Michael Sussmann Is Acquitted in Case Brought by Trump-Era Prosecutor
WASHINGTON — Michael Sussmann, a prominent cybersecurity lawyer with ties to Democrats, was acquitted on Tuesday of a felony charge that he lied to the F.B.I. about having no client in 2016 when he shared a tip about possible connections between Donald J. Trump and Russia.
The verdict was a significant blow to the special counsel, John H. Durham, who was appointed by the Trump administration three years ago to scour the Trump-Russia investigation for any wrongdoing.
The case centered on odd internet data that cybersecurity researchers discovered in 2016 after it became public that Russia had hacked Democrats and Mr. Trump had encouraged the country to target Hillary Clinton’s emails.
The researchers said the data might reflect a covert communications channel using servers for the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank, which has ties to the Kremlin. The F.B.I. briefly looked at the suspicions and dismissed them.
On Sept. 19, 2016, Mr. Sussmann brought those suspicions to a senior F.B.I. official. Prosecutors accused him of falsely telling the official that he was not there on behalf of any client, concealing that he was working for both Mrs. Clinton’s campaign and a technology executive who had given him the tip.
Mr. Durham and prosecutors used court filings and trial testimony to describe how Mr. Sussmann, while working for a Democratic-linked law firm and logging his time to the Clinton campaign, had been trying to get reporters to write about the Alfa Bank suspicions.
But trying to persuade reporters to write about such suspicions is not a crime. Mr. Sussmann’s guilt or innocence turned on a narrow issue: whether he made a false statement to a senior F.B.I. official at the 2016 meeting by saying he was sharing those suspicions on behalf of no one but himself.
Mr. Durham used the case to put forward a larger conspiracy: that there was a joint enterprise to essentially frame Mr. Trump for collusion with Russia by getting the F.B.I. to investigate the suspicions so reporters would write about it. The scheme, Mr. Durham implied, involved the Clinton campaign; its opposition research firm, Fusion GPS; Mr. Sussmann; and a cybersecurity expert who had brought the odd data and analysis to him.
That insinuation thrilled Mr. Trump’s supporters, who share his view that the Russia investigation was a “hoax” and have sought to conflate the inquiry with sometimes dubious accusations. In reality, the Alfa Bank matter was a sideshow: The F.B.I. had already opened its inquiry on other grounds before Mr. Sussmann passed on the tip; the final report by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, made no mention of Alfa Bank.
But the case Mr. Durham and his team used to float their broad insinuations was thin: one count of making a false statement in a meeting with no other witnesses or contemporaneous notes. In a rebuke to the lead prosecutor, Andrew DeFilippis, and his colleagues, the 12 jurors voted unanimously to find Mr. Sussmann not guilty.
Some supporters of Mr. Trump had been bracing for that outcome. They pointed to the District of Columbia’s reputation as a heavily Democratic area and suggested that a jury might be politically biased against a Trump-era prosecutor trying to convict a defendant who was working for the Clinton campaign.
The judge told the jury that they were not to account for their political views when deciding the facts.
Mr. Durham expressed disappointment in the verdict but said he respected the decision by the jury, which deliberated for about six hours.
“I also want to recognize and thank the investigators and the prosecution team for their dedicated efforts in seeking truth and justice in this case,” he said in a statement.
Shortly after the verdict, Mr. Sussmann read a brief statement to reporters outside the courthouse, expressing gratitude to the jury, his defense team and those who supported him and his family during what had been a difficult year. He did not take any questions.
“I told the truth to the F.B.I., and the jury clearly recognized that with their unanimous verdict today,” he said, adding: “Despite being falsely accused, I am relieved that justice ultimately prevailed in this case.”
The defense had argued that Mr. Sussmann brought the matter to the F.B.I. only when he thought The New York Times was on the verge of writing an article about the matter, so that the bureau would not be caught flat-footed.
During the trial, officials for the Clinton campaign testified they had not told or authorized Mr. Sussmann to go to the F.B.I. Doing so was against their interests because they did not trust the bureau, and it could slow down the publication of any article, they said.
James Baker, as the F.B.I.’s general counsel in 2016, met with Mr. Sussmann that September. Mr. Baker testified that he had asked Eric Lichtblau, then a reporter at The New York Times working on the Alfa Bank matter, to slow down so the bureau could have time to investigate it.