A lawyer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign was found not guilty of lying to the FBI about the identity of his client when he provided a flimsy tip on then-candidate Donald Trump two months before the election.
The jury verdict in favor of Michael Sussmann, a prominent cybersecruity lawyer with deep ties to the Democratic party, was handed down Tuesday in Washington. His two-week trial rehashed bitter divisions between the rival presidential campaigns and shined a light on the dark side of opposition research.
FBI officials said Sussmann falsely claimed he wasn’t representing a client when he handed over what he described as evidence of a suspicious communications link between computer servers at Trump Tower and a Russia-based bank tied to the Kremlin. The agency debunked the theory, but not before the media held it out as possible evidence of collusion.
Sussmann’s trial was the first stemming from Special Counsel John Durham’s Trump-era probe into the conduct of the FBI’s broader Russia investigation, which the former president and his supporters have long called a “witch hunt.” Durham began looking into the origins of the FBI probe in May 2019, and before today, he’d gotten a guilty plea by a former FBI lawyer for falsifying a document.
The server theory stemmed from a prominent cybersecurity expert, Rodney Joffe, who presented it to Sussmann. Joffe purportedly discovered the server link after mining publicly available communications data. Sussmann, who knew Joffe, brought the data to the attention of Clinton campaign general counsel and fellow Perkins Coie partner Marc Elias, when then got a small Washington-based research firm called Fusion GPS involved. Together they crafted a summary of the theory and a batch of data to support it, which would be quietly pitched to members of the media.
Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook testified that he believed the theory might be true but had low confidence in it and didn’t have the expertise to verify it. He said Clinton personally signed off on handing the data to the press.
More than a dozen witnesses offered conflicting accounts of why the tip was handed to the FBI. The government claimed Sussmann aimed to use the FBI as a “pawn” for political reasons, and the agency’s former general counsel testified that he felt he’d been misled by the lawyer. But Mook and the campaign’s top lawyer testified that the server tip was crafted for the media and that Sussmann had gone rogue by going to the FBI.
Sussmann’s defense hinged on his claim that he wasn’t technically representing the Clinton campaign or any other client when he brought the tip to the FBI, even though he allegedly billed the campaign for his time at the meeting. He also argued that the alleged lie didn’t matter, because the FBI was well aware of his ties to the Democratic National Committee and Clinton.
No one from the Clinton campaign or Fusion GPS were accused of wrongdoing.