Jun 6, 2022

The Michael Sussmann verdict.

The Michael Sussmann verdict.

A jury ruled not guilty. But what did we learn?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

The Michael Sussmann verdict. Plus, a question about whether governments spending caused inflation.

Screenshot: MSNBC
Screenshot: MSNBC 

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Quick hits.

  1. David McCormick conceded Pennsylvania's Republican Senate primary race to Dr. Mehmet Oz, who will now face Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. (The concession)
  2. The police response at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, was hampered by radio issues, according to new reports. (The radio)
  3. Abbott Nutrition restarted production on baby formula at its plant in Sturgis, Michigan over the weekend. (The restart)
  4. Peter Navarro, the former Trump administration aide, was arrested after being indicted by a federal grand jury on two counts of contempt of Congress. (The arrest)
  5. Russia launched airstrikes on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv for the first time in over a month. (The strikes)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

Michael Sussmann. Last week, Sussmann was found not guilty of lying to the FBI when, in 2016, he passed on a tip intended to raise suspicion about connections between Donald Trump and Russia in the lead-up to the election.

Back up: Remember the Trump-Russia investigation? The one that occupied special counsel Robert Mueller for two years? That investigation led to a counter investigation, this one led by John Durham. Durham was appointed by Attorney General William Barr in 2019 to look into the origins of the Trump-Russia probe. In September of 2021, Sussmann was indicted by Durham as part of that investigation.

Sussmann is a high-profile cybersecurity lawyer who worked for the Clinton campaign and had ties to the Democratic party. He was accused of lying to former FBI general counsel James Baker. Sussmann had presented the FBI with evidence that a server belonging to the Russia-based Alfa Bank was communicating with the Trump organization computers. The allegation was dismissed by FBI investigators within weeks and was not part of Mueller's final special counsel report. Prosecutors charged Sussmann with lying to the FBI when he told them he was bringing the tip forward out of civic duty, not in his capacity working with the Clinton campaign. He was accused of concealing his association with the campaign when he made the tip to seem more credible.

So what happened? On Tuesday, a jury acquitted Sussmann. Throughout the trial, Sussmann maintained that he provided the information based on a genuine national security concern, despite working with the Clinton campaign on the research into Alfa Bank. Sussmann had texted Baker asking to meet, saying he was coming forward with information on his own and not on behalf of any client. Baker did not take notes during their meeting, but briefed two officials afterward. Both of those officials took notes saying Sussmann didn't bring the information forward on behalf of a client, and one noted that he had represented Democrats in other work.

Conflicting evidence about what FBI officials believed about the source of Sussmann's information was presented at trial. Under oath, Baker testified that he was "100% confident" that Sussmann told him he was not providing the information on behalf of any client. But Baker had made conflicting comments in past interviews. Sussmann had billed the Clinton campaign for work on the Alfa Bank server allegations on the day he met with Baker, though the billing did not reference a meeting with Baker, according to The Wall Street Journal. He also billed his law firm, Perkins Coie, for cab rides to and from the FBI, rather than any specific client.

Sussmann's lawyers argued that it was impossible to know what was discussed in the meeting since Baker didn't take notes and they were the only two participants, with conflicting stories. They argued that Sussmann didn't attend the meeting on the campaign's behalf and didn't ask the FBI to take any action to benefit the campaign. Sussmann's lawyers also "elicited testimony from former campaign officials who said Sussmann had not been authorized by the campaign to visit the FBI," according to the Associated Press.

Former President Trump and many of his allies have accused the court of assembling a biased jury pool in the Washington D.C. court, which helped lead to Sussmann's acquittal.

Our previous coverage of the Sussmann case is here, and previous coverage of the Durham probe here and here.

Below, we'll take a look at some arguments from the left and right, then my take.


What the left is saying.

  • The left said this outcome was predictable, as Durham didn't have strong evidence for his claim.
  • Some accuse Durham of concocting a fake conspiracy.
  • Others say this should put an end to the "Russiagate" allegations.

In MSNBC, Barbara McQuade said everyone but Durham seemed to see this verdict coming.

"To show that a statement is false, the government must be able to show that it conflicts with the truth," McQuade wrote. "But Sussmann’s statement did not involve an objective fact that could be shown to be true or false. But as most jurors understand, it is possible for two things to be true at the same time — that Sussmann worked for the law firm that represented the Clinton campaign and that he was going to the FBI on his own. One plausible explanation for his conduct is that, as a former Justice Department employee who had come into possession of information about the apparent efforts of a hostile foreign adversary to influence an election, he felt compelled to report it to his former colleagues at the FBI.

"The materiality element was also fatally flawed. Materiality means that the statement mattered, that it was capable of influencing the topic under consideration," McQuade said. "First, Sussmann’s affiliation with the law firm representing the Clinton campaign was already well-known, and if FBI agents thought they should discount the information based on this affiliation, they had the information they needed to make that assessment. Indeed, according to the indictment, notes written by one of Baker’s colleagues shortly after the meeting with Sussmann said, 'Represents DNC, Clinton Foundation, etc.' Second, at a previous meeting with congressional investigators, Baker had testified that the FBI investigates leads regardless of who provides them. In other words, it did not matter whether Sussmann was coming 'on his own' or on 'behalf' of any client."

David E. Kendall, a lawyer representing Hillary Clinton, said "John Durham tried to generate a Clinton-conspiracy bang but ended with a not-guilty-verdict whimper."

"The actual case against Sussmann was both narrow and paper-thin from the start. He was charged with lying to the FBI’s general counsel in a one-on-one, unrecorded meeting on Sept. 19, 2016, about whom he was speaking for," Kendall wrote. “While the alleged lie was simple, straightforward and could have been explained in two pages, it was encased in 27 pages of dark and inchoate allegations of wrongdoing by a number of Clintonites. What was the lie? Not that Sussmann provided false evidence of Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with the Russians — that was neither alleged nor proven. Not that there was a vast conspiracy to falsely besmirch Trump as seeking Russian assistance — that was neither alleged nor proven. Not that there was a successful deception of the FBI — many witnesses testified they were well aware of Sussmann’s many Democratic connections and clients.

"The Durham indictment charged only that Sussmann had failed to tell the FBI general counsel why he was meeting with him. The jury saw through the fog of misdirection and innuendo in the indictment’s overstuffed allegations and quickly returned a not-guilty verdict," Kendall said. "Despite the setback of the Sussmann verdict, it’s possible that Durham will ultimately draft a report that does in words what he has so far been unable to do in court — proclaim Trump is a victim and that the allegations of Russian support for him were a 'hoax' of the Democrats or the 'deep state.' Such a report will have all the appeal and credibility of a self-published memoir."

Before the verdict came down, Ankush Khardori said Durham "has already won."

"Since Durham’s appointment," Khardori said, "a clear dynamic has dominated his investigation — namely, a palpable desire among right-wing operatives, commentators and media outlets to use Durham’s work, no matter how thin or nebulous the underlying evidence may be, to try to vindicate the theory that Trump was grievously victimized by the Democratic Party in an effort to defeat him and later hobble his presidency. When it comes to perpetuating that narrative, whether or not the jury ultimately rules in his favor, Durham has effectively already won. If the investigation has revealed anything of note, it is just how secondary the law has come to be in politically-charged prosecutions like this one.

"During the run-up to the 2020 election, both Trump and Barr suggested that Durham would finally unveil dramatic evidence of misconduct within the FBI and Justice Department during the Obama administration, but nothing of the sort happened," Khardori said. "The only conviction that Durham has obtained was from a low-level FBI lawyer who altered an internal email while working on an application to surveil adviser Carter Page. (Despite much hype, Durham’s prosecutors were eventually forced to concede that there was 'no indication' that the lawyer’s misrepresentation actually affected the investigation, while the sentencing judge said that the lawyer was simply 'saving himself some work' rather than trying to mislead the presiding surveillance court.)"


What the right is saying.

  • The right said even with the acquittal, the case uncovered wrongdoing.
  • Some call out the alleged "dirty trick" of the Russia collusion story.
  • Others criticize the "biased" jury and the FBI for its handling of the investigation into Trump.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said the case revealed a lot about the "Russia collusion dirty trick."

"The verdict is less important than what we learned about the false Clinton claims about the ties between the Trump campaign and Russia’s Alfa Bank," the board said. "The story was a concoction from the start, spread to the press by investigators-for-hire Fusion GPS and Clinton sources. We learned that Hillary Clinton personally approved leaking the false claim to a reporter, and the campaign and Mrs. Clinton then tweeted the press report approvingly. Mr. Baker handed off the claim for FBI agents to investigate, though he withheld from the agents that Mr. Sussmann was his source. The agents quickly found the charges weren’t credible. But the Alfa Bank story nonetheless became part of the fog of collusion claims that bedeviled the Trump Presidency for more than two years.

"Mr. Durham isn’t finished, and later this year he will bring a separate case that will tell us more about another side of the collusion tale—the Christopher Steele dossier. He has indicted Igor Danchenko, the alleged source of Mr. Steele’s information in the dossier, on five counts of lying to the FBI. Mr. Danchenko has pleaded not guilty," the board added. "Evidence at that trial should reveal more details about the origins of the dossier smear and the role of the Clinton campaign and the media in spreading it. Special counsel Robert Mueller was supposed to have investigated all of this long ago, but he ducked the role of the Clinton campaign. Mr. Durham’s task has been to tell us the rest of the dirty tale."

In The Washington Examiner, Byron York said "juries matter."

"The jury has the right to decide, but there nevertheless seems no doubt that Sussmann lied to the FBI. He even did so in writing," York wrote. "When requesting a meeting with FBI General Counsel James Baker, Sussmann texted Baker, 'Jim — it's Michael Sussmann. I have something time-sensitive (and sensitive) I need to discuss. Do you have availability for a short meeting tomorrow? I'm coming on my own — not on behalf of a client or company — want to help the Bureau. Thanks.' In fact, Sussmann was working for the Clinton campaign. He even billed them for the effort he made to tell the FBI.

"Even though the case seemed open and shut, Durham knew he was taking a risk in bringing it to trial in Washington, D.C. Why? Because the nation's capital has perhaps the deepest-blue jury pool in the United States. In the 2016 election, Clinton won 90.9% of the vote in the district, with Trump receiving a scant 4.1%," York wrote. "The Sussmann jury reflected that political bent. During the trial, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley noted that the jury 'has three Clinton donors, an AOC donor, and a woman whose daughter is on the same sports team as Sussmann's daughter.' Turley added: 'With the exception of randomly selecting people out of DNC headquarters, you could not come up with a worse jury.' So it was not exactly a shock when the jury found Sussmann not guilty."

In The Federalist, Margot Cleveland wrote about the "9 things we learned" from the trial.

"Among other things, [tech executive Rodney] Joffe pressured an executive at another tech company and a researcher at Georgia Tech to search broadly for data purporting to connect Trump to Russia," Cleveland wrote. "Not only was no connection found, but in emails disclosed in the case, Georgia Tech’s Manos Antonakakis told the others they needed to regroup and rethink their theory, noting hatred of Trump was their motivating factor. Instead, Joffe forged ahead, drafting a whitepaper that hid the fallacies of the theories. Sussmann then peddled that data and whitepaper, along with two others, to the FBI and later the CIA. Meanwhile, Fusion GPS pushed the Alfa Bank hoax to the media, with the assistance of Georgia Tech’s David Dagon, whom Fusion GPS connected with reporters to supposedly authenticate the research and the conclusion.

"Many players took part in crafting and peddling the Alfa Bank hoax, but the bottom line proven during the Sussmann trial was that Hillary Clinton both paid for and personally okayed her campaign minions giving the press the fake story about a Trump-Russia secret communication network," Cleveland said. "Former Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook testified that Clinton personally greenlighted the pushing of that Alfa-Bank hoax, and Sussmann’s acquittal cannot erase that fact. Further, given that her campaign team sought Clinton’s personal approval to peddle the Alfa-Bank hoax to the media, logically one would expect that Mook or others close to Hillary likewise sought her permission to push other angles of the Russia collusion conspiracy, such as those emanating from the Christopher Steele dossier."


My take.

When I wrote about this case in September, before it went to trial, I said that if the allegations were proven true, it "would show that there were some classic dirty Washington D.C. politics at play in the early stages of the investigation into Trump... That such evidence was fed to the FBI by someone on the Clinton campaign’s payroll is no small deal, especially when that evidence was later dismissed but the news of the investigation caused a tidal wave of bad press."

I also said "I don't actually see this indictment turning into a prosecution," citing McQuade's previous writing and the limited evidence to prove their case, noting that Durham looked headed to end with a "whimper" and not a bang. In other words, I can take a mini victory lap on the fact this happened exactly as I (and many others) predicted.

In the actual trial, there were two very important, competing pieces of evidence brought forward. One was Sussmann's text, cited by Byron York above, in which he says explicitly to Jim Baker, "I'm coming on my own — not on behalf of a client or company." The other was contemporaneous notes taken by Baker's colleagues in which they note, explicitly, that Sussmann works for the Clinton campaign.

These two pieces of evidence, to me, sum up the story: The FBI knew who Sussmann was, and Sussmann framed his approach as him performing some kind of civic duty. Since Baker did not take notes in the meeting, and there was no recording, it essentially came down to Baker’s verbal account vs. Sussmann’s. And given that Sussmann's purported lie would have had no impact on how the FBI handled the information (since they knew who he was, as evidenced by the notes), the case was always rather thin. We learned a lot about the dirty politics of D.C., and the way unproven allegations can make their way to the press, but a prosecution was always unlikely and Durham ultimately failed.

Does that mean the jury was unbiased or the case was unimportant? Definitely not. Juries matter a great deal, and supporters of the former president are well-entitled to their opinion that this may have gone differently in another jurisdiction. I personally don't think it would have, but these kinds of jury pools are a problem in cases every day in America — not just in political prosecutions in D.C. It's also not a small deal if someone lies to the FBI. That is, after all, what Robert Mueller charged Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos for. They pleaded guilty rather than go to trial, perhaps knowing the risk they faced in D.C.

Durham's investigation is now entering its fourth year. Mueller's lasted less than two. So far Durham has pegged one lawyer for doctoring an email to continue a surveillance order on the Trump campaign — a crime worthy of prosecution but hardly the uncovering of a vast, deep state conspiracy to take down Trump that many promised in the beginning. Mostly, Durham has confirmed what we already knew about the way political campaigns on both sides manipulate the press and use intelligence agencies to leverage tactical leaks.

Is there more? Right now, we've got one more trial coming, in which we'll learn a lot more about the Steele dossier's origins. In February, I said Durham was tugging at how deeply connected the Clinton campaign was to the obsessive coverage around "Trump-Russia collusion," but new charges or evidence was needed to make it the political scandal Trump has framed it as. It's not over yet, but I'm becoming increasingly skeptical that Durham is going to unveil that vast conspiracy Trump, Barr and others said would be brought to light. In the meantime, we'll be here waiting.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You can reply to this email and write in or leave a comment if you're a subscriber.


Your questions, answered.

Q: Do you have any information about government spending being tied to inflation? Left says no and right says yes but I can’t find anything that seems transparent and honest.

— Steph, Bucks County, PA

Tangle: First off, hello to Bucks County! Nice to hear from somebody from home.

At this point, I think it is a pretty clear-cut truth that government spending made inflation worse. In fact, many "liberals" close to the Biden administration will now admit as much. Bloomberg just broke a story on Friday that Janet Yellen, the former Fed Chair who is now Biden's Treasury Secretary, had urged Biden to scale back the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

In a biography on Yellen, author Owen Ullmann wrote “Privately, Yellen agreed with Summers that too much government money was flowing into the economy too quickly." Yellen disputed that she urged for a smaller package, but she has also conceded she was wrong about inflation. Paul Krugman, the liberal-oriented New York Times columnist, has also said he was wrong, and this week said inflation was worsened by "an overlarge fiscal package at the start of Biden’s presidency and the Fed’s failure (which I shared) to recognize the problem early enough."

When I wrote about inflation a few weeks ago, I called out two arguments I found compelling: 1) The fact there was just too much money, which in part was due to the monetary policy necessary to fund the "the vast increase in government expenditures" since March of 2020. And 2) That corporate greed was playing a significant role in the higher prices you are seeing.

I think #1 is true and the recent admissions affirm that belief. I got a lot of emails about #2, and I think my position is changing. Noah Smith, one of the few economists I trust (as a non-economist), wrote a very compelling piece that "greedflation is not a thing." I trust his opinion more than my own judgment, so you can go read that piece if you're interested.

In short: Yes, I think government spending is making inflation worse. The other debate, I think, is whether not spending what we did would have left us in a worse position than we're in now.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

Roughly 96% of the jobs lost during the pandemic are back, but the labor distribution looks "strikingly different," according to Axios's Courtenay Brown. We have more warehouse workers and fewer waiters, more health store employees but fewer people working in public schools, more construction workers and fewer mining and logging employees. The economy lost over 615,000 government positions and 1.3 million leisure and hospitality jobs, but professional and business services (+821,000) grew and transportation and warehousing exploded (+709,000). "There is more opportunity for workers to return to new jobs — where the industries are growing and the outlook is potentially brighter. That churning is what offers up a possibility of stronger productivity gains and increased standard of living," Ellen Gaske, an economist at PGIM Fixed Income, said. Axios has the story.


Numbers.

  • 99%. The percentage of jobs the private sector has recovered since the pandemic began.
  • 58%. The percentage of jobs the public sector has recovered since the pandemic began.
  • 390,000. The number of jobs added in May, according to the Labor Department.
  • 83%. The percentage of Americans who described the economy as "poor" or "not so good," according to a new Wall Street Journal-NORC poll.
  • 35%. The percentage of Americans who said they are satisfied with their financial situation.
  • ~6 in 10. The number of respondents who said they were pessimistic about the ability of most Americans to achieve the American dream.

Have a nice day.

At Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the astonishing results of a small trial are making national news. 18 rectal cancer patients were entered into the trial, all of whom took the same drug. And the cancer vanished in every single patient, "undetectable by physical exam, endoscopy, PET scans or M.R.I. scans," The New York Times reports. “I believe this is the first time this has happened in the history of cancer,” Dr. Luis A. Diaz Jr, from Sloan Kettering, said. It was a small trial, and results still need to be replicated while the current patients need to be followed to ensure their cancers don't come back, but the initial results are encouraging. The Times has the story.


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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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