Terry H. Schwadron
Sept. 18. 2021
My habit is to read the news hoping to get beyond the specific incident or remark making it a news event to determine if it fits into a context that makes it useful to notice. Otherwise, the daily outrage is just noise, particularly in our highly partisan country.
The news item about Special Counsel John Durham finally bringing a second legal action after two years of researching the origins of the probes of Russian ties to the 2016 Donald Trump campaign only seems to matter for its paucity.
Targeted is a lawyer, unknown to most of us, who looked at digital bank records for traces of Russian connections, and apparently lied to the FBI not about the substance, but whether he was working for himself, a client, or the Hilary Clinton campaign. This is a case about the billing records of attorney Michael Sussman, not whether the questions being asked were legit.
Really, is this the best he’s got after all this time?
At least the first case Durham brought involved an FBI lawyer who owned up to doctoring evidence once to justify FISA court applications, though his admission was determined not to be politically motivated, and he never went to prison.
Establishing the Special Counsel
The reason then-Atty. Gen. Bill Barr set Durham up as a special counsel was to investigate the investigators whose work led eventually to the Robert S. Mueller III report. Despite protestations by both Trump and Barr, that report detailed lots of unwarranted contact between the Trump campaign or the Trump transition team and identifiable Russian spies and operatives.
That was two years and untold millions of dollars ago. Durham has never reported complete findings. Instead, we have had tons of Republican leaders screaming about unfair or illegal probes of Trump’s ties with Russians, the firing of former FBI director James Comey Jr., and the entire Trump presidency, however flawed by strange policies involving dealings with Russia.
Trump has never escaped the notion that his personal businesses had ties with Russians, that his election campaign benefitted from Russian interference attempts with American voters through social media and rallies. The FBI has never quite escaped the idea that it had flubbed representations to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approved the FBI’s flawed applications to surveil at least one Trump associate.
The indictment charges that in the summer of 2016, Sussmann, in coordination with an unnamed tech company executive for whom he did legal work, began exploring possible digital connections between Russia-based Alfa Bank and a computer linked to the Trump Organization. At the time, Sussmann represented the Democratic National Committee as it dealt with intrusions by Russian hackers, and he communicated regularly with FBI officials on that case.
The indictment shows Sussmann’s exchanges with journalists, and that he gave information to James Baker, then the top lawyer at the FBI. The indictment says at that meeting, Sussmann “stated falsely that he was not acting on behalf of any client,” adding that in the law firm’s internal paperwork, Sussmann billed his time with Baker and time on the Alfa Bank issue to the Clinton campaign.
Where’s the Beef?
All that said, a one-count indictment against attorney Sussmann, a former federal prosecutor with expertise in computer cases, because Durham says he “lied about the capacity in which he was providing the allegations to the FBI” by claiming he was not representing a client when he was secretly acting on behalf of Clinton’s political team, hardly seems worthy of the hype.
Sussmann denied the charge in a court appearance and apparently resigned from his law firm.
As The Post noted, it is unclear how much longer Durham plans to continue his work as special counsel, but this indictment could prolong the investigation, because Durham apparently is seeking Sussmann’s cooperation against others.
Current Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland has declined to stop Durham’s work.
The Post quoted legal experts who say what seemed evident, casting doubt on the broader significance of this indictment because it feels minor. As one noted, the indictment itself says the FBI already knew Sussmann had been a lawyer for the Democratic National Committee, so where exactly is the crime here or why do we in the public care?
Using the law typically used to charge those who lie to investigating agents is likely to intensify the view that Durham’s work is politically motivated — ironic since that’s the underlying theory of his whole investigation about Democrats or an inefficient FBI.
In any event, this puny charge is hardly what Trump himself had in mind as an outcome, and it seems reasonable to expect that anti-Trumpers will say it reflects a waste of time and “an act of appeasement for a vengeful former president,” as The Post noted.
The point is that after all the public yelling, blaming, defensiveness and controversy, we seem to have pretty small ball being played here. If there’s more, it’s way overdue.