The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Key Sussmann witness relives 2016 meeting and the ordeal that followed

‘I’m 100 percent confident’ of a critical point in his discussion with the lawyer, former FBI official James Baker testifies

Special counsel John Durham departs the federal courthouse in D.C. (Julia Nikhinson/Reuters)

Former FBI official James Baker testified Thursday about his fateful 2016 meeting with cybersecurity lawyer Michael Sussmann, recounting how the brief talk about computer data fueled a five-year parade of accusations and investigations surrounding that year’s presidential election.

Sussmann is accused by special counsel John Durham of lying to Baker by hiding the fact that he was working for the Hillary Clinton campaign when he brought allegations to the FBI regarding then-Republican nominee Donald Trump.

The trial is the first major test of Durham’s three-year-old probe of the federal government’s investigation into alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. It centers on one of the stranger, and ultimately less consequential issues in the race — the claim that computer data showed secret communications between the Trump Organization and Russia-based Alpha Bank.

Once Baker received the tip from Sussmann on Sept. 19, 2016, the FBI investigated the claim and decided the data was not suspicious.

The two men met at a perilous moment for the FBI, which had just resolved its investigation of Clinton’s use of nongovernment email and launched a then-secret probe into whether members of the Trump campaign were conspiring with Russia to interfere with the election.

The Sussmann trial, U.S. District Court Judge Christopher Cooper has said, is not about Clinton or Trump. But for Baker and some of the other trial witnesses, the controversies of that election and the conflicts that grew out of it still summon a sharp sense of frustration.

Sussmann trial tests credibility of key figures from 2016 presidential race

Baker, who left the FBI in 2018 and now works at Twitter, said he has been “pilloried” and subjected to false accusations that he is somehow a traitor bent on carrying out a coup against Trump. On social media, he testified, some have called for his hanging.

“It was terrible. It sucked on multiple levels,” Baker said of being questioned by lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

All of it, he said, “was an extremely traumatic experience.” Asked if his testimony Thursday was also terrible, Baker replied, “this is more orderly. It’s terrible, but orderly.”

Throughout his testimony, Baker insisted he had a clear memory that, at the 2016 meeting, Sussmann claimed he was not bringing the allegations to the FBI on behalf of any client.

“I’m 100 percent confident that he said that in the meeting,” he said. “Michael’s a friend of mine and a colleague, and I believed it and trusted that the statement was truthful.”

If he’d thought Sussmann was acting on behalf of the Clinton campaign, Baker said, he probably wouldn’t even have agreed to the meeting — in part because of lingering issues from the FBI’s investigation of Clinton’s email server.

Baker also read a text message from Sussmann setting up the meeting in which the lawyer said he was coming to see Baker “on my own — not on behalf of a client or company.”

Prosecutors, however, have presented internal emails and billing records that they say show Sussmann was acting on behalf of the Clinton campaign and a technology executive when he met with Baker.

Sussmann has pleaded not guilty to lying to the FBI. To convict him, the special counsel must prove not only that he lied, but also that the lie was relevant to the FBI’s work.

Prosecutors have argued that Sussmann, acting on behalf of the Clinton campaign, was trying to carry out a three-part strategy: looking for derogatory information about Trump; leaking the information to news organizations; and getting the FBI to investigate the information.

Under questioning from assistant special counsel Andrew DeFilippis, Baker described not just how FBI agents investigated the computer allegations, but also discussions he had with reporters from the New York Times in which he asked them to delay a story about the allegations until the FBI could investigate further. Baker said that after initially being told by Sussmann the article might run in a matter of days, he was informed that the reporters had more work to do before publishing.

As Baker testified against his friend and colleague, Sussmann sat back from the defense table, quietly writing notes in a pad on his lap.

Michael Sussmann's trial; What to know

Durham, a veteran federal prosecutor who was appointed during the Trump administration to investigate the federal agents who investigated the 2016 Trump campaign, also has a long history with Baker, having previously investigated the FBI’s former top lawyer in an unrelated leak investigation in which no charges were ever filed.

Baker testified Thursday that he treated the information from Sussmann as a “very urgent” matter, partly because of the nature of the allegations — that a presidential candidate might be secretly communicating with a foreign adversary — and partly because Sussmann told him that a news organization — he later learned it was the Times — was supposedly days away from writing about the issue.

That possibility, Baker said, made it all the more important for the FBI to figure out if the allegations were true because a news story might cause the secret communications channel to disappear. But he also said he was very wary of the FBI being “played” in election season.

He said he immediately turned the information over to a counterintelligence agent at the bureau “because it was evidence of a crime potentially, and it was certainly foreign intelligence material.”

Sussmann’s lawyer, Sean Berkowitz, challenged Baker’s account on cross-examination with varying testimony he had given in previous interviews. They included an interview with the Justice Department inspector general in which Baker referred to Sussmann’s “clients” as cybersecurity experts, and congressional testimony in which he didn’t offer a specific memory of who Sussmann said his clients were or weren’t.

The defense lawyer also confronted Baker with notes from a March 2017 meeting attended by Baker and senior Justice Department and FBI officials. The notes mentioned the Alfa Bank investigation and said the original information was brought by an attorney “on behalf of client.”

Baker said he had only a vague memory of the meeting and no specific recollection that such a statement had been made.

Baker’s testimony is expected to continue Friday, when the jury may also hear from former Clinton campaign chief Robby Mook.

Sussmann’s trial began Monday and is expected to last through next week.