EXPLAINER: Why the stakes in Russia probe court cases are high

EXPLAINER: Why the stakes in Russia probe court cases are high

WASHINGTON (AP) — The first try Findings of Special Counsel John Durham’s investigation into the beginnings of the Trump-Russia investigation hardly seems an explosive affair. It’s about a single false statement made to the FBI by a cybersecurity attorney with ties to the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign.

But the stakes are high.

The verdict in attorney Michael Sussmann’s case will help shape the fate and legacy of Durham’s three-year investigation. An acquittal would hasten questions about the purpose of the investigation and the cost to taxpayers. A guilty verdict would spur Donald Trump supporters, who have long looked to Durham, to uncover what they see as biased mistreatment of the former president.

The trial, which begins Monday with jury selection in federal court in Washington, will not focus on Trump’s allegations of government misconduct during the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States presidential election. Judges will not be asked to decide whether the Trump campaign was coordinated with the Kremlin to influence the outcome of the race.

But the trial will set the clock back on a frenetic stretch in recent American history, when the FBI scrambled to probe Trump-Russia ties — and the rival Clinton campaign scrambled to back up its own suspicions.

WHAT IS THE CASE?

Sussmann is accused of lying to FBI General Counsel James Baker during a September 19, 2016 meeting at which Sussmann presented research that he believes may indicate a possible secret backchannel of communications between computer servers at Russia-based Alfa Bank and Trump’s proposed company, the Trump Organization.

The covert contact allegation, if proven, would have been explosive at a time when the FBI was already investigating whether the Kremlin and the Trump campaign were conspiring to influence the election.

The claim was false, Durham says, but that’s not the lie at the heart of the Sussmann case.

The accusation Sussmann alleges that he misled the FBI by denying he was representing a specific client during the meeting, when in fact he was acting on behalf of two clients: the Clinton campaign and a technology executive who had helped compile the computer data to put together.

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WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT AND WHAT DOES SÜSSMANN SAY IN HIS DEFENSE?

Had the FBI known that Sussmann represented the interests of the Clinton campaign, prosecutors said they would have carefully considered his possible biases and motivations — as well as the reliability of the information he provided — before investigating Alfa Bank’s allegations.

Prosecutors insist it wasn’t stray testimony either, citing a text message Sussmann sent to Baker the night before the meeting, requesting a session and saying he was alone and ” would not come on behalf of” a customer or a company.”

Sussmann’s lawyers deny that he lied during the meeting, pointing out that it was not recorded and no one took notes. They say Sussmann’s affiliation with the Democratic Party is known, including by the FBI. Furthermore, they claim that the false testimony Sussmann allegedly made is ultimately irrelevant because they say there is no evidence that they influenced the FBI’s decision to begin investigating Alfa Bank’s claims .

In addition, they cite notes from a March 2017 FBI and Justice Department meeting that describe the then-Deputy Director of the FBI telling his colleagues that Alfa Bank’s claims were presented to law enforcement by an attorney who served in the acts on behalf of customers. Sussmann’s attorneys say this shows the FBI understood that Sussmann did indeed have a client in connection with the meeting.

They have also argued that allowing the case could result in tipsters being discouraged from reporting suspicions or potential wrongdoing to the FBI if they fear their motivations or possible political bias will be investigated.

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HOW DOES THIS CASE RELATE TO THE WORK OF SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE ROBERT MUELLER?

The indictment focuses on a limited portion of the original investigation into links between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign, which concluded with a report in 2019 by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team.

Regardless of the jury’s verdict, it will not affect the core findings of Mueller’s report t – that Russia tried to support Trump’s campaign, but that there is not enough evidence to prove the two sides were criminally collaborating.

In fact, the Mueller report ignored Alfa Bank’s allegations. The FBI investigated, but concluded in early 2017 that there was no interfering contact between the servers.

Nonetheless, the case makes clear that Clinton officials used professional contacts to present information about Trump to the FBI that they felt was derogatory and worthy of investigation. And it will draw attention to the little-known universe of cyber researchers scouring internet data for potentially suspicious trends.

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WHAT IS DURHAM STUDYING?

Durham, the former Connecticut state attorney general, was appointed in 2019 by then-Attorney General William Barr to investigate whether anyone engaged in wrongdoing when federal authorities were investigating Russian election interference.

His investigation is longer than Mueller’s and he has charged three people so far, including Sussmann. Although it was believed that Durham’s original mandate was intended to focus on government officials, and although his team interviewed FBI officials, Justice Department attorneys and CIA officials, the investigation also focused on private individuals like Sussmann who presented information about Trump.

It’s unclear how long the investigation will last, although Attorney General Merrick Garland has shown no public interest in curtailing the work and Durham was given a designated title of special counsel in the weeks leading up to Barr’s resignation to ensure he can continue his work in a new government.

In 2020, a former FBI attorney named Kevin Clinesmith pleaded guilty to altering an email related to the secret FBI surveillance of an ex-Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page. In seeking warrants to wiretap Page, the FBI relied on an anti-Trump research dossier known colloquially as the “Steele dossier,” which contained rumors and unverified claims.

Last year, Durham indicted a Russia analyst who was a source for this dossier lying to the FBI about his own sources of information — including a longtime Hillary Clinton supporter. Igor Danchenko has pleaded not guilty. The case is pending and is due to be heard in October.

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Follow Eric Tucker on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP

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