Sussmann indictment: "Bizarre coda," or harbinger of deep-state exposure? Update: Watch Sullivan?

AP Photo/Bob Child, File

Just what does the indictment of Michael Sussmann portend? MSNBC’s Barbara McQuade called it a “bizarre coda” to John Durham’s investigation, which seems to be the most unlikely bet on this last-minute action by the special counsel. To get there, McQuade tries to shift focus to an early-on debunked part of the overall-debunked Russia-collusion theory, and overlooks Sussmann’s links at the same time:

It is hard to see how the case Durham filed on Thursday against Washington lawyer Michael Sussmann meets Justice Department standards. The indictment alleges that Sussmann met with FBI General Counsel Jim Baker in September 2016 to provide information about connections between a Russian bank and the Trump Organization. The FBI was unable to substantiate any links between Alfa Bank and former President Donald Trump’s businesses, but the charge against Sussman — making false statements to the FBI — doesn’t allege that the substance of the information was false. Instead, Sussman is accused of having misrepresented on whose behalf he was providing it.

Well, yes, and that misrepresentation turned out to be highly material. Sussmann at the time represented the DNC and had been providing assistance to the Hillary Clinton campaign, a connection that Sussmnan kept hidden from the FBI. Sussmann passed along the rumor that Vladimir Putin-connected Alfa Bank had a server dedicated to Donald Trump’s finances to Fusion GPS and Christopher Steele, which had the effect of laundering that claim right back into the Steele dossier. He also passed that information to the FBI, without informing agents that he was working for Trump’s opponent at the time, as the indictment alleges:

Furthermore, the indictment alleges the information was indeed false, and that Sussmann hid his own collusion with the Clinton campaign in passing it along, wasting FBI resources:

This isn’t just a game of “telephone” gone wrong, as McQuade later argues. It smells of a deliberate political dirty trick that worked far too well, tying the nation up for two years in a pointless hysteria over supposed Russian collusion. The allegation that Sussmann deliberately lied points to a larger argument that the Clinton campaign and DNC may have cooked the whole thing up — perhaps with the participation of the FBI, or at least a handful of its agents.

Also, the fact that Durham got this indictment under the statute-of-limitations wire tells Andrew McCarthy that more is afoot here than a coda. The indictment itself has so much detail, McCarthy wrote over the weekend, that it makes clear Durham has a broader story to tell in his future actions:

It is unusual for a one-count false-statement charge, which can be alleged in a paragraph, to be presented as a 27-page speaking indictment. But Durham wrote a highly detailed account of the facts and circumstances surrounding the false-statements charge. It is significant in that it tells us far more about his investigation.

Here is where the prosecutor appears to be going: The Trump–Russia collusion narrative was essentially a fabrication of the Clinton campaign that was peddled to the FBI (among other government agencies) and to the media by agents of the Clinton campaign — particularly, its lawyers at Perkins Coie — who concealed the fact that they were quite intentionally working on the campaign’s behalf, and that they did not actually believe there was much, if anything, to the collusion narrative. It was serviceable as political dirt but would not amount to anything real for criminal or national-security purposes.

Sussmann allegedly told Baker that he was not working for any client when he brought Baker sensitive information — even though Perkins Coie client-billing records obtained by Durham show that Sussmann was logging his time as spent working for the firm’s Clinton campaign account. The indictment describes the information Sussmann gave Baker as expert analyses (mainly in the form of white papers), which showed a back-channel connection between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. The back channel was said to be established by Internet communications between servers at Trump Tower and at Alfa Bank (a top Russian bank said to have Putin-regime connections).

In fact, the indictment alleges, Sussmann was working for the Clinton campaign and another client — an unidentified cyber expert and executive (Tech Executive-1) — who was expecting to get an important government cybersecurity job if Clinton was elected. (The executive made clear that he — the indictment describes a he — had no interest in working for Trump.)

What Durham describes in the indictment will confirm many people in their most cynical perceptions of a sinister Washington deep state.

It might get even worse than that. Over the weekend, I spoke with a senior Trump administration official with access to intelligence regarding the significance of the Sussmann indictment. He pointed to House Intelligence Committee transcripts declassified in a fight between the White House and Adam Schiff last year. Pay attention to those transcripts, the former official advised, because those made it clear that the FBI knew the Alfa Bank theory was nonsense — but used it to push forward nonetheless on the Russia-collusion theory. That was one reason Schiff tried to stop declassification of the transcripts, and those are the reason that Durham could get the grand jury indictment on Sussmann at all. Some of the agents that worked with Sussmann remain in the bureau, he also said, and that will go to McCarthy’s larger point about the “deep state” and the effort to push Trump out of office. There may also be a broader scope involving former officials in the Obama administration regarding politicization of intelligence, a few of whom have returned in the Biden administration — notably in the State Department. Stay tuned.

Clearly, more is happening than a mop-up for Durham. It seems highly unlikely that Durham would have bothered with this 18 USC 1001 violation if it only amounted to a “coda.” That doesn’t mean that Durham will be able to secure any more indictments, nor does it mean that Durham can get Sussmann to flip on his former clients, but Durham almost certainly has a bigger story to tell. When he does, will the media exert anywhere near the same energy to highlight it as they put into the Russia-collusion hoax in the first place? You don’t need to stay tuned to know the answer to that question … but stay tuned as well for that anyway.

Update: I very consistently misspelled Sussmann’s last name. I have now fixed it, including in the headline. My apologies for the error.

Update: I missed this on Saturday, but Jonathan Turley thinks one person in the White House should be very, very worried:

One line, however, seems to reverberate for those of us who have followed this scandal for years now: “You do realize that we will have to expose every trick we have in our bag.”

That warning from an unnamed “university researcher” captures the most fascinating aspect of the indictment in describing a type of Nixonian dirty tricks operation run by — or at least billed to — the Clinton campaign. With Nixon, his personal attorney and the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) paid for operatives to engage in disruptive and ultimately criminal conduct targeting his opponents. With Clinton, the indictment and prior disclosures suggest that Clinton campaign lawyers at the law firm of Perkins Coie helped organize an effort to spread Russia collusion stories and trigger an investigation. …

The Clinton team denied involvement in the creation of the Steele dossier throughout the 2016 campaign despite direct media inquiries. It was only after the election that mysterious expenses for its legal counsel led reporters to discover the truth. The payments for the dossier were masked as “legal fees” among the $5.6 million paid to the law firm. According to New York Times reporter Ken Vogel, Elias categorically denied involvement in the anti-Trump dossier; when Vogel tried to report the story, he said Elias “pushed back vigorously, saying ‘You (or your sources) are wrong.’” Times reporter Maggie Haberman later wrote that “folks involved in funding this lied about it, and with sanctimony, for a year.”

According to the indictment, Sussman told the truth — and contradicted what he’d originally told the FBI general counsel — when interviewed under oath in December 2017 before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, telling them he did not hold the meeting of his own volition but at the request of a client.

Notably, another Clinton figure pushing the Alpha Bank conspiracy was Jake Sullivan, who now weighs intelligence reports for President Biden as his national security adviser. Sullivan, a senior policy adviser to Clinton, declared in an official campaign press statement that the Alpha Bank allegation “could be the most direct link yet between Donald Trump and Moscow” and portrayed it as the work of independent experts: “Computer scientists have apparently uncovered a covert server linking the Trump Organization to a Russian-based bank. This secret hotline may be the key to unlocking the mystery of Trump’s ties to Russia. … This line of communication may help explain Trump’s bizarre adoration of Vladimir Putin.”

It wouldn’t be the first Clinton-connected debacle with Sullivan’s fingerprints on it, but it’s still too early to say whether Sullivan cooked it up or just helped serve the meal afterward.