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Key Witness in Durham Case Offers Detailed Testimony of 2016 Meeting


WASHINGTON — A former F.B.I. official testified on Thursday that when he met in 2016 with Michael Sussmann, a lawyer with ties to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, Mr. Sussmann told him that he had come to the F.B.I. on his own.

The testimony bolsters the case brought by the special counsel, John H. Durham, against Mr. Sussmann, who has been accused of lying about his reason for bringing his suspicions to the F.B.I. a few possible secret communications channel between the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank, a Russian financial firm with ties to the Kremlin.

The case centers on whether Mr. Sussmann sought to hide his ties to Mrs. Clinton within the meeting with the F.B.I., in order not to appear as if he were coming for partisan reasons on behalf of a political opponent of Donald J. Trump.

While the Sussmann case is a narrow false statement charge, Mr. Durham’s filings have broadly insinuated that the Clinton campaign tried to get the F.B.I. to analyze Mr. Trump over his ties with Russia, and to steer reporters to write down stories in regards to the matter.

The previous F.B.I. official, James A. Baker, who in 2016 was the agency’s general counsel, was adamant that Mr. Sussmann had told him he was representing nobody but himself in the course of the meeting. “I’m one hundred pc confident that he said that,” Mr. Baker said. “Michael’s a friend of mine and a colleague, and I believed it and trusted that the statement was truthful.”

Mr. Baker’s testimony was not a surprise. It dovetailed with a text message Mr. Sussmann had sent to him the night before, and underscored that the case may activate what it means to be somewhere “on behalf” of a client.

Mr. Sussmann’s lawyers have acknowledged that he was working for the campaign when he tried to get reporters to write down in regards to the Alfa Bank matter. But they maintain he individually brought the matter to the F.B.I. when he thought a news article was about to be published on the subject in order that the bureau wouldn’t be caught flat-footed.

Still, on Thursday, additionally they sought to boost doubts about whether Mr. Baker accurately recalled what their client said on the six-year-old meeting and subsequent events.

Sean Berkowitz, one among Mr. Sussmann’s lawyers, asked questions that appeared to indicate that Mr. Baker needed to have known that Mr. Sussmann was working with the Clinton campaign.

On the stand, Mr. Baker offered an in depth account of their meeting, and the steps he took to share the matter with top F.B.I. officials who could swiftly investigate the concerns, which had been raised by web data and cybersecurity research. The F.B.I. would later conclude that the concerns about Alfa Bank were unsubstantiated.

He would have “made a distinct assessment” if he had thought Mr. Sussmann had approached him on behalf of a client, particularly if that client were Mr. Trump’s political opponent, Mr. Baker said.

“It might have raised very serious questions,” Mr. Baker added, about “the credibility of the source.”

The Sussmann trial, which began this week, is the primary case to be developed by Mr. Durham, a special counsel appointed in the course of the Trump administration by the attorney general on the time, William P. Barr, to look at the origins of the F.B.I.’s investigation into ties between Mr. Trump and Russia.

Believing that the bureau had limited time to act, Mr. Baker told top F.B.I. officials in regards to the evidence, encouraging them to take it seriously since it originated with Mr. Sussmann.

Mr. Baker said the F.B.I. spoke with two Latest York Times reporters, one among whom was working on an article in regards to the possible communications channel, to say that the bureau needed time to start out an investigation before an article was published.

In that light, Mr. Baker said he would have also rethought his dealings with the news media. He said the F.B.I. was “aware of and wary of” the proven fact that the existence of an F.B.I. investigation might be utilized by reporters as a solution to report on something that’s “flawed or incomplete.”

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