WASHINGTON — A federal grand jury on Thursday indicted Michael Sussmann, a lawyer who worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, for allegedly making false statements to the FBI about research he shared regarding a supposed connection between Donald Trump and a Russian bank. The indictment comes out of the years-long investigation by John Durham, a federal prosecutor appointed by the Justice Department during Trump’s presidency to probe the FBI’s own investigation into connections between Donald Trump and Russia.
Sussmann worked as a partner at Perkins Coie, a prominent law firm that has represented many Democratic campaigns as well as the Democratic National Committee. According to the indictment, Sussmann met with the FBI’s top lawyer in the fall of 2016 and presented the bureau with research about a possible trail of digital evidence showing communications between a company once owned by Trump and the financial institution Alfa Bank. During that meeting, the indictment alleges, Sussmann “lied about the capacity in which he was providing…allegations to the FBI.” The indictment says Sussmann came to the FBI seemingly as a concerned citizen and not on behalf of a client. But later, Sussmann would testify under oath before a House committee that he was in fact representing a client when he provided his Trump-Alfa Bank research to the FBI.
Sussmann’s lawyers told the New York Times this week that Sussmann had “committed no crime” and that any prosecution based on a false-statement charge “would be baseless, unprecedented and an unwarranted deviation from the apolitical and principled way in which the Department of Justice is supposed to do its work.” Sussmann’s bio page is no longer accessible on the Perkins Coie law firm’s website.
In the final months of the 2016 presidential campaign, the Trump-Alfa Bank story was one of the more mysterious dramas to play out in the media. National news outlets published stories with headlines like “Was a Trump Server Communicating With Russia?” and detailed explanations of DNS traffic, all of it straining to answer whether a Trump business had maintained a digital backchannel with Alfa Bank. But none of the stories conclusively established a direct connection, and the Alfa Bank saga faded from view.
Durham’s new indictment, however, adds a new dimension to the Trump-Alfa Bank story. The indictment reveals in great detail how in the final months of the 2016 campaign Sussmann, an unnamed tech executive, and a group of unnamed cyber-researchers pursued the Trump-Alfa Bank story, took their research to the FBI, and distributed that research to the media.
The critical meeting between Sussmann and FBI General Counsel James Baker took place on September 19, 2016. The indictment says that Sussmann “stated falsely that he was not acting on behalf of any client,” which led Baker to believe that Sussmann was conveying the allegations about Alfa Bank “as a good citizen and not as an advocate for any client.” Sussmann did not mention the Clinton campaign, whom he later billed for the FBI meeting, or the unnamed tech executive who had helped him compile the research on Alfa Bank, the indictment says.
The FBI went on to open an investigation into Alfa Bank. But it did so without the knowledge that Sussmann was in fact acting on behalf of his clients, which included Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Had Sussmann been more forthcoming, the indictment says, “it might have prompted the FBI General Counsel to ask Sussmann for the identity of such clients” and might have caused the bureau to take “additional or more incremental steps before opening and/or closing an investigation.”
The indictment is the most high-profile action by the Durham investigation since then-Attorney General Bill Barr named Durham a special counsel (the same role Robert Mueller had in his Trump-Russia investigation) in October 2020. Durham’s only other criminal referral was for an FBI lawyer who later pleaded guilty to doctoring evidence in a surveillance application targeting Carter Page, a 2016 Trump campaign adviser. It is unclear how long Durham’s investigation will continue. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Durham’s final report “expected to be long and detailed, with few sweeping conclusions,” according to sources familiar with Durham’s work.