Michael Sussmann, a 57-year-old cybersecurity lawyer who had worked for the Democrats and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, pleaded not guilty in federal court on Friday in his first appearance following his indictment on charges of lying to the FBI in a 2016 meeting where he shared information about the Trump Organization and Russia.
Sussmann is only the second defendant in the two-and-a-half-year investigation of special counsel John Durham, which previously inspired Donald Trump and his supporters to believe a takedown of the FBI was coming for its actions investigating Trump and Russia.
But that hasn’t materialized. Instead, the cases Durham has brought, both false statement charges, have focused on peripheral characters flubbing details that would not have altered the main focus of the Russia investigation, which ended in the convictions of six Trump advisers and found the Trump campaign had welcomed and exploited Russia’s 2016 election interference.
Still, Sussmann’s charge has some political resonance, giving the special counsel an opportunity in this week’s charging papers to explain connections between the Clinton campaign and a cybersecurity research effort that made its way to the FBI.
Sussmann is accused of lying to FBI general counsel James Baker at a meeting in 2016 where he provided information about data that appeared to connect the Trump Organization with Alfa Bank of Russia. The Justice Department alleges Baker believed Sussmann was bringing research papers and data about the possible secret communication channel as a “good citizen,” and that Sussmann said he was not working for any client. But the private practice lawyer was in fact working for a tech industry executive and the Clinton campaign, Trump’s opponent in the election, the indictment says.
Prosecutors say if Sussmann had acknowledged he was meeting with Baker on his clients’ behalf, the FBI may have taken more steps before investigating and might have allocated resources differently.
Sussmann has vowed to fight his charge and called the prosecution politically motivated. At his 20-minute court hearing on Friday, he stood very still and responded to the judge’s questions with short answers.
A magistrate judge agreed to release Sussmann, with some travel restrictions, as he awaits trial. His next court appearance will be Wednesday before DC District Judge Christopher Cooper, who will oversee his case.
The FBI ultimately investigated the Trump Organization-Alfa Bank and found “insufficient evidence” of a secret communications channel, prosecutors said on Thursday, and that a mass marketing email company had been sending advertising for Trump hotels on the email server that raised cybersecurity researchers’ suspicions.