In accusing Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann of lying to the FBI, Special Counsel John Durham offers new evidence of the fabrications behind the Trump-Russia conspiracy theory.
The indictment of Hillary Clinton attorney Michael Sussmann offers new evidence that the Trump-Russia conspiracy theory that engulfed Trump’s term in office was itself the product of fabrications involving Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
Although Sussmann faces just one count on a false statement charge, the 27-page charging document offers an expansive window into how the Russiagate scam began, and how Democratic operatives, intelligence officials, and establishment media figures dishonestly fed it to the public.
Inventing a Trump-Russia “narrative” to “please” Democratic “VIPs”
Sussmann, until recently an attorney with Clinton campaign law firm Perkins Coie, is the second person to be charged by John Durham, the Special Counsel scrutinizing the Russia investigation.
Sussmann is accused of lying to the FBI during a September 2016 meeting in which he tried to raise alarm about “secret communications” between the Trump Organization and Russia’s Alfa Bank. Sussmann gave then-FBI attorney Jim Baker documents and data purporting to show that computer servers associated with Trump and Alfa Bank were in regular contact. This was evidence, Sussmann argued, of a possible covert back channel. According to Durham, Sussmann told Baker that he was not working “for any client,” and was simply passing on information that had been provided to him by “multiple cyber experts” who had come across the suspicious web traffic.
But according to the detailed indictment, Sussmann was in fact trying to plant a politically motivated scam.
The theory of a purported covert Trump-Alfa channel had been cooked up by an unnamed tech executive positioning himself for a top cybersecurity job in the anticipated Clinton administration. To spread this theory to the media and intelligence community, the executive and Sussmann “coordinated”, Durham says, with Mark Elias, a colleague of Sussmann’s at Perkins Coie and the top lawyer for Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
Sussmann and Elias in turn coordinated with the private intelligence company Fusion GPS. Elias had already hired the firm — on Clinton’s behalf – to produce the Steele dossier, the collection of fabricated reports by ex-British spy Christopher Steele alleging a longstanding Trump-Russia conspiracy/blackmail relationship. According to Steele, it was Sussmann, in a July 2016 meeting, who first informed him about the Alfa Bank server story. Elias kept Clinton campaign members informed as well, including the “campaign manager, communications director, and foreign policy advisor.” In February 2017, Sussmann also met with a CIA official to push the Alfa Bank narrative.
Sussmann concealed this plot from the FBI, along with the fact that he was billing Clinton for his involvement. The meeting with the FBI’s Baker, for example, was charged to the Clinton campaign as “work and communications regarding confidential project.” In fact, according to Durham, “all or nearly all” of Sussmann’s work on the Alfa Bank story prior to meeting Baker was “billed to the Clinton campaign.”
(In Sussmann’s orbit, hiding the money trail was established Russiagate practice. His law firm Perkins Coie and the Clinton campaign concealed that they had funded the Steele dossier, until a subpoena from the GOP-controlled House Intelligence Committee forced them to admit the truth in October 2017. The FBI also concealed Steele’s Democratic funders from the FISA court when it used the dossier to obtain a surveillance warrant on Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page.)
Sussmann is charged for failing to disclose that he was acting on behalf of Clinton’s team. But the indictment makes clear that Durham has uncovered a wider deception. For weeks prior to his meeting with the FBI, Sussmann worked with the unnamed technology executive (“Tech Executive-1”), who, like the Clinton campaign, was also Sussmann’s client. The executive’s “goal”, Durham says, was to create a “narrative” about Trump’s “ties to Russia” which would ultimately “please certain ‘VIPs'” – i.e., Sussmann’s clients in the Clinton campaign.
To advance this goal, the executive took advantage of his ownership position at several companies to access “public and non-public” internet data, and tasked several people to assist him. Their efforts yielded a cache of purported DNS traffic between a Trump-adjacent marketing server and Alfa Bank in Russia. According to Durham, the tech executive’s researchers expressed misgivings about the project. One team member relayed “continued doubt” about the Trump-Alfa conspiracy theory that Sussman “would later convey to the FBI,” and concerns that the project was driven not by data, but by “bias against Trump.”
To suggest even “a very weak association,” the researcher warned, “we will have to expose every trick we have in our bag.” At one point, the executive himself even admitted that the Trump-Alfa Bank traffic was not a secret channel but in fact a “red herring.” But that ultimately did not stop him from working with Sussmann to draft white papers and collect data that would be submitted to the FBI in the service of the “VIP”-catered “narrative.”
The FBI would ultimately reach the same “red herring” conclusion that the executive had concealed. As Durham notes, “the email server at issue was not owned or operated by the Trump Organization but, rather, had been administered by a mass marketing email company that sent advertisements for Trump hotels and hundreds of other clients.”
For its part, Alfa Bank has filed suit against the computer researchers involved, accusing them of doctoring computer data in a deliberate smear campaign to tie the bank to Trump. A lengthy report commissioned by Alfa Bank posits that “threat actors may have artificially created DNS activity” between Trump and Alfa Bank “to make it appear as though a connection existed, for ‘discovery’ later.”
After planting Trump-Alfa story, Clinton campaign hypes the “secret hotline”
The FBI’s investigation of the Alfa Bank theory proved to be just as fruitless as every other of the fabricated Trump-Russia conspiracy theories chased by US intelligence officials, Congressional committees and media outlets for more than three years. But Sussmann’s effort ultimately served its purpose. The FBI meeting gave journalists a news hook to publish the Alfa Bank allegations just days before the November 2016 election. (Weeks later, the DNC-funded Steele dossier would see a similar entry into public consciousness: after sitting on the salacious dossier for months, the US media was given a news hook to publish it when then-FBI Director Jim Comey – in concert with other intelligence officials – went to Trump Tower and briefed then-President-elect Trump about the alleged “pee tape.”)
On October 31st, Slate’s Franklin Foer, as well as Eric Lichtblau and Steven Lee Myers the New York Times, published stories about the Trump-Alfa Bank “secret channel.” The Times‘ story revealed that Trump campaign associates, as well as the Alfa Bank theory, was the subject of an FBI investigation. The Clinton campaign immediately promoted the story as part of its public campaign to portray Trump as a Kremlin stooge. “Computer scientists have apparently uncovered a covert server linking the Trump Organization to a Russian-based bank,” Hillary Clinton announced on Twitter. “It’s time for Trump to answer serious questions about his ties to Russia.”