WASHINGTON — Michael Sussmann, a prominent cybersecurity lawyer linked to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, was acquitted on Tuesday of lying to the FBI in 2016 when he shared a tip about possible connections between Donald J. Trump and Russia.
The verdict was a blow to special counsel John H. Durham, who was appointed by the Trump administration three years ago to scour the Trump-Russia investigation for any wrongdoing.
But Mr Durham has yet to live up to expectations by Mr Trump and his supporters that he would uncover and pursue a “deep state” plot against the former president. Instead, he developed just two indicted cases: one against Mr. Sussmann and another against a researcher for the so-called Steele dossier, which is scheduled to go to trial later this year.
Both consist of simple charges of misrepresentation, rather than a more general charge of conspiracy to defraud the government. And both involve thin or dubious claims about Mr. Trump’s alleged ties to Russia that have been advanced not by government officials, but by outside investigators.
The case against Mr. Sussmann centered on strange internet data that cybersecurity researchers uncovered in 2016 after it became public knowledge that Russia had hacked into Democrats and that Mr. Trump had encouraged the country to target e e-mails from Mrs. Clinton.
The researchers said the data could reflect a secret communications channel using servers for the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank, which has ties to the Kremlin. The FBI briefly considered the suspicions and dismissed them.
On September 19, 2016, Mr. Sussmann reported these suspicions to a senior FBI official. In charging Mr. Sussmann with a felony, prosecutors claimed he falsely told the official he was not there on behalf of a client, hiding that he was both working for Ms. Clinton and for a technology manager who tipped him.
Mr. Durham and prosecutors used court documents and trial testimony to describe how Mr. Sussmann, while working for a law firm linked to Democrats and devoting his time to the Clinton campaign, had tried to bring journalists to write about the suspicions of Alfa Bank.
But trying to persuade journalists to write about such suspicions is not a crime. Mr. Sussmann’s guilt or innocence revolved around a narrow question: whether he made a false statement to a senior FBI official at the 2016 meeting that he shared those suspicions on behalf of no one other than himself.
Mr Durham used the Sussmann case to put forward a larger conspiracy: that there was a joint venture to accuse Mr Trump of colluding with Russia by having the FBI investigate the suspicions so that journalists write about it. The scheme, Mr. Durham implied, involved the Clinton campaign; his opposition research company, Fusion GPS; Mr. Sussmann; and a cybersecurity expert who had brought him the strange data and analysis.
The insinuation delighted Mr Trump’s supporters, who accepted his claim that the Russia investigation was a “hoax” and sought to confuse the official investigation with sometimes dubious accusations. In reality, the Alfa Bank case was a sideshow: the FBI had already opened its investigation on other grounds before Mr. Sussmann passed on the information; the final report of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III makes no mention of Alfa Bank.
But the case that Mr Durham and his team used to launch their sweeping insinuations was slim: one count of making a false statement at a meeting without other witnesses. In a reprimand to Mr. Durham; lead trial team counsel Andrew DeFilippis; and his colleagues, all 12 jurors voted unanimously to find Mr. Sussmann not guilty.
Some Trump supporters had braced for this outcome. They pointed to the District of Columbia’s reputation as a heavily Democratic region and suggested a jury might be politically biased against a Trump-era prosecutor trying to convict a defendant who worked for the Clinton campaign.
The judge had told the jurors that they should not consider their political views when determining the facts. The foreperson, who did not give her name, told reporters afterwards that “politics was not a factor” and that she thought it was unwise to bring the case.
Mr Durham expressed disappointment with the verdict but said he respected the decision of the jury, which deliberated for around six hours.
“I also want to acknowledge and thank the investigators and prosecution team for their dedicated efforts in seeking truth and justice in this case,” he said in a statement.
Outside the courthouse, Mr. Sussmann read a brief statement to reporters, expressing his gratitude to the jury, his defense team and those who supported him during what had been a difficult year.
“I told the FBI the truth, and the jury clearly acknowledged it with their unanimous verdict today,” he said, adding, “Despite being falsely accused, I am relieved that justice has finally prevailed in this matter”.
During the trial, the defense argued that Mr. Sussmann brought the case to the FBI only when he thought the New York Times was about to write an article about it, so that the bureau would not not be caught off guard.
Clinton campaign officials testified that they did not tell or authorize Mr. Sussmann to surrender to the FBI. It was against their interests because they did not trust the bureau and it could slow down the publication of any article, they said.
James Baker, as FBI general counsel in 2016, met with Mr. Sussmann in September. Mr Baker testified that he asked Eric Lichtblau, then a Times reporter working on the Alfa Bank case, to slow down so the bureau had time to investigate.
Mr Sussmann’s defense team offered jurors many potential avenues of acquittal, saying the prosecution still had to prove several necessary elements beyond a reasonable doubt.
His lawyers have attacked as doubtful that Mr Sussmann actually uttered the words he had no client during his meeting with the FBI in September.
This matter became complicated after a text message was revealed in which Mr Sussmann, arranging the meeting a day earlier, indicated that he was reaching out on his own. But it was what he said, if anything, at the meeting itself that was at issue.
Mr. Baker testified that he was “100%” certain that Mr. Sussmann repeated those words to his face. But defense lawyers pointed out that he recalled the meeting differently on numerous other occasions.
The defense team also argued that Mr. Sussmann was in fact not there on behalf of a client, even though he had clients interested in the subject. And they wondered if it mattered, since the FBI knew it represented the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign on other issues, and the agents would have investigated the allegations regardless.
By mid-morning, the jury demanded to see an exhibit intended to bolster the defense’s argument that Mr. Sussmann did not see himself as representing the Clinton campaign. That was a record number of cab rides Mr. Sussmann had expended for the Sept. 19 meeting at FBI headquarters.
He connected those trips to the company rather than the Clinton campaign or a chief technology officer, Rodney Joffe, who had worked with the data scientists who developed the suspicions and brought them to Mr. Sussmann. Prosecutors claimed Mr Joffe was his other hidden client at the meeting.
During the trial, prosecutors had made a big deal about how Mr. Sussmann had spent long hours on the Alfa Bank case to the Clinton campaign in law firm billing records – including phone calls and meetings with reporters and with his partner at the time, Marc Elias, the general counsel for the Clinton campaign.
Defense lawyers admitted the Clinton campaign had been Mr Sussmann’s client in an effort to try to persuade reporters to write about the case, but argued he was not working for anyone when he brought the same documents to the FBI.
In a statement, Sean Berkowitz and Michael Bosworth, two of Mr Sussmann’s defense attorneys, criticized Mr Durham for bringing the indictment.
“Michael Sussmann should never have been charged in the first place,” they said. “This is a case of excessive, extraordinary prosecution. And we believe today’s verdict sends an unequivocal message to anyone who will listen: politics is no substitute for evidence, and politics is no substitute for evidence. has no place in our legal system.