WASHINGTON — Prosecutors and a defense attorney presented starkly opposing views on Friday in closing arguments for the politically charged trial of Michael Sussmann, a cybersecurity lawyer linked to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The case against Mr Sussmann involves a narrow charge – an accusation of lying to the FBI during a 2016 meeting – but is loaded with partisan overtones. It’s also a test for the special counsel who brought him in, John H. Durham, as it’s his first case to go to trial since he was appointed three years ago to run the Trump investigation. -Russia for any wrongdoing.
Two prosecutors told a jury there was no doubt that Mr. Sussmann lied to the FBI to cover up his clients – including the Clinton campaign – during the September 2016 meeting, which involved suspicious data which, according to cybersecurity experts, suggested the possibility of secrecy. channel of communication between Russia and someone close to Donald J. Trump.
“It was not a matter of national security,” said one of the prosecutors, Jonathan Algor. “It was to promote opposition research against the opposition candidate – Donald Trump.”
But a defense attorney, Sean M. Berkowitz, described the case as riddled with uncertainties – including over what Mr. Sussmann actually said, whether it was untrue and whether it mattered if he was there on behalf of customers since the FBI would have investigated the tip regardless. Each was a way to find a reasonable doubt and vote for acquittal, he said.
“Mr. Sussmann’s freedom is at stake,” he said. “The time for political conspiracy theories is over. Now is the time to talk about the evidence.
A verdict is expected on Tuesday.
The case involves strange internet data that cybersecurity researchers uncovered in 2016 after it became public knowledge that Russia had hacked into Democrats and Mr. Trump encouraged the country to hack into Ms. Clinton’s emails . The researchers said the data could reflect a secret communications channel using servers for the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank, a Kremlin-linked bank.
The researchers began working with Rodney Joffe, a technology manager who was an expert on the type of Internet data they were examining. Mr. Joffe took the suspicion to Mr. Sussmann, who at the time represented the Democratic National Committee on issues related to the hacking of his emails by Russia. A partner in Mr. Sussmann’s law firm, Marc Elias, was general counsel for the Clinton campaign.
Mr. Sussmann and Mr. Joffe tried to get journalists – including Eric Lichtblau, then of the New York Times – to write about the case, the trial arguments showed. Mr. Sussmann continued to brief Mr. Elias on these efforts and discussed the matter with an opposition research firm that the Clinton campaign had hired through Mr. Elias, called Fusion GPS; the company drafted a document on Alfa Bank’s ties to the Kremlin which Mr. Sussmann later gave to the FBI
Mr. Sussmann recorded those efforts in law firm billing records as time spent working for the Clinton campaign, Mr. Durham found.
On September 18, 2016, shortly after receiving an email claiming that Mr. Trump was unhappy with a Russia-related article that was soon to be published, Mr. Sussmann texted James A. Baker, l FBI General Counsel, and requested a meeting the following day. He indicated that he was not coming on behalf of a client, but to help the FBI
Mr Durham’s team accused Mr Sussmann of making the same claim when he met Mr Baker the following day. In reality, according to prosecutors, Mr. Sussmann was hiding two of his clients – Mr. Joffe and the Clinton campaign.
Mr Algor told the jury on Friday that the effort was a plot to stage an “October Surprise”, meaning a groundbreaking revelation at the end of a campaign, by asking the FBI to open an investigation so that journalists write about it.
The FBI – which had already opened its investigation into possible links between Mr Trump’s associates and Russia on other grounds – briefly considered Alfa Bank’s suspicions and quickly dismissed them.
In late October, Slate published an article about it, but it didn’t mention any FBI investigation. On the same day, the Times published an article co-authored by Mr. Lichtblau which mentioned Alfa Bank’s suspicions but reported that the FBI had so far found no conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the government. Russian.
Closing arguments focused on whether Mr. Sussmann repeated what he said in his text message to Mr. Baker at their meeting the next day – a crucial technicality, as he is only billed for what he allegedly said at the meeting itself.
Mr. Algor and another prosecutor, Andrew DeFilippis, told the jury the evidence left no doubt that Mr. Sussmann had repeatedly told Mr. Baker that he was not there on behalf of a client.
But Mr. Berkowitz pointed to Mr. Baker’s various memories of that meeting. And he noted that Mr Durham had investigated Mr Baker for an unrelated offense but had not charged him, insinuating that the witness was tricked into remembering what the prosecutor wanted to hear: ‘This is not no wonder he delivered on the stand.”
Mr. Berkowitz also maintained that it was true that Mr. Sussmann was not there on behalf of a client. While Mr. Sussmann had two clients with an interest in Alfa Bank, the defense attorney said, Mr. Sussmann was not advocating that the FBI take action on their behalf — or any action at all.
Against this idea, prosecutors pointed out that on September 13, Mr. Sussmann purchased USB drives from Staples which he then spent on the Clinton campaign; at the September 19 meeting, he gave USB drives to the FBI. Mr DeFilippis called it “overwhelming evidence”.
Mr. Berkowitz mocked that evidence — a receipt from Staples, he noted — saying it was a time when Mr. Sussmann was doing all sorts of campaign work. He also pointed out that Mr. Sussmann had not charged the campaign for his taxi rides for the FBI meeting, or recorded an “FBI meeting” in the billing records, as was his practice for such meetings. .
And Mr. Berkowitz cited testimony from Mr. Elias and Mrs. Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, that they did not order or authorize Mr. Sussmann to surrender to the FBI and did not see this step. as in the interest of the campaign. They testified that they had just wanted the Times to publish an article; Mr. Baker testified that the FBI asked Mr. Lichtblau not to publish anything so that he could investigate first.