A jury acquitted former Hillary Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann Tuesday on a felony charge of intentionally deceiving the FBI, a stunning blow to special counsel John Durham’s credibility as he pursues possible misconduct by U.S. intelligence agencies probing conspiracy theories about Trump-Russia collusion.
The 12-member jury made up of seven women and five men deliberated for roughly six hours over two days before convicting Sussmann after a two-week trial in federal court in Washington, D.C.
It was the first trial in a case brought by Mr. Durham since he was appointed more than three years ago to look into wrongdoing by federal investigators searching for collusion between former President Donald Trump and Russia to sway the 2016 presidential election.
More than 20 witnesses detailed the activities of Mr. Sussmann and others promoting a false theory that servers at the Trump Organization were secretly communicating with Russia’s Alfa Bank, a Moscow bank with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Sussmann was facing up to five years in prison. The acquittal restores his reputation and he is not expected to face any discipline from the D.C. Bar.
Mr. Sussmann was charged with lying to the FBI by telling top bureau lawyer James A. Baker during a meeting on Sept. 19, 2016, that he was not working on “behalf of any client” when he pitched the Alfa Bank story.
Prosecutors argued that billing records, expense reports, and other evidence show he was working for the Clinton campaign to manufacture an “October surprise” to sabotage Mr. Trump’s White House bid.
The FBI spent four months investigating the Alfa Bank claims and, after the 2016 election, concluded they were meritless. Special counsel Robert Mueller also said there was no evidence to support the allegation.
Jurors were presented with billing records showing Mr. Sussmann was on the clock for the Clinton campaign the day of the Baker meeting. Other evidence included an expense report charging the Clinton campaign for two flash drives. Mr. Sussmann presented Mr. Baker with two flash drives detailing the Alfa Bank theory, though it is not clear if they were the same as the ones he handed to Mr. Baker.
“The defendant knew that he had to hide his clients if there was any chance of getting his allegations to the FBI,” prosecutor Jonathan Algor said during closing arguments Friday. “It wasn’t about national security. It was about promoting opposition research against the opposition candidate Donald Trump.”
Defense attorneys insisted Mr. Susmann did not lie, but rather passed along the Alfa Bank information as a good citizen worried about a serious national security threat.
Sean Berkowitz, a lawyer for Mr. Sussmann, accused Mr. Durham’s team of trying to “misdirect” the jury by coercing witnesses to land a conviction in a case they said “should’ve never been brought” in the first place.
“Mr. Sussmann’s liberty is at stake. The time for political conspiracy theories is over,” Mr. Berkowitz said during closing arguments. “The time to talk about the evidence is now.”
Mr. Berkowitz told jurors that Mr. Baker and two other government witnesses had been under investigation themselves suggesting that they had incentives to tell prosecutors what they wanted to hear.
“It’s no wonder he delivered on the stand,” Mr. Berkowitz said of Mr. Baker, who was also under investigation by the Durham team.
Mr. Sussmann decided against testifying and his team barely put on a defense. They wrapped up their case in one day.
They called two former Justice Department officials who couldn’t recall key moments of a meeting in which Mr. Sussmann’s political ties were discussed. Another two witnesses, former Justice Department colleagues, testified about Mr. Sussmann’s character and integrity but said they had no knowledge of evidence in the case.
The trial was viewed as a major test for Mr. Durham, and an acquittal was a significant defeat for him. It will likely intensify Democrats’ calls for Attorney General Merrick Garland to shut down his three-year-old investigation.
Democrats viewed Mr. Sussmann’s indictment as a political prosecution undertaken by Mr. Durham to keep his probe ongoing amid periods of no public activity.
The not-guilty verdict also will intensify Republicans’ disappointment that Mr. Durham has failed to deliver explosive indictments or stunning revelations that Mr. Trump had predicted.
Still, the Sussmann trial delivered several bombshells that Republicans say demonstrated the success of Mr. Durham’s probe.
Former Clinton campaign chairman Robby Mook testified that Mrs. Clinton personally approved of releasing the Alfa Bank allegations to the media, even though the campaign wasn’t sure about their accuracy.
Current and former FBI employees testified about how top bureau officials took steps to obscure Mr. Sussmann’s identity and ties to the Clinton campaign from field agents working the Alfa Bank case.
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