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WASHINGTON, D.C. — The FBI found that “there was nothing there” after investigating the information brought to the bureau in September 2016 by Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann alleging a covert communications channel between the Trump Organization and a Russian bank, former FBI General Counsel James Baker testified Thursday.
Baker’s testimony came on day four of the Sussmann trial – the first criminal trial stemming from Special Counsel John Durham’s years-long investigation into the origins of the Trump-Russia probe.
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Sussmann has been charged with making a false statement to the FBI when he told Baker in September 2016, less than two months before the presidential election, that he was not doing work “for any client” when he requested and attended a meeting where he presented “purported data and ‘white papers’ that allegedly demonstrated a covert communicates channel” between the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank, which has ties to the Kremlin.
Durham’s team alleges Sussmann was, in fact, doing work for two clients: the Hillary Clinton campaign and a technology executive, Rodney Joffe. Following the meeting with Baker, Sussmann billed the Hillary Clinton campaign for his work.
Sussmann has pleaded not guilty to the charge.
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Baker testified Thursday that the FBI began an investigation into the Trump-Alfa Bank allegations, which lasted “several weeks, maybe a month, maybe a month and a half.”
“We concluded there was no substance,” Baker testified. “We couldn’t confirm it. We could not confirm there was a surreptitious communications channel.”
Baker added: “There was nothing there.”
In testimony on Tuesday afternoon, FBI Special Agent Scott Hellman also said the data revealing the alleged covert communications channel between Trump and Russia that Sussmann brought to the FBI turned out to be untrue, and said he did not agree with the narrative.
Hellman testified that whoever drafted the narrative describing the DNS data was “5150,” and clarified on the stand that meant he believed the individual who came to the conclusions “was suffering from some mental disability.”
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Baker on Thursday did testify, however, that when Sussmann brought the allegations to him on Sept. 19, 2016, the FBI “was already conducting an investigation into alleged connections between the Trump campaign and Russians at this point in time.”
Baker said he briefed then-FBI Director James Comey and then-FBI Deputy Director Andy McCabe on the Sussmann allegations shortly after they were brought to him.
“Here was another type of information between Trump and Russia that had come to me,” Baker said. “It seemed to me of great urgency and great seriousness that I would want to make my bosses aware of this information.”
He added: “I think they were quite concerned about it.”
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“Trump, at the time, was a candidate for office of the president of the United States, so the FBI is investigating allegations related to his potential interactions, and those people on his campaign, with the government of the Russian Federation,” Baker said.
He added: “And that was of high, high importance to the FBI at this point in time.”
The FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation into whether candidate Donald Trump and members of his campaign were colluding or coordinating with Russia to influence the 2016 campaign.
That FBI investigation, known as “Crossfire Hurricane,” was handed off to Special Counsel Robert Mueller after Trump was elected. Mueller was appointed on May 17, 2017.
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After nearly two years, Mueller’s investigation yielded no evidence of criminal conspiracy or coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian officials during the 2016 presidential election.
Special Counsel John Durham was tapped in 2019, shortly after Mueller announced his findings, by Attorney General Bill Barr to investigate the origins of the FBI’s original investigation into the Trump campaign, which led to the appointment of Mueller as special counsel.
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In a special counsel scope order, Barr wrote that Durham “is authorized to investigate whether any federal official, employee or any other person or entity violated the law in connection with the intelligence, counter-intelligence or law-enforcement activities directed at the 2016 presidential campaigns, individuals associated with those campaigns, and individuals associated with the administration of President Donald J. Trump, including but not limited to Crossfire Hurricane and the investigation of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller, III.”
Durham has indicted three people as part of his investigation: Sussmann in September 2021, Igor Danchenko in November 2021 and Kevin Clinesmith in August 2020.
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Under U.S. code, the special counsel would produce a “confidential report” and is ordered to “submit to the Attorney General a final report, and such interim reports as he deems appropriate in a form that will permit public dissemination.”
District Judge Christopher Cooper, who is presiding over the trial, was appointed by former President Barack Obama in 2014 and received unanimous confirmation by the U.S. Senate.
Early in his career, Cooper served in the Justice Department, and later worked in private practice for nearly two decades, specializing in defending clients in white-collar criminal matters.