Jury Acquits Former Clinton Lawyer And Quashes 'Russia Witch Hunt' Claims
Fervent hopes on the right that Special Counsel John Durham’s investigation would unearth a Watergate-level scandal in the Democratic camp took a hammering on Tuesday. A federal jury acquitted Michael Sussmann, an attorney for the Hilary Clinton campaign, of lying to the FBI when he tipped the bureau off in 2016 that the Trump Organization was allegedly in secret communication with Russia.
Members of the jury deliberated for only six hours spread over parts of Friday and Tuesday before reaching their verdict, which two jurors said “was not a close call or a hard decision,” according to the Washington Post.
The verdict is a significant blow for Durham and his prosecutors, who have spent three years scouring the Trump-Russia probe for government wrongdoing. The investigation has yielded only three charges and one conviction with no jail time.
The case focused on Sussmann's September 19, 2016, meeting with his friend and then-senior FBI official, James Baker, to whom he handed thumb drives of Internet data that cybersecurity experts said could show covert communication channels allegedly used by the Trump Administration to contact Alfa Bank, a Russian bank with ties to the Kremlin.
Trump’s representatives denied the existence of the secret communication channel, and a security firm hired by Alfa Bank to investigate the allegations denounced them as baseless.
During the two-week trial, Durham and his prosecutors argued that Sussmann falsely told Baker that he hadn't approached the bureau on behalf of any client -- allegedly hiding that he was working for the Clinton campaign and an Internet executive who gave him the tip.
Through court filings and Baker’s testimony, Durham described how Sussmann had tried to get reporters to write about the suspicions swirling around the Trump campaign and Alfa Bank.
Pressing journalists to cover such suspicions isn’t a crime, so the trial zeroed in on whether or not Sussmann had lied to the FBI when he informed Baker that he had raised issue as a private citizen and not while representing the Clinton campaign.
Prosecutors called Baker to the stand, where the ex-top bureau official testified he was “100 percent confident” that Sussmamn had misled him about his representation.
"Michael started to explain why he was there, and he said that he was not appearing before me on behalf of any particular client," Baker said about their meeting. He echoed Durham's theory that Sussmann had lied when he told Baker he had come “only as a concerned citizen, and not on behalf of any clients,” CNN reported.
Republicans following the case were thrilled when Durham pushed for an even bigger angle in the case: namely that a cabal-like enterprise masterminded an egregious attempt to frame then-candidate Trump -- a suggestion that’s strikingly similar to the conspiracy theory at the root of QAnon.
Sussmann’s defense said that prosecutors had provided no evidence that the Clinton campaign had signed off on Sussmann’s visit to Baker.
The defense also argued that the FBI already knew Sussmann represented the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee on other issues. Yet, the bureau investigated Sussmann’s data regardless and eventually dismissed it and the allegations it had prompted.
Sussmann’s lawyers argued that the case was flawed on myriad grounds, one of which was prosecutors’ inability to prove with certainty what their client had said to Baker, a conclusion apparently shared by the jury.
Outside the courthouse, the jury forewoman told news organizations that the prosecution had failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. “The government had the job of proving beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said. “We broke it down...as a jury. It didn’t pan out in the government’s favor,” the forewoman, who declined to give her name, told reporters.
According to Politco, Sussmann, who was wearing a mask, remained upright and showed no emotion as the jury verdict was read. However, his lead attorneys, Sean Berkowitz and Michael Bosworth, reportedly shared an embrace after the case was gaveled to a close.
Shortly after the verdict, Sussmann read a brief statement outside the courthouse, thanking his lawyers and expressing his relief that justice had prevailed. “I told the truth to the FBI and the jury clearly recognized that with their unanimous verdict today,” Sussmann said to journalists. “Despite being falsely accused, I believe that justice ultimately prevailed in my case.”
Berkowitz and Bosworth declined offers to speak on camera, but the pair blasted the prosecutors in a joint statement.
“Michael Sussmann should never have been charged in the first place. This is a case of extraordinary prosecutorial overreach. And we believe that today’s verdict sends an unmistakable message to anyone who cares to listen: politics is no substitute for evidence, and politics has no place in our system of justice,” the lead attorneys said.
The jury forewoman answered a reporter who sought her opinion on the trial’s relevancy. “Personally, I don’t think it should have been prosecuted because I think we have better time or resources to use or spend [on] other things that affect the nation as a whole than a possible lie to the FBI. We could spend that time more wisely.”
Durham didn’t participate personally in the trial, but he was in the courtroom when the verdict was read, according to the New York Times. He quietly left the courthouse afterward and later issued a statement expressing disappointment with the verdict.
“While we are disappointed in the outcome, we respect the jury’s decision and thank them for their service. I also want to recognize and thank the investigators and the prosecution team for their dedicated efforts in seeking truth and justice in this case,” Durham said.
Writing about Sussmann's acquittal in New York magazine, Jonathan Chait summed up the prosecution failure. As Chait explains, "to the extent that Durham deepened the public understanding of Trump’s conspiracy theory of the Russia investigation, he inadvertently undermined it. I argued in 2020 that Joe Biden’s Justice Department was correct to let Durham continue his investigation because it would expose the hollowness of Trump’s allegations. And it has."
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