The 26-page indictment of former cybersecurity attorney and Hillary Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann by special counsel John Durham is as detailed as it is damning on the alleged effort to push a false Russia collusion claim before the 2016 presidential campaign. 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.
Durham accuses Sussmann of lying to the general counsel of the FBI in September 2016 when Sussmann delivered documents and data to the FBI supposedly supporting a claim that Russia’s Alfa Bank was used as a direct conduit between former President Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin. According to Durham, Sussman told the FBI general counsel that he was not delivering the information on behalf of any client. The indictment not only details multiple billings to the Clinton campaign as the data was collected and the documents created; it claims Sussman billed the campaign for the actual meeting with the FBI. At the time, Perkins Coie attorney Marc Elias was general counsel for the Clinton campaign. Both men have since left the firm.
The big trick in 2016 was the general effort to create a Russia collusion scandal with the help of Justice Department insiders and an eager, enabling media.
It was only last October, for instance, that we learned that then-President Obama was briefed by his CIA director, John Brennan, on an intelligence report that Clinton planned to tie then-candidate Trump to Russia as “a means of distracting the public from her use of a private email server.” That was on July 28, 2016 — three days before the Russia investigation was initiated.
The problem was that both the Steele dossier and the Alfa Bank allegations fell apart soon after being fed to the FBI. A key source for dossier compiler and former British spy Christopher Steele was viewed by American intelligence as a Russian agent, and it was believed that the Clinton campaign and the dossier were being used by Russian intelligence to spread disinformation.
According to Durham, the Alfa Bank allegation fell apart even before Sussmann delivered it to the FBI. The indictment details how an unnamed “tech executive” allegedly used his authority at multiple internet companies to help develop the ridiculous claim. (The executive reportedly later claimed that he was promised a top cyber security job in the Clinton administration). Notably, there were many who expressed misgivings not only within the companies working on the secret project but also among unnamed “university researchers” who repeatedly said the argument was bogus.
The researchers were told they should not be looking for proof but just enough to “give the base of a very useful narrative.” The researchers argued, according to the indictment, that anyone familiar with analyzing internet traffic “would poke several holes” in that narrative, noting that what they saw likely “was not a secret communications channel with Russian Bank-1, but ‘a red herring,’” according to the indictment. “Researcher-1” repeated these doubts, the indictment says, and asked, “How do we plan to defend against the criticism that this is not spoofed traffic we are observing? There is no answer to that. Let’s assume again that they are not smart enough to refute our ‘best case scenario.’ You do realize that we will have to expose every trick we have in our bag to even make a very weak association.”
“Researcher-1” allegedly further warned, “We cannot technically make any claims that would fly public scrutiny. The only thing that drives us at this point is that we just do not like [Trump]. This will not fly in eyes of public scrutiny. Folks, I am afraid we have tunnel vision. Time to regroup?”
Clinton herself discussed the allegations as if they were the product of independent sleuths. Right before the 2016 election, she tweeted, “Computer scientists have apparently uncovered a covert server linking the Trump Organization to a Russian-based bank.”
The indictment details an operation that parallels the notorious Steele dossier, which also featured a pattern of working with FBI insiders while denying connections to the campaign.
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 Alfa 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.”
So the “very useful narrative” was delivered to the media and the FBI and, along with the dossier, was used to launch the Russia investigation, which led to the appointment of former special counsel Robert Mueller. The “bag of tricks” was supposed to be buried with the involvement of the Clinton campaign — until Trump Attorney General William Barr appointed Durham as a second special counsel.
Durham’s indictment of Sussman seems to have revealed quite a bit about how scandals are manufactured and manipulated in Washington. From CREEP to Clinton, lawyers discovered themselves in legal jeopardy when special prosecutors found them holding a “bag of tricks.” A dirty trick in politics can be a thing of beauty for a campaign — until it boomerangs on the tricksters.
Durham’s final report, meanwhile, could answer even more questions, but will Washington ever allow it to see the light of day without massive redactions?
NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct the spelling of Alfa Bank.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates on Twitter @JonathanTurley.