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Trump-era special counsel faces first real test as Washington attorney goes on trial

In this April 25, 2006, file photo, John Durham speaks to reporters on the steps of U.S. District Court in New Haven, Conn. Durham, Connecticut's  U.S. attorney, is leading the investigation into the origins of the Russia probe. He is no stranger to high-profile, highly scrutinized investigations.
Bob Child
/
AP
In this April 25, 2006, file photo, John Durham speaks to reporters on the steps of U.S. District Court in New Haven, Conn. Durham, Connecticut's U.S. attorney, is leading the investigation into the origins of the Russia probe. He is no stranger to high-profile, highly scrutinized investigations.

A Washington attorney with ties to the Democratic party goes on trial Monday for allegedly lying to the FBI weeks ahead of the 2016 election, in the first case from Trump-era special counsel John Durham to be heard by a jury.

Michael Sussmann faces a single count of making false statements to the FBI in a September 2016 meeting with the bureau's general counsel about potential ties between a Kremlin-tied bank and a computer server at the Trump Organization.

Tapped in 2019 by Trump Attorney General William Barr to examine the genesis of the FBI's Russia investigation, Durham has only brought legal action against three people so far. Sussmann's prosecution is the first to go trial, and it will serve as the special counsel's first test before a jury.

The case is rooted in the one-on-one meeting Sussmann had on Sept. 19, 2016 with then-FBI general counsel Jim Baker. When they met, Sussmann shared information gleaned from internet data about possible ties between Russia's Alfa Bank and a computer server at Trump's company.

According to the indictment, Sussmann told Baker that he wasn't passing the material along at the behest of any client. But prosecutors say that was a lie, and that Sussmann was in fact acting on behalf of a tech executive, Rodney Joffe, as well as Hilary Clinton's presidential campaign.

Durham's team says that alleged lie mattered because it misled the FBI about the political nature of Sussmann's work. The bureau would have treated the tip differently, prosecutors say, if it had known of his political affiliations, although the FBI did follow up on Sussmann's information and ultimately concluded there wasn't sufficient evidence of a secret communication channel.

In court, prosecutors have alleged that Sussmann was part of a "joint venture," something akin to a conspiracy, with Joffe, the Clinton campaign and others to gather derogatory information about Trump, get the FBI to investigate it and then leak that information to the media.

Sussmann's attorneys, Sean Berkowitz and Michael Bosworth, have called the case "baseless and politically-inspired." They also point out that Durham hasn't charged a conspiracy case; he's only charged Sussmann with a single false statements count about whether he was acting on behalf of a client.

The trial, which opens Monday in federal court in Washington, D.C. with jury selection, is expected to last two weeks.

Durham's team says it plans to call several current and former FBI officials, including Jim Baker as well as Bill Priestap, who was the FBI's assistant director for counterintelligence in 2016.

Sussmann's attorneys, meanwhile, have said they will likely call former New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau as well as Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, among others.

Lichtblau had conversations with Sussmann and Joffe about the internet data, while Horowitz received information from Sussmann, according to the defense team.

Durham's investigation has long been buffeted by the political winds of Washington. Trump and his allies have played up the probe, often suggesting it would dig up corruption and wrongdoing at the FBI that aimed to hamstring his administration.

Democrats, in contrast, have accused Durham of conducting a politically motivated investigation and seeking to discredit the original Russia investigation.

In addition to Sussmann, Durham's probe has brought criminal action against two other people. One was a former low-level FBI attorney who pleaded guilty to doctoring an email.

The other is Igor Danchenko, a primary source for the infamous Steele dossier about alleged ties between Trump and Russia. Danchenko was indicted last year on five counts of lying to the FBI. He has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go on trial in the fall.

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