Despite acquittal, Durham trial of Sussmann added to evidence Clinton campaign plotted to tie Trump to Russia
WASHINGTON – Key allegations that tied then-candidate Donald Trump to Russia and led to the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller originated with individuals linked to Hillary Clinton and her presidential campaign, with former officials now questioning why Mueller’s team of seasoned prosecutors didn’t report those connections as part of their years-long probe.
During the trial of Michael Sussmann — the first trial stemming from Special Counsel John Durham’s years-long investigation into the origins of the Trump-Russia probe — Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook testified that Hillary Clinton herself approved the dissemination of unproven and subsequently debunked information to the media alleging a covert communications channel between the Trump Organization and Russia’s Alfa Bank.
Trump reacts to bombshell testimony that Clinton OK’d spreading Russia lie.
Those allegations fell at the center of the Sussmann trial, as Sussmann had been charged with making a false statement to the FBI when he brought that information to FBI General Counsel James Baker on Sept. 19, 2016, and allegedly claimed he was not doing work on behalf of any client, but rather bringing the data as a citizen concerned with national security. Sussmann Monday was found not guilty by a jury.
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Durham’s team alleged that Sussmann was, in fact, doing work for two clients: the Hillary Clinton campaign and a technology executive, Rodney Joffe. Following the meeting with Baker, Durham claimed Sussmann billed the Hillary Clinton campaign for his work.
Attorney Michael Sussmann was found not guilty Monday of lying to the FBI.
The FBI ultimately opened an investigation into that information, and, according to Baker’s testimony last week, the FBI found that, after weeks of investigating, “there was nothing there.”
Other FBI agents and officials testified that they were “unable to substantiate any of the allegations.”
But the debunked Trump-Alfa Bank allegations aren’t the only claims that originated with individuals related to the Clinton campaign.
The FBI on July 31, 2016, opened a counterintelligence investigation into whether candidate Donald Trump and members of his campaign were colluding or coordinating with Russia to influence the 2016 campaign. That investigation was referred to inside the bureau as “Crossfire Hurricane.”
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But on July 28, 2016, then-CIA Director John Brennan briefed then-President Obama purported proposal from one of Hillary Clinton’s campaign foreign policy advisers “to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by the Russian security service.”
Fox News first obtained and reported on Brennan’s handwritten notes memorializing that briefing.
“They are investigating an alleged Russian connection with Trump, and just weeks before the investigation began, the President and the Vice President, the FBI leadership and Strzok had been put on notice by the CIA of the fact that Hillary was going to implement a false flag operation that specifically focused on Trump and Russia,” Ty Cobb, former White House Special Counsel responsible for the Trump White House’s response to the Mueller investigation, told Fox News. “The Strzok link to the Clinton intel is undeniable, and requires further investigation which Special Counsel Durham is likely pursuing. Perhaps the DOJ IG, Mr. Horowitz, who like Durham is someone I respect greatly, is as well.”
He added: “The country certainly deserves answers.”
FBI Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok before a House hearing on "Oversight of FBI and DOJ Actions Surrounding the 2016 Election," on Capitol Hill, July 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Cobb noted that the “plan” was “so serious that Brennan briefed the president and national security advisor.” Then-National Security Advisor Susan Rice is said to have been in that July 2016 briefing.
“That is much more unusual than merely referring the matter to the FBI,” Cobb said.
But it was just ten days before Sussmann visited Baker at the FBI with the Trump-Alfa Bank allegations, on Sept. 9, 2016, that the CIA properly forwarded that information through a Counterintelligence Operational Lead (CIOL) to then-FBI Director James Comey and then-Deputy Assistant Director of Counterintelligence Peter Strzok, with the subject line: “Crossfire Hurricane.”
Fox News first obtained and reported on the CIOL, which stated: “The following information is provided for the exclusive use of your bureau for background investigative action or lead purposes as appropriate.”
“Per FBI verbal request, CIA provides the below examples of information the CROSSFIRE HURRICANE fusion cell has gleaned to date,” the memo continued. “An exchange [REDACTED] discussing US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s approval of a plan concerning US presidential candidate Donald Trump and Russian hackers hampering US elections as a means of distracting the public from her use of a private email server.”
The memo was heavily redacted.
“The memo regarding Clinton’s false Trump/Russia scheme goes to the FBI, goes specifically to Comey and Strzok — Strzok became the lead investigator for first the DOJ and later the Mueller team and hand-picked many of the other investigators,” Cobb told Fox News. “It is certain he knew, and, because he knew, it is stunning that the investigation didn’t wrap up sooner and that the final report doesn’t mention the actual undeniable genesis of the original DOJ investigation that morphed into the Mueller effort.”
Attorney Marc Elias was the general counsel for the Hillary Clinton campaign.
(David Jolkovski for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
“If Strzok had shared that information with Mueller, which I suspect he did not, it would have taken the investigation in a different direction and spared the nation two-plus years of press-fueled divisiveness and lies,” Cobb continued.
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Strzok did not respond to Fox News’ request for comment.
Meanwhile, the anti-Trump dossier was also linked to the Clinton campaign.
Christopher Steele, the former MI6 agent who set-up Orbis Business Intelligence and compiled a dossier on Donald Trump, in London.
(Victoria Jones/PA Images via Getty Images)
Clinton campaign general counsel Marc Elias testified as part of the Sussmann trial that he personally hired Fusion GPS— the opposition research firm that commissioned the now-infamous anti-Trump dossier.
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The dossier contained allegations of purported coordination between Trump and the Russian government. It was authored by Christopher Steele, an ex-British intelligence officer.
The Clinton campaign and the DNC funded the dossier through the law firm Perkins Coie, where both Elias and Sussmann were employed at the time.
The Justice Department inspector general revealed that the unverified anti-Trump dossier helped serve as the basis for controversial Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants obtained against former Trump campaign aide Carter Page.
Former Trump adviser Carter Page (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
And the 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) on Russian election interference revealed that the dossier had, at the time, only “limited corroboration.” CIA officials at the time pushed back, arguing the dossier should not be included in the assessment, casting it as simply “internet rumor.”
The dossier has now been largely discredited.
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The FBI’s investigation was handed off to Special Counsel Robert Mueller after Trump was elected. Mueller was appointed on May 17, 2017.
But Mueller’s team did not appear to focus on the allegations being linked to Clinton-affiliated individuals.
Former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker told Fox News that the Mueller team could “suggest that it was outside their scope to look at the origins of the Russian collusion story.”
Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker speaks during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Feb. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
“However, by not highlighting that the story was created by the Clinton campaign and prompted by the Clinton campaign, it calls into question their entire investigation,” Whitaker said.
Prosecutors on Mueller’s team had come under fire from then-President Donald Trump, who repeatedly referred to them as “angry Democrats.”
“As a former DOJ prosecutor myself, it is clear they lost their impartiality and violated the oath we all take as prosecutors,” former chief investigator for the House Intelligence Committee’s Trump-Russia probe Kash Patel told Fox News. “Not to mention, Andrew Weismann was the general counsel at the FBI. He knows how to investigate, obtain FISAs, and check the credibility of witnesses if he wanted to. He never wanted to, and hid behind the fake news media wall, who all covered for Mueller.”
Special Counsel Robert Mueller speaks at the Department of Justice, May 29, 2019, about the Russia investigation. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
He added: “They didn’t even need to dig, they just needed to abide by their oaths of office.”
Of the original 15 attorneys on Mueller’s staff, at least seven had donated to Democratic candidates and campaigns, including Hillary Clinton. Among these, James Quarles donated $2,700 to Clinton’s 2016 campaign, Jeannie Rhee donated a total of $5,400 to Clinton’s 2016 campaign, and Elizabeth Prelogar and Rush Atkinson donated smaller amounts. Mueller top prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, Andrew Goldstein, and Brandon Van Grack also contributed to Democrats.
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“Because of what appeared to be political biases, they should have had a more fulsome description as to how this investigation even came out,” Whitaker said. “And so, it would’ve been smart on their part to cover their bases on that, but they left the door open and, rightfully, should be criticized for not fully explaining this.”
“I just think it is really disappointing that the FBI had rejected these stories—whether it is Alfa Bank and the secret server with the Trump Organization, or the dossier that the FBI reviewed and rejected as legitimate, and somehow found a home as it traveled up the hierarchy at the FBI and ultimately led to the appointment of Mueller,” Whitaker told Fox News.
Trump Tower in Manhattan
“It is extraordinarily disappointing, and it shouldn’t happen like this,” Whitaker said.
After nearly two years, Mueller’s more-than $30 million investigation yielded no evidence of criminal conspiracy or coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian officials during the 2016 presidential election.
“The country has a right to know the answer to this question, ‘How is it that after $30 million, the fact that the Clinton campaign falsely initiated the investigation was omitted from their report?’” Cobb asked. “The simple, but incomplete, answer is Peter Strzok who didn’t share the information with his FBI colleagues on the investigation he initiated and approved.”
Cobb said that the “complete answer” refers back to the July 2016 briefing for Obama and top Obama officials.
“You don’t have to be partisan to find that scary,” Cobb said. “This needs to be pursued so a soft coup of this type can never happen again under any future administrations.”
“It’s just not going to age well,” Whitaker said.
But these Trump-Russia allegations did not only spur federal law enforcement investigations, but also congressional ones.
The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Intelligence Committee opened investigations into whether Trump and members of his campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential race.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff
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Upon declassification of thousands of pages of transcripts from House Intelligence Committee interviews, Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., under pressure from Grenell and House Republicans, ultimately released them. The transcripts revealed, among other things, that top Obama officials acknowledged they had no “empirical evidence” of collusion or a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia in the 2016 election. Fox News first reported on the transcripts.
Neither the House nor Senate investigation found evidence of collusion between Trump and Russia.
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The first two years of former President Trump’s presidency was covered by the “Russia” cloud and, after bombshell testimony from Clinton’s campaign manager last week, he is looking for vindication.
“This is one of the greatest political scandals in history,” Trump told Fox News. “For three years, I had to fight her off, and fight those crooked people off, and you’ll never get your reputation fully back.”
President-elect Donald Trump comes to the lobby to speak to members of the media at Trump Tower in New York, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016.
(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
“Where do I get my reputation back?” Trump said again.
Durham was tapped in 2019, shortly after Mueller announced his findings, by Attorney General Bill Barr to investigate the origins of the FBI’s original investigation into the Trump campaign, which led to the appointment of Mueller as special counsel.
At the time, Durham was serving as U.S. attorney for Connecticut.
Special Counsel John Durham departs the U.S. federal courthouse after opening arguments in the trial of Michael Sussmann. May 17, 2022.
Mueller’s investigation yielded no evidence of criminal conspiracy or coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian officials during the 2016 presidential election.
In October 2020, Barr appointed Durham as special counsel to ensure that he would be able to continue his investigative work — regardless of the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
Durham has indicted three people as part of his investigation: Sussmann in September 2021, Igor Danchenko in November 2021 and Kevin Clinesmith in August 2020.