WASHINGTON — The defense team for a cybersecurity lawyer who was indicted in September by a Trump-era special counsel asked a judge on Monday to set a trial date sooner than the prosecutor wants — while disclosing evidence recently turned over to them that appears to contradict the charge.
The materials could make it harder for the special counsel, John H. Durham, to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the cybersecurity lawyer, Michael Sussmann, is guilty of the charge against him: making a false statement to the F.B.I. during a September 2016 meeting about possible links between Donald J. Trump and Russia.
The newly disclosed evidence consists of records of two Justice Department interviews of the former F.B.I. official to whom Mr. Sussmann is accused of lying, each of which offers a different version of the key interaction than the version in the indictment. That official is the prosecution’s main witness.
The existence of the evidence, which Mr. Durham’s team provided to Mr. Sussmann’s team last week, “only underscores the baseless and unprecedented nature of this indictment and the importance of setting a prompt trial date so that Mr. Sussmann can vindicate himself as soon as possible,” the defense lawyers wrote.
While Mr. Durham wants to wait until July 25 to start the trial, they said, the defense team urged the judge to set a start date of May 2.
A spokesman for Mr. Durham declined to comment.
The indictment centered on a September 2016 meeting between Mr. Sussmann and James A. Baker, who was then the F.B.I.’s general counsel. Mr. Sussmann relayed analysis by cybersecurity researchers who cited odd internet data they said appeared to reflect some kind of covert communications between computer servers associated with the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank, a Kremlin-linked Russian financial institution. (The F.B.I. briefly looked into the Alfa Bank suspicions, but dismissed them as unfounded.)
Mr. Durham’s indictment accused Mr. Sussmann of falsely saying he was not there on behalf of any client. Through his lawyers, Mr. Sussmann has denied saying that to Mr. Baker.
The indictment also said that Mr. Sussmann was in fact representing both a technology executive and the Hillary Clinton campaign. Mr. Sussmann has maintained he was only there on behalf of the executive, and not the Clinton campaign.
No one else was present at the meeting, and if the trial boils down to pitting Mr. Baker’s memory against Mr. Sussmann’s, the newly disclosed evidence will provide fodder for the defense team to show that Mr. Baker’s accounts of that aspect of the meeting have been inconsistent, and to raise doubts about the reliability of the version cited by Mr. Durham.
The newly disclosed evidence consists of partly redacted records of two of Mr. Baker’s interviews with the Justice Department. The court filing appended copies of several pages of a transcript and an interview report.
In July 2019, Mr. Baker was interviewed by the Justice Department’s inspector general about the meeting. Mr. Baker stated, according to a two-page transcript excerpt, that Mr. Sussmann had brought him information “that he said related to strange interactions that some number of people that were his clients, who were, he described as I recall it, sort of cybersecurity experts, had found.”
The newly disclosed evidence also includes a page of a report Mr. Durham’s team made to summarize an interview they conducted with Mr. Baker in June 2020. According to that report, Mr. Baker did not say that Mr. Sussmann told him he was not there on behalf of any client. Rather, he said the issue never came up and he merely assumed Mr. Sussmann was not conveying the Alfa Bank data and analysis for any client.
“Baker said that Sussmann did not specify that he was representing a client regarding the matter, nor did Baker ask him if he was representing a client,” the Durham team’s report said. “Baker said it did not seem like Sussmann was representing a client.”
Mr. Baker later told Bill Priestap, then the F.B.I.’s top counterintelligence official, about the meeting. According to the indictment, Mr. Priestap’s handwritten notes list Mr. Sussmann’s name and law firm and then, after a dash, states “said not doing this for any client.” (It is not clear whether such notes would be admissible at a trial.)
The former Trump administration attorney general, William P. Barr, appointed Mr. Durham to scour the Russia investigation for evidence of wrongdoing by government officials pursuing it. The Sussmann indictment, however, portrayed the F.B.I. as a victim.
Mr. Durham used the narrow charge against Mr. Sussmann to put out, in a 27-page indictment, large amounts of other information.
He showed that Mr. Sussmann had interacted about Alfa Bank with a colleague at his law firm who represented the Clinton campaign, and that in accounting for his own time on the Alfa Bank matter in law firm billing records, Mr. Sussmann listed the campaign as the client. (Mr. Sussmann had represented the Democratic Party about Russia’s hacking of its servers.)
Mr. Durham also put out significant amounts of information about the technology executive and three other cybersecurity researchers who had discovered the odd internet data and developed the theory that it reflected some kind of hidden communications, including mining emails in which they discussed what it might mean.
Although Mr. Durham did not charge the researchers with any crime, he insinuated that they did not really believe what they were saying. Mr. Trump and his supporters seized on the indictment, saying it showed the Alfa Bank suspicions were a hoax by Clinton supporters and portraying it as evidence that the entire Russia investigation was unwarranted.
Lawyers for those data scientists have pushed back, saying their clients believed their theory was a plausible explanation for the odd data they had uncovered — and still do. They have also accused Mr. Durham of putting forward a misleading portrayal in his indictment by selectively excerpting fragments of their clients’ emails, omitting portions that showed their clients enthusiastically supported the final analysis.
The transcript and statement add to materials already in the public record, in which Mr. Sussmann and Mr. Baker recalled that meeting in sworn testimony in ways that do not clearly dovetail with the indictment’s accusation.
In a deposition before Congress in 2017, Mr. Sussmann testified that he had sought the meeting on behalf of a client who was a cybersecurity expert and had helped analyze the data. And in a deposition to Congress in 2018, Mr. Baker said he did not remember Mr. Sussmann “specifically saying that he was acting on behalf of a particular client.”
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