Durham is specifically prosecuting Sussmann for lying to an FBI official about the anti-Trump smear campaign during an interview on September 19, 2016, two months before the presidential election. Durham also hopes that, in return for reducing the sole criminal charge against him, or a more lenient sentence, Sussmann will agree to give incriminating evidence against other participants in the anti-Trump conspiracy. During the Sussmann trial, Durham will also try to establish direct links between the others who conspired to smear Trump’s reputation with false allegations, or the members of the Clinton campaign who ordered Sussmann and other lawyers to implement the disinformation campaign.
ABUSING THE TRUST OF A FRIEND
The FBI official to whom Sussmann lied is James Baker, a longtime friend who was the general counsel (chief lawyer) to the FBI at the time.
On Sunday night, September 18, 2016, Sussmann initiated contact with Baker by sending him a text message which said: “Jim — it’s Michael Sussmann. I have something time-sensitive (and sensitive) I need to discuss. Do you have availability for a short meeting tomorrow? I’m coming on my own — not on behalf of a client or company — want to help the Bureau. Thanks.”
That is the first time that Sussmann lied to Baker about coming forward on his own rather than on behalf of a client. Sussmann then repeated the same lie at the meeting Baker obligingly gave him the next day at FBI headquarters in Washington. At that meeting, Sussmann presented Baker with the DNS data evidence which had been generated by Joffe’s research, and urged Baker to recommend an FBI investigation into the supposedly suspicious Trump-Russia computer communications.
Durham contends that Sussmann had realized that if he had been honest with Baker by telling him that his request was prompted by his duties as a lawyer for his clients, the Clinton campaign and Joffe, Baker would have instantly understood the inappropriate political motive behind the meeting and might not have agreed to see Sussmann. Even if the meeting had still taken place, the circumstances would have prompted Baker and the FBI to examine the evidence of possible Trump misbehavior that Sussmann presented with a much more critical eye.
THE COMPUTER EVIDENCE FAILED TO WITHSTAND SCRUTINY
In fact, when government cyber experts did examine the computer evidence that Sussmann presented to Baker, they were able to ascertain that the internet domain Sussmann’s researchers had associated with Trump was not owned or operated by him or the Trump Organization. It was operated by a mass-marketer who had obvious reasons to be contacting international business travelers involved with the Alfa Bank. This convinced the FBI that there was no basis for continuing the Alfa Bank aspect of their investigation into the allegations in the Steele dossier.
Even though the conspiracy investigation of the Alfa Bank was dropped for lack of evidence, Sussmann’s initial contact with Baker was still inappropriate. He abused his credibility as a former national-security lawyer by pretending that his sole motive for coming forward with questionable evidence was patriotism and a desire to protect America from its Russian enemies. Convinced of Sussmann’s good faith, Baker and the FBI did open an investigation of Trump’s alleged secret Alfa Bank pipeline to Putin, which ultimately went nowhere.
But the fact that the FBI did launch the investigation, regardless of the fact that it uncovered nothing that incriminated Trump, served the political purposes of Sussmann’s main client, the Clinton campaign. It enabled candidate Hillary Clinton and her top campaign aide, Jake Sullivan, who is now President Biden’s national security advisor, to post a series of tweets a week before the 2016 election, “exposing” Trump’s supposedly corrupt ties to Putin, including the alleged secret computer back channel between Trump and the Russian bank that was later proven to have never actually existed.
Sussmann is on trial specifically for falsely claiming that he was not representing the Clinton campaign when he urged the FBI to investigate Trump’s alleged secret communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Durham also intends to use the Sussmann trial to “connect the dots” between the Alfa Bank allegation and other elements employed by Mrs. Clinton’s lawyers to smear Trump’s reputation on her behalf.
Durham says he intends to prove in court that Joffe’s researchers realized early in their efforts that there was no evidence that Trump or members of his campaign had anything to do with the pings on the computer doing work for the Alfa Bank. In fact, the pings had originated from a computer not controlled by Trump or his family business, and would have been totally inappropriate for the sending of improper communications to Russia. Nevertheless, Durham claims, Joffe continued to encourage his research network to keep digging into the privileged DNS data records, explaining that they didn’t need to find any clear evidence of wrongdoing, as long as the story appeared to be plausible enough to suggest a Trump-Russia connection.
HOW THE ALFA BANK FALSE CLAIM WAS ADDED TO THE STEELE DOSSIER
Sussmann’s narrative suggesting that Trump was in secret contact with Putin was initially separate from the initiative launch by his fellow Clinton lawyer, Marc Elias, to create the false Steele dossier and then foist it upon the gullible members of the media and high-ranking pro-Clinton officials in the Justice Department and the FBI.
The effort by Clinton’s lawyers and their paid operatives to produce and disseminate the Steele dossier was a work in progress throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. Late in the campaign, Sussmann met with GPS Fusion executive Glenn Simpson and Christopher Steele to enable Steele to write up the Alfa Bank conspiracy narrative and incorporate it into the later versions of his dossier. Durham claims this meeting directly ties Sussmann into the Steele dossier plot.
With other Clinton lawyers coordinating, GPS Fusion took the lead in peddling the Alfa Bank conspiracy theory to the media. But Sussmann used his former relationship with Jim Baker to convince the FBI to initially take the Alfa Bank narrative seriously, thereby enabling Clinton and her aide to inject it into the hectic last days of the 2016 presidential campaign.
TRIAL JUDGE SHARPLY LIMITING PROSECUTION TESTIMONY
Durham had hoped that the link between Sussmann and the dossier will enable him to convince the presiding federal judge in the case, Christopher Cooper, to expand the scope of the trial to explore how the dossier was later abused by the FBI. By swearing that the false allegations of Russian collusion against Trump in Steele’s dossier had been independently verified, FBI and DOJ officials tricked a FISA court into issuing and then renewing an inappropriate surveillance warrant against innocent low-level Trump campaign advisor Carter Page.
Unfortunately for Durham, because Sussmann is only on trial for having lied to the FBI about the reason for his interest in the Alfa Bank conspiracy theory, Judge Cooper has severely restricted the amount of testimony Durham can introduce during the trial about the many other questionable aspects of the Alfa Bank and Steele dossier conspiracy theories.
Steele’s main source for the disinformation in his dossier was paid informant Igor Danchenko, a shadowy former Brookings Institute scholar who had previously been under investigation by the FBI on suspicion that he was a Russian spy.
Danchenko is also the defendant in the only other false-statements case that Durham expects to try in federal court later this year. He is accused of lying to the FBI about his sources of information for the allegations in the dossier that Trump colluded with the Russians, which Danchenko himself later conceded were nonsense.
Durham should have no trouble in proving that Sussmann was guilty of the narrow federal crime for which he is standing trial — lying to James Baker. All he has to do is produce the billing records of Sussmann’s law firm which charged the Clinton campaign for the time Sussmann spent meeting with Baker at FBI headquarters, where he lied to Baker for a second time by claiming he was there merely as a concerned citizen, rather than on a client’s behalf.
However, Judge Cooper has so far refused to allow Durham to present any evidence in the case that does not directly relate to Sussmann’s own actions in trying to sell the Alfa Bank conspiracy theory to Baker and the FBI. As a result, Durham will be unable to tell the jury anything about the discovery that the computer under investigation for pinging the Russian bank’s computer did not belong to Trump, or the cynical tweets that Clinton issued about the secret Trump-Russia back-channel that never existed.
DURHAM’S VICTORY BY DISCLOSING THE TRUTH
But that is beside the point. According to Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel, Durham has already largely redeemed his three-year long investigation with the filing of his 27-page indictment of Sussmann in September, which is in the public domain, as well the additional charges that Durham has filed against Steele’s unreliable source, Igor Danchenko.
According to Strassel, Durham’s detailed court filings, including “lengthy briefs, and long exhibits full of names, emails and documents” exposes the web of lies that launched the Trump-Russia conspiracy hoax while keeping its sources in the Clinton campaign hidden from public view. Clinton’s lawyers did a good but not quite perfect job of trying to cover their tracks. It has taken years of dogged investigative reporting, lawsuits demanding the release of suppressed records, and investigations by the likes of former GOP Congressman David Nunes to bring the facts into the public view and for possible future use in Republican-led Congressional investigations.
THE DOSSIER WAS NO MORE THAN GOSSIP AND SPECULATION
The latest revelations were contained in a Wall Street Journal report published last week which revealed that many of the false allegations in the Steele dossier were originated by three people “brought together over a minor corporate-publicity contract.” They were Igor Danchenko; his childhood friend, Olga Galina, who was employed by a Cyprus-based internet company; and Charles Dolan, an American PR executive from whom the Cyprus company was seeking unrelated advice. Together, they created the wild stories contained in the dossier, even though none of them had any inside knowledge of Kremlin politics or the Trump campaign.
Galina and Dolan would later tell investigators that they did not realize Danchenko was recording their idle chatter and speculation about the 2016 presidential campaign, so that Steele could later repackage it into a dossier of allegedly reliable evidence suitable to form the basis for an FBI investigation and the impeachment of a president.
There is also widespread criticism among conservative activists of Obama-appointed Judge Cooper’s conduct of Michael Sussmann’s trial. Judge Cooper ruled, for example, that Durham’s team cannot suggest to the jury that the data provided to the FBI by Sussmann had been improperly obtained or used by Joffe. Cooper has also limited Durham’s ability to present evidence of the existence of a wide-ranging conspiracy by senior Clinton campaign officials, their lawyers, and others who worked to prevent Trump’s election in 2016 by “assembling and disseminating the [Alfa Bank] allegations and other derogatory information about Trump to the media and the US government.”
This week, there was another a conservative uproar over Judge Cooper’s decision to allow three prospective jurors in the Sussmann trial to be seated, despite their admissions that they had been donors to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and one who said that they had also been a supporter of progressive Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign. Durham’s prosecution team raised objections in court to one of those three jurors, a man in his 40s who works for Amazon and “expressed a high degree of confidence” that he could be impartial. Judge Cooper accepted that claim and overruled the objections by the prosecution to seating him on the jury, and then did the same with the other two jurors who had admitted their prior support for Clinton’s campaign.
But the current focus on the Sussmann trial tends to obscure the fact that he was, at best, a minor player in the anti-Trump conspiracy, and whether he is found guilty or not is relatively unimportant compared to the larger and more fundamental issues of public policy and honest government at stake.
THE STILL MISSING KEY WITNESS
Durham has made considerable progress in bringing previously hidden aspects of the Clinton campaign-financed anti-Trump conspiracy to light. But he has yet to produce the essential element in a strong criminal conspiracy case — the testimony of a key insider who can verify the government’s theory of the conspiracy and explain to a jury and the American pubic how various apparently unrelated pieces of evidence fit together into a coherent picture of how the conspirators worked together to achieve their objective, which in this case was the destruction of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, and after that failed, his presidency itself.
Until such a witness becomes available, those who believe that Donald Trump was the victim of a criminal conspiracy, launched and financed by the Clinton campaign and involving senior Justice Department and FBI officials who violated their oath in order to undermine Trump’s presidency, will remain frustrated with the Durham investigation, because those most responsible will continue to go unpunished by the criminal justice system.
BEING SATISFIED WITH ANOTHER FORM OF JUSTICE
Those conspirators, beginning with Mrs. Clinton herself, now appear to be beyond the reach of the law. Durham and his prosecutors are unlikely to ever bring them to trial. Yet the exposure of the facts behind the conspiracy by Durham and the many conservative columnists, investigative reporters, and legal activists who have been working for the past six years to clear Donald Trump of the false Russian collusion allegations has led to another, more informal kind of justice being imposed on the chief conspirators and their supporters in the mainstream media.
Clinton campaign lawyer and bagman Marc Elias is no longer the head of the political-law practice at Perkins-Coie.
Former British super-spy Christopher Steele has been thoroughly discredited, and is now, according to Strassel, “a man in search of a reputation.”
Fusion GPS, which hired Steele to write the fictitious dossier and then successfully promoted it to the media and the FBI, has been exposed as the prime example of Washington’s totally ruthless and unprincipled opposition-research firms.
Most of the senior former Justice Department and FBI leaders who promoted the Trump-Russia collusion narrative they knew to be false have been fired or resigned under pressure, to seek their new careers as tattletale book authors and guest commentators on liberal news channels.
Some, like former FBI director James Comey and Obama-era intelligence officials John Brennan and James Clapper, remain defiantly self-righteous in defense of their unfair treatment of Trump. Others, whose once highly-esteemed reputations were also destroyed by their role in the Russia-Trump conspiracy hoax, such as special counsel Robert Mueller, are also now mostly viewed sadly as collateral damage.
Finally, there is the self-inflicted damage to the mainstream media news establishment, who discredited themselves in the eyes of the American public by willingly abandoning their own journalistic standards of impartiality and honest reporting to join in the liberal feeding frenzy attacking Donald Trump’s credibility, both as presidential candidate and then as president, despite the impressive success of most of his presidential policies.
In the meantime, Durham and the conservative activists, reporters, and columnists still have much work to do in fully uncovering the facts of the anti-Trump conspiracy during the two years remaining before the voters go to the polls again to choose the next American president.