Evidence Muddles Durham’s Case on Sussmann’s F.B.I. Meeting
One disclosure dovetails with the special counsel John Durham’s indictment against Michael Sussmann, while several others clash with it.,
WASHINGTON — When a special counsel accused a prominent cybersecurity lawyer of lying to the F.B.I. during a September 2016 meeting about Donald J. Trump’s possible links to Russia, the indictment presented a lengthy narrative but the direct evidence appeared lean.
The indictment said the lawyer, Michael A. Sussmann, had made a false statement by telling an F.B.I. official that he was not representing a client in presenting the information. Mr. Sussmann, who has pleaded not guilty, has denied saying that. No one else was present and their conversation was not recorded, so the direct and clearly admissible evidence appeared to boil down to one witness.
This week, additional pieces of evidence emerged into public view that were not in the indictment — one of which appears to dovetail with the accusation against Mr. Sussmann by the special counsel, John H. Durham, who was appointed during the Trump administration, while several others appear to conflict with it.
The material emerged in court filings and at a status conference before a judge on Wednesday.
It is not clear whether all of the newly disclosed evidence will be admissible. But the jostling between prosecutors and defense lawyers could offer a preview of aspects of the trial, which they said on Wednesday would last about two weeks and Judge Christopher R. Cooper said could begin in May or early June.
While the charge against Mr. Sussmann is narrow, it has received significant political attention in part because Mr. Durham concluded that the Hillary Clinton campaign had helped push the suspicions, which concerned possible secret communications between computer servers associated with Mr. Trump’s company and the Kremlin-linked Alfa Bank. The F.B.I. decided the suspicions were unfounded.
In accusing Mr. Sussmann of telling the F.B.I. official — James A. Baker, then the bureau’s general counsel — that he had no clients, Mr. Durham claimed that Mr. Sussmann was actually representing both a technology executive and the Clinton campaign. Mr. Sussmann, via his lawyers, denied that he told Mr. Baker that he had no client, while maintaining he was there on behalf of only the executive, not the campaign.
One piece of newly disclosed evidence, described in a filing by Mr. Durham’s team on Tuesday evening, consists of handwritten notes by an F.B.I. lawyer to whom Mr. Baker spoke about the meeting that day. The Durham filing quoted the notes as saying “no specific client.”
That evidence is similar to another set of handwritten notes previously cited in the indictment by another F.B.I. official who also spoke to Mr. Baker after the meeting. The indictment quoted those notes as listing Mr. Sussmann’s name, then a dash, then the name of his law firm, then a dash, and then the words “said not doing this for any client.”
It is not clear whether such notes — or testimony by the F.B.I. officials who took them — would be admissible at a trial under complex rules of evidence. Those rules generally ban statements made outside court as hearsay, but they make exceptions subject to judges’ interpretations.
The indictment also said that in February 2017, Mr. Sussmann met with the C.I.A. and conveyed similar and related concerns, citing a post-meeting memorandum by two agency employees that said he was “not representing a particular client.” Mr. Durham portrayed that as showing Mr. Sussmann had repeated a false statement.
But at the hearing on Wednesday, a lawyer for Mr. Sussmann, Sean Berkowitz, cited evidence turned over by the prosecutors last week that muddies that picture by suggesting he may instead have told them he had a client.
Emails by agency personnel ahead of the meeting, Mr. Berkowitz said, included statements like “Sussmann said he represents a client who does not want to be known” and “the plan should be to convince Sussmann that it is in his and his client’s interest to go to the F.B.I.” A draft version of the agency’s post-meeting memo also referred to Mr. Sussmann having a client, he said.
A prosecutor working for Mr. Durham, Andrew DeFilippis, told the judge that “although we’re not, you know, interested in a full factual debate before the court,” an agency employee had spotted the reference to a client in the draft memo and “corrected” it for the final version. Mr. De Filippis did not address references to a client in the earlier emails.
Those disclosures followed a court filing on Monday by Mr. Sussmann’s defense team that revealed contradictory things Mr. Baker had said under oath about the key interaction in Justice Department interviews, which Mr. Durham’s team disclosed to them last week.
In 2019 and 2020 interviews, Mr. Baker recalled the interaction in two different ways that each clashed with the indictment’s version. In the first, he said Mr. Sussmann told him the cyberexperts who developed the Alfa Bank theory “were his clients.” In the second, he said Mr. Sussmann never said if he was representing anyone and Mr. Baker didn’t ask, but assumed he had no client.
In the Tuesday court filing, Mr. Durham’s team accused the defense of “cherry-picking” the evidence and putting forward a “skewed portrayal.”
The 2019 and 2020 interviews “occurred years after the events in question, and Mr. Baker made these statements before he had the opportunity to refresh his recollection with contemporaneous or near-contemporaneous notes,” they said, adding that he had since “affirmed and then re-affirmed his now-clear recollection of the defendant’s false statement.”