WASHINGTON – A lawyer for the Hillary Clinton campaign charged with lying to the FBI during the Trump-Russia investigation is asking a judge to block from his upcoming trial evidence or testimony related to a dossier of uncorroborated allegations compiled by an-ex British spy.
Attorneys for Michael Sussmann said prosecutors on special counsel John Durham’s team told them last month that they plan to introduce testimony related to the so-called “Steele dossier," a collection of Democratic-funded research assembled by former British operative Christopher Steele that purported to link Donald Trump to Russia. The dossier contains unproven and discredited assertions but the FBI relied on it in part as agents applied for secret surveillance warrants during the Russia investigation.
Sussmann's attorneys argued in a Monday night filing that the Steele dossier is irrelevant to the case against their client, and that testimony about it at a trial scheduled for next month would be inflammatory and prejudicial.
“Any modicum of relevance would be so substantially outweighed by risk of confusion, delay, waste, and unfair prejudice as to require this evidence be precluded,” Sussmann's attorneys wrote, telling U.S. District Judge Christopher “Casey” Cooper that Durham's team should not be permitted to turn the trial “into a circus full of sideshows that will only fuel partisan fervor.”
The motion is one of several from both prosecutors and defense lawyers aimed at shaping the scope of evidence for a trial that is expected to be closely watched and politically charged. In seeking to preclude testimony related to the dossier, Sussmann's attorneys are looking to head off discussion before the jury about one of the more incendiary and divisive aspects of the entire Russia investigation.
Trump supporters have long seen the dossier as proof that the overall investigation was tainted, and having it featured prominently in the trial of a former Clinton ally could boost their case that the probe was politically motivated. Even so, despite the attention paid to the dossier, the material was not what triggered the Trump-Russia investigation.
Sussmann is charged with lying to the FBI during a September 2016 meeting in which he relayed concerns from cybersecurity researchers about a potential covert backchannel of digital communications between the Trump Organization and Russia-based Alfa Bank.
Prosecutors say Sussmann misled the FBI's then-general counsel, James Baker, by saying he was not presenting the Alfa Bank allegations to the FBI on behalf of any client, when he was actually there on behalf of the Clinton campaign and a technology executive with whom he'd been working.
The Durham team alleged Monday night that the meeting was not the only time Sussmann had made that representation.
Prosecutors said he sent a text message to Baker the night before the meeting, requesting a short conversation about a sensitive subject and saying, “I’m coming on my own — not on behalf of a client or company — want to help the Bureau.”
Sussmann’s lawyers have vigorously denied that he lied, and said that even if he had misled the FBI, it had no bearing on the investigation or on the bureau's decision to look into concerns about Alfa Bank. The FBI did investigate the possible existence of a secret backchannel of communications but concluded there was no basis to the claims.
In their own filing, Durham's team made clear their interest in Steele and his dossier, suggesting they may reference at trial a meeting in the summer of 2016 in which Steele has said Sussmann told him about the Alfa Bank allegations. Sussmann has told Congress that the purpose of the meeting was for him to “vet” Steele for the Clinton campaign, the motion states.
A separate point of dispute concerns contemporaneous notes taken by two FBI officials with whom Baker spoke after his meeting with Sussmann. Both officials, William Priestap and Trisha Anderson, included in their notes variations of Baker's recollection that Sussmann said he had not been acting on behalf of any particular client.
Sussmann's attorneys asked a judge to exclude those notes from trial, calling them “triple-hearsay” since neither Priestap nor Anderson was in the meeting and since Baker did not record his conversation with Sussmann or take any notes on it. Durham's team is asking the judge to let them use the notes at trial, saying they will bolster Baker's testimony.
Prosecutors are also seeking a judge's permission to let them use as evidence an Oct. 31, 2016, tweet from the Clinton campaign that advanced the Alfa Bank suspicions.
Durham, a former U.S. Attorney in Connecticut, was appointed in 2019 by then-Attorney General William Barr to look for government misconduct during the investigation into Russian election interference in 2016 and possible ties to Trump's presidential campaign.
Sussmann is one of three people charged so far. The other two are Kevin Clinesmith, a former FBI lawyer who pleaded guilty to altering an email and received probation, and Igor Danchenko, a Russian analyst and source of information for Steele who was charged in November with lying to the FBI during a 2017 interview.
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