EXPLAINER: Why the stakes are high in the Russia probe lawsuit

WASHINGTON (AP) — The first trial stemming from Special Counsel John Durham’s investigation into the early days of the Trump-Russia investigation hardly looks like an explosive affair. This is a single false statement that a cybersecurity lawyer linked to Hillary Clinton’s campaign allegedly made to the FBI in 2016.

Still, the stakes are high.

The verdict in the case of barrister Michael Sussmann will help shape the fate and legacy of Durham’s three-year investigation. An acquittal would expedite questions about the purpose of the investigation and the cost to taxpayers. A guilty verdict would energize Donald Trump supporters who have long looked to Durham to expose 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 allegations of misconduct by Trump’s administration during the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election in Washington. 2016 in the United States. Jurors will not be asked to decide whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin to swing the outcome of the race.

But the trial will set time back to a frenzied period in recent American history when the FBI was scrambling to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia – and Clinton’s rival campaign was eager to push its own suspicions.

WHAT IS IT ABOUT ?

Sussmann is accused of lying to FBI General Counsel James Baker during a Sept. 19, 2016, meeting in which Sussmann presented research he said suggested a possible covert communication channel between the computer servers of the Russian bank Alfa Bank and Trump. company, the Trump Organization.

The secret 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 it is not the lie at the center of the Sussmann case.

The indictment accuses Sussmann of misleading the FBI by denying that he was representing a particular client at the meeting when he was in fact acting on behalf of two clients: the Clinton campaign and a technology executive who had helped to assemble the computer data.

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WHY DOES IT MATTER AND WHAT IS SUSSMANN SAYING IN HIS DEFENSE?

If the FBI had known that Sussmann was representing the interests of the Clinton campaign, prosecutors say, they would have carefully weighed his biases and potential motivations — as well as the reliability of the information he provided — before investigating the allegations. Alfa Bank.

Prosecutors insist that it was not an errant statement either, pointing to a text message they say Sussmann sent to Baker the day before the meeting in which he requested a meeting and said he would come alone and “not on behalf of a client or a company.

Sussmann’s lawyers deny lying at the meeting and point out that it was not recorded and no one took notes. They say Sussmann’s Democratic Party affiliations were well known, including the FBI. Beyond that, they argue that the false statement Sussmann allegedly made is ultimately irrelevant as they say there is no evidence that she influenced the FBI’s decision to begin investigating the allegations. of Alfa Bank.

Additionally, they point to notes from a March 2017 FBI and Justice Department meeting in which the then Deputy FBI Director is described as telling his colleagues that the Alfa Bank claims have been presented to law enforcement by a lawyer acting on behalf of clients. Sussmann’s attorneys say this shows the FBI understood that Sussmann did indeed have a client in connection with the meeting.

They also argued that allowing the case to continue could have the effect of discouraging tipsters from reporting suspicions or potential wrongdoing to the FBI if they fear their motives or possible political biases will be examined.

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WHAT DOES THIS CASE HAVE TO DO WITH THE WORK OF SPECIAL COUNSEL ROBERT MUELLER?

The prosecution focuses on a limited slice of the initial investigation into Russia’s ties to the Trump campaign of 2016, which concluded in 2019 with a report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team.

Whatever the jury’s verdict, it won’t affect the key findings of Mueller’s report – that Russia sought to help Trump’s campaign but there’s not enough evidence to prove that either side collaborated in a criminal manner.

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

Even so, the case makes it clear that Clinton associates leveraged professional contacts to present information about Trump to the FBI that they believed to be pejorative and worthy of investigation. And it will draw attention to the little-known world of cyber-researchers who sift through Internet data for potentially suspicious trends.

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WHAT IS DURHAM SURVEY?

Durham, Connecticut’s former chief federal prosecutor, was appointed in 2019 by then-Attorney General William Barr to look into whether anyone had been at fault as federal agencies investigated election interference. Russian.

His investigation took longer than Mueller’s and he has so far charged three people, including Sussmann. Although Durham’s initial mandate was thought to focus on government officials, and although his team interviewed members of the FBI, Justice Department lawyers and CIA officials, the investigation focused on also focused on private citizens such as Sussmann who provided information about Trump.

It’s unclear how long the investigation will last, although Attorney General Merrick Garland has shown no public interest in cutting back on the job and Durham was given a specific title of special counsel in the weeks before Barr’s resignation for ensure that he could continue his work in a new administration.

In 2020, a former FBI attorney named Kevin Clinesmith pleaded guilty to altering an email related to the FBI’s covert surveillance of a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page. In seeking warrants to listen to Page, the FBI relied on an anti-Trump research file known colloquially as the “Steele Dossier” which contained unsubstantiated rumors and claims.

Last year, Durham accused a Russian analyst who was a source for the dossier of lying to the FBI about his own sources of information – including a longtime Hillary Clinton supporter. Igor Danchenko pleaded not guilty. The case is pending and will be tried in October.

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

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