WASHINGTON — FBI agents probing since-debunked claims of a secret back channel between Donald Trump and a Russian bank believed that the allegations had originated with the Department of Justice — when in fact they came from Hillary Clinton campaign attorney Michael Sussmann, who had shopped them to the bureau’s then-general counsel days earlier.
In the latest revelation to emerge from Sussmann’s trial in DC federal court on a count of lying to the FBI, special counsel John Durham’s prosecutors revealed that investigators had received an electronic communication citing a referral from the DOJ “on or about” Sept. 19, 2016, the same day Sussmann met with James Baker, then the FBI’s top lawyer.
The document, a record of the investigation being opened by agents Curtis Heide and Allison Sands and dated Sept. 23, 2016, did not mention Sussmann as the source of the allegations.
“In that referral, the DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE provided the FBI with a white paper that was produced by an anonymous third party,” the communication said, before adding: “According to the white paper, a U.S.-based server that is owned by the TRUMP ORGANIZATION has been communicating with the Russian-based ALFA BANK organization in Moscow, Russia.”
The document was circulated to several top FBI officials — including Peter Strzok, who oversaw the probe of Clinton’s email server as well as the Trump-Russia investigation, and was famously fired from the bureau in 2018 after the emergence of text messages he sent to his colleague and mistress Lisa Page in which he vowed to help “stop” Trump from winning the White House.
Sands, who testified late Monday afternoon, told jurors that she believed Heide had told her the referral came from the Department of Justice.
The error was seized on by Sussmann’s defense attorney Michael Bosworth, who grilled Sands about whether Heide had lied to her — or if someone had lied to him about the source of the material.
“You haven’t been interviewed in that [Durham] investigation?” Bosworth asked at one point. “No,” Sands responded.
Testifying for the prosecution Monday, FBI agent Ryan Gaynor revealed that bureau honchos shielded Sussmann’s identity from field agents who investigated the claims of a link between Trump and Alfa-Bank as part of a longstanding practice known as a “close hold.”
Gaynor told prosecutor Andrew DeFilippis that the decision to hide where the information originated was made by top leadership at the FBI before the Alfa-Bank material was given to the Chicago field office.
After the information was handed over to the Chicago squad, a more senior FBI agent at headquarters asked Gaynor, who had volunteered to “track” the investigation, to determine if the hold was affecting or hindering the investigation, he testified.
Gaynor determined he could “not make an argument that we needed to pull the hold [reveal Sussmann as the source] at the time” because they were waiting for information from the spam email company that was actually behind the supposed secret back channel between the Trump Organization and Alfa-Bank, he testified.
Prosecutors then introduced a series of emails from agents in the Chicago field office who were investigating or overseeing the matter and requesting they be given access to the source.
In one Oct. 3, 2016, email, agent Heide wrote to Gaynor, “We really want to interview the source of all this information. Any way we can track down who this guy is and how we’re getting this information?”
Supervisory Special Agent Daniel Wierzbicki followed up: “An interview with the source of information … may allow us to understand the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the white paper.”
Gaynor responded that it was being discussed at headquarters, but did not provide the identity of the source.
On Monday, he said he might have come to a different conclusion about the hold hindering the investigation if he had known Sussmann was acting as an attorney for the Clinton campaign when he turned over the information.
According to Gaynor, that knowledge could have “impacted the way I viewed the close hold” and that it would have been more of “an issue on the close hold on the hinder side.”
Gaynor added that had he known the source was motivated by politics or someone with a business interest that overlapped with the bureau, he might not have ever volunteered to act as a point person at agency headquarters.
During cross-examination, Bosworth repeatedly tried to poke holes in Gaynor’s previous statements to investigators, highlighting a number of instances in which the agent testified that he knew Sussmann was acting on behalf of the Democratic National Committee — even conflating the attorney and the DNC as the source of the information in his testimony before a grand jury.
Sussmann is charged with lying to the FBI when he met with Baker in September 2016 and turned over a “white paper” that showed the purported tie between the Trump Organization and Alfa-Bank.
Sussmann said he was providing the information on his own when, according to prosecutors, he was working on behalf of the Clinton campaign and another client, tech executive Rodney Joffe, who told him about the bank.
Source: Ben Feuerherd and Mark Moore, nypost.com/2022/05/23/fbi-told-agents-trump-russia-data-source-was-from-doj-not-clinton-tied-lawyer/