The trial of Hillary Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann kicks off Monday in Washington, DC, and will feature a cast of characters related to the 2016 election.
Sussmann was indicted last year by special counsel John Durham, the Trump-era prosecutor who has spent the last three years reviewing the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation.
Here’s a breakdown of the key figures that will be featured prominently at Sussmann’s trial.
Durham is the Justice Department special counsel who charged Sussmann. Former Attorney General William Barr tasked Durham in early 2019 with reviewing the Trump-Russia investigation.
He had a reputation as an apolitical fact-finder who took on tough cases. But some legal experts have criticized his handling of the current investigation, which has become a cause célèbre in right-wing circles. Former President Donald Trump has repeatedly hyped up the Durham probe, suggesting without proof that it could lead to indictments of top Democrats, even Clinton herself.
Sussmann is a lawyer who has focused on cybersecurity and privacy matters. During the 2016 campaign, he worked for the law firm Perkins Coie and represented the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. He helped the DNC after Russian hackers breached its servers, stole thousands of internal emails, and released the material through WikiLeaks.
The case revolves around a meeting Sussmann had with a top FBI official in September 2016. During that meeting, Sussmann passed along a tip about strange cyber activity between the Trump Organization and Moscow-based Alfa Bank. Durham says Sussmann broke the law by falsely telling the FBI official that he wasn’t there on behalf of any client. He pleaded not guilty.
Alfa Bank is the largest private bank in Russia. In 2016, data scientists uncovered information that they believed suggested a communications backchannel between the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank. The researchers passed the data to Sussmann, who gave it to the FBI during his September 2016 meeting. The FBI ultimately concluded that there weren’t improper cyber links.
Both companies denied that there was any backchannel. The Senate Intelligence Committee looked into the matter as part of its bipartisan inquiry into potential Trump-Russia collusion. The final report accepted the FBI’s conclusions but also noted that the explanations that Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization provided regarding the unusual cyberactivity “were not consistent.”
James Baker was the FBI’s general counsel from 2014 to 2017. He is the FBI official that met with Sussmann in September 2016 where Sussmann passed along the Trump-Alfa Bank information.
He will be a major witness for the prosecution, because he was the only other person in the room when Sussmann allegedly lied about his clients. Sussmann’s lawyers have attacked Baker’s credibility because he has given differing accounts of their meeting over the years.
Fusion GPS is an opposition research company that was indirectly paid by the Clinton campaign to dig up dirt about Trump’s connections to Russia. The company had previously been hired by anti-Trump Republicans, but the Clinton campaign picked up the tab after the GOP primaries.
The company hired retired British spy Christopher Steele to investigate Trump’s dealings in Russia, and his work led to the infamous Steele dossier. Fusion GPS’ founders prodded journalists to publish stories tying Trump to Russia during the 2016 campaign, based on their opposition research, according to emails that were made public as part of the Sussmann case.
Perkins Coie is the law firm where Sussmann worked in 2016. It was the primary firm retained by Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee to handle election matters.
The law firm has pushed back against Durham’s attempts to obtain internal emails about its dealings with Fusion GPS during the 2016 campaign. The judge in Sussmann’s case has privately examined the emails and will decide if they are protected by attorney-client privilege.
CNN previously reported that Durham subpoenaed Perkins Coie after Sussmann’s indictment, which is an indication that the special counsel could be trying to build a broader criminal case.
Marc Elias is a prominent Democratic attorney who worked for Perkins Coie in 2016. He has worked as a top lawyer for every Democratic presidential nominee since at least 2004. In recent years, he started his own firm and has been a leading figure pushing for expanded voting rights.
He was a key intermediary between the Clinton campaign and Fusion GPS during the 2016 election, and the campaign’s payments to Fusion were routed through Elias’ firm at the time.
As part of the Sussmann case, Elias submitted a sworn statement to the court saying that he hired Fusion GPS to help with legal matters and to vet the accuracy of potential campaign statements about Trump’s ties to Russia. The dispute over whether Fusion GPS was a legal consultant or research shop recently led to the Clinton campaign paying a small federal fine.
Rodney Joffe is a cybersecurity expert who recently retired as a top executive at a technology company called Neustar. He was one of Sussmann’s clients in 2016, and Durham has accused Sussmann of illegally hiding this relationship while passing along the Trump-Alfa tip to the FBI.
According to the Sussmann indictment, Joffe directed data scientists to look for potential links between Trump and Russia, which led to the discovery of the strange cyberactivity between the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank. The indictment also quoted emails where Joffe claimed to have been offered a top cybersecurity position in a potential Clinton administration, if she won.
Special counsel prosecutors have said there is an active criminal investigation into Joffe and whether he defrauded the US government by misusing internet data involved in government contracts to look for derogatory information about Trump. Prosecutors previously said Joffe’s conduct “falls within the scope of an investigation,” and that he is a subject, not target, of the inquiry. Joffe denies wrongdoing and his lawyers claimed Durham is pushing an “unfounded political narrative through false innuendo.”
Steele is the retired British spy who wrote a dossier containing unverified and explosive claims about Trump in 2016. Since then, a series of government investigations and private lawsuits discredited many of Steele’s central allegations about Trump’s supposed collusion with Russia.
Trump has denied all allegations and says the Steele dossier was a shoddy political smear.
Durham’s team has previously indicated that they’ll bring up the Steele dossier at trial – which fits with the pattern of Durham using his court cases to relitigate the 2016 election. The judge has said he’ll police how much of this material is relevant to the charge against Sussmann.