In accusing Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann of lying to the FBI, Special Counsel John Durham offers new evidence of the fabrications behind the Trump-Russia conspiracy theory.
The indictment of Hillary Clinton attorney Michael Sussmann offers new evidence that the Trump-Russia conspiracy theory that engulfed Trump’s term in office was itself the product of fabrications involving Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
Although Sussmann faces just one count on a false statement charge, the 27-page charging document offers an expansive window into how the Russiagate scam began, and how Democratic operatives, intelligence officials, and establishment media figures dishonestly fed it to the public.
Inventing a Trump-Russia “narrative” to “please” Democratic “VIPs”
Sussmann, until recently an attorney with Clinton campaign law firm Perkins Coie, is the second person to be charged by John Durham, the Special Counsel scrutinizing the Russia investigation.
Sussmann is accused of lying to the FBI during a September 2016 meeting in which he tried to raise alarm about “secret communications” between the Trump Organization and Russia’s Alfa Bank. Sussmann gave then-FBI attorney Jim Baker documents and data purporting to show that computer servers associated with Trump and Alfa Bank were in regular contact.
This was evidence, Sussmann argued, of a possible covert back channel. According to Durham, Sussmann told Baker that he was not working “for any client,” and was simply passing on information that had been provided to him by “multiple cyber experts” who had come across the suspicious web traffic.
But according to the detailed indictment, Sussmann was in fact cooking up a politically motivated scam.
The theory of a purported covert Trump-Alfa channel had been concocted by an unnamed tech executive positioning himself for a top cybersecurity job in the anticipated Clinton administration. To spread the theory to the media and intelligence community, the executive and Sussmann “coordinated”, Durham says, with Mark Elias, a colleague of Sussmann’s at Perkins Coie and the top lawyer for Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
Sussmann and Elias in turn coordinated with the private intelligence company Fusion GPS. Elias had already hired the firm – on Clinton’s behalf – to produce the Steele dossier, the collection of fabricated reports by ex-British spy Christopher Steele alleging a longstanding Trump-Russia conspiracy/blackmail relationship. According to Steele, it was Sussmann, in a July 2016 meeting, who first informed him about the Alfa Bank server story. Elias kept Clinton campaign members informed as well, including the “campaign manager, communications director, and foreign policy advisor.” In February 2017, Sussmann also met with a CIA official to push the Alfa Bank narrative.
Sussmann concealed this plot from the FBI, along with the fact that he was billing Clinton for his involvement. The meeting with the FBI’s Baker, for example, was charged to the Clinton campaign as “work and communications regarding confidential project.” In fact, according to Durham, “all or nearly all” of Sussmann’s work on the Alfa Bank story prior to meeting Baker was “billed to the Clinton campaign.”
(In Sussmann’s orbit, hiding the money trail was established Russiagate practice. His law firm Perkins Coie and the Clinton campaign concealed that they had funded the Steele dossier, until a subpoena from the GOP-controlled House Intelligence Committee forced them to admit the truth in October 2017. The FBI also concealed Steele’s Democratic funders from the FISA court when it used the dossier to obtain a surveillance warrant on Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page.)
Sussmann is charged for failing to disclose that he was acting on behalf of Clinton’s team. But the indictment makes clear that Durham has uncovered a wider deception. For weeks prior to his meeting with the FBI, Sussmann worked with the unnamed technology executive (“Tech Executive-1”), who, like the Clinton campaign, was also Sussmann’s client. The executive’s “goal”, Durham says, was to create a “narrative” about Trump’s “ties to Russia” which would ultimately “please certain ‘VIPs'” – i.e., Sussmann’s clients in the Clinton campaign.
To advance this goal, the executive took advantage of his ownership position at several companies to access “public and non-public” internet data, and tasked several people to assist him. Their efforts yielded a cache of purported DNS traffic between a Trump-adjacent marketing server and Alfa Bank in Russia. According to Durham, the tech executive’s researchers expressed misgivings about the project. One team member relayed “continued doubt” about the Trump-Alfa conspiracy theory that Sussman “would later convey to the FBI,” and concerns that the project was driven not by data, but by “bias against Trump.”
To suggest even “a very weak association,” the researcher warned, “we will have to expose every trick we have in our bag.” At one point, the executive himself even admitted that the Trump-Alfa Bank traffic was not a secret channel but in fact a “red herring.” But that ultimately did not stop him from working with Sussmann to draft white papers and collect data that would be submitted to the FBI in the service of the “VIP”-catered “narrative.”
The FBI would ultimately reach the same “red herring” conclusion that the executive had concealed. As Durham notes, “the email server at issue was not owned or operated by the Trump Organization but, rather, had been administered by a mass marketing email company that sent advertisements for Trump hotels and hundreds of other clients.”
For its part, Alfa Bank has filed suit against the computer researchers involved, accusing them of doctoring computer data in a deliberate smear campaign to tie the bank to Trump. A lengthy report commissioned by Alfa Bank posits that “threat actors may have artificially created DNS activity” between Trump and Alfa Bank “to make it appear as though a connection existed, for ‘discovery’ later.”
After planting Trump-Alfa story, Clinton campaign hypes the “secret hotline”
The FBI’s investigation of the Alfa Bank theory proved to be just as fruitless as every other of the fabricated Trump-Russia conspiracy theories chased by US intelligence officials, Congressional committees and media outlets for more than three years. But Sussmann’s effort ultimately served its purpose. The FBI meeting gave journalists a news hook to publish the Alfa Bank allegations just days before the November 2016 election.
Weeks later, the DNC-funded Steele dossier would see a similar entry into public consciousness: after sitting on the salacious dossier for months, the US media was given a news hook to publish it when then-FBI Director Jim Comey – in concert with other intelligence officials – went to Trump Tower and briefed then-President-elect Trump about the alleged “pee tape.”
On October 31st, Slate’s Franklin Foer, as well as Eric Lichtblau and Steven Lee Myers the New York Times, published stories about the Trump-Alfa Bank “secret channel.” The Times‘ story revealed that Trump campaign associates, as well as the Alfa Bank theory, was the subject of an FBI investigation. The Clinton campaign immediately promoted the story as part of its public campaign to portray Trump as a Kremlin stooge. “Computer scientists have apparently uncovered a covert server linking the Trump Organization to a Russian-based bank,” Hillary Clinton announced on Twitter. “It’s time for Trump to answer serious questions about his ties to Russia.”
Computer scientists have apparently uncovered a covert server linking the Trump Organization to a Russian-based bank. pic.twitter.com/8f8n9xMzUU
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) November 1, 2016
It's time for Trump to answer serious questions about his ties to Russia. https://t.co/D8oSmyVAR4 pic.twitter.com/07dRyEmPjX
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) October 31, 2016
Clinton also shared a statement from her then-foreign policy advisor, Jake Sullivan. This “secret hotline”, Sullivan claimed, “could be the most direct link yet between Donald Trump and Moscow” and “may be the key to unlocking the mystery of Trump’s ties to Russia.” To Sullivan, “it certainly seems the Trump Organization felt it had something to hide.”
But five year later, now we have confirmation that it was in fact the Clinton campaign that was hiding its role as the source of this story. As Glenn Greenwald notes:
Both Hillary and Jake Sullivan were pretending that they had just learned about this shocking story from Slate when, in fact, it was Hillary’s own lawyers and researchers who had spent weeks pushing the story to both the FBI and friendly journalists like Foer. In other words, it was Hillary and her team who had manufactured the hoax, then pretended that — like everyone else — they were just learning about it, and believing it to be true, because a media outlet to which they had fed the false story had just published it.
Indeed, the Clinton campaign’s role in planting the Alfa Bank story was so extensive that it appears to have influenced the day it came to light. As Durham recounts, on October 30th, a Fusion GPS employee wrote to Slate’s Foer and told him “time to hurry.” Foer responded by sharing what he called “the first 2500 words” of his article, and then published it the following day. He never disclosed that the story had come to him from Trump’s Democratic rival.
“What more evidence do you need?”
Comparing the indictment’s details to the way Foer and other credulous journalists spun the Clinton-fueled Alfa Bank “narrative” offers a window into how the media enabled the scam. Whereas Durham reveals that the Alfa Bank team was instructed to create a “narrative” about Trump-Russia ties that would please Democratic Party “VIPs”, the Alfa “researchers” gave the Clinton campaign’s media dupes an inverse cover story: they were simply well-meaning internet sleuths trying to protect Trump’s campaign too.
“We wanted to help defend both campaigns, because we wanted to preserve the integrity of the election,” one of the unknown researchers told Foer. “We thought there was no way in the world the Russians would just attack the Democrats,” but the Republicans as well, another source told the New Yorker‘s Dexter Filkins. “We were trying to protect them.”
Filkins’ story – published in October 2018, two years after Foer’s, and long after the FBI had privately concluded that there was nothing to it – gave the Alfa Bank story a new shelf life.
Natasha Bertrand, now a correspondent for CNN, joined Foer on MSNBC in October 2018 to declare that the Alfa Bank-Trump connection was in fact a collusion smoking gun. “What more evidence do you need? It’s very, very obvious,” Bertrand said.
"I mean, what more evidence do you need? It’s very, very obvious." -Natasha on the Alfa Bank story in October 2018, to the approval of two other Russiagate disinformation actors. pic.twitter.com/JKr3IYlXML
— Aaron Maté (@aaronjmate) September 16, 2021
That same night, Filkins was given an effusive reception from cable news’ leading Trump-Russia conspiracy theorist. “We are blessed as a country to have journalists as talented as you and Franklin Foer writing about this,” Rachel Maddow told Filkins from across the anchor desk.
"We are blessed as a country to have journalists as talented as you and Franklin Foer writing about this."
–@maddow in 2018 to Dexter Filkins on his and Foer's stories about secret Trump-Russian bank contacts — a DNC-funded scam that is now subject to a federal indictment. pic.twitter.com/hdlDy7ZweU
— Aaron Maté (@aaronjmate) September 17, 2021
Predictably, the same media voices who parroted the Alfa Bank story and countless other Russia fantasies throughout the Trump era have now fallen silent or continued obfuscating.
One day before Sussmann’s indictment, Maddow covered the story based on a leak to the New York Times from someone in Sussmann’s camp. This allowed Maddow to avoid the damning details revealed in the indictment the following day, and instead portray the as-yet-uncharged case as a trivial ploy from a Special Prosecutor desperate to show results. “The only hoax is the charge contained in this indictment,” Maddow’s guest, MSNBC legal analyst Barbara McQuade declared.
Neither Foer and Filkins have publicly commented on the indictment. If his past record is any indication, Filkins is not one for contrition. In October 2020 – two years after his initial story and more than one year after the Mueller report found zero evidence to support the Trump-Russia conspiracy theory, including the Alfa Bank story — Filkins attempted a half-hearted defense.
Filkins had discovered that Durham was eyeing the Alfa Bank researchers for possible criminal charges, and that Alfa Bank had itself filed associated lawsuits. He framed the legal activity as “troubling”, and warned that it “could aid the Kremlin.” Filkins even threw in a plug for Steele, whose “information”, he declared, “has been neither proved nor disproved.” Filkins may have missed the main sections of a scathing Department of Justice report of December 2019, which blasted the FBI for relying on Steele’s fabrications.
With the Steele dossier now widely discredited and Sussmann’s indictment adding new details of a related deception, the Clinton campaign is now connected to yet one more documented scam in a sprawling effort to plant Trump-Russia conspiracy theories in the media and trigger federal investigative activity.
As we will turn to in the second part of this report, Sussmann’s role in the Alfa Bank fabrication raises new questions about the allegation at the heart of the Trump-Russia scandal: the claim that Russia stole emails from the Democratic Party and gave them to Wikileaks in a covert operation to help Trump’s campaign.
This allegation was generated by a different private firm, Crowdstrike, which, like Fusion GPS, was also hired by Perkins Coie — specifically, by Michael Sussmann.