The manager of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid, Robby Mook, testified Friday that the campaign did not instruct or authorize a lawyer to go to the FBI with claims of a potential data link between then-candidate Donald Trump and a Russian bank owned by allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
That lawyer — former Perkins Coie partner Michael Sussmann — is on trial in federal court in Washington on a felony false-statement charge brought by special counsel John Durham, who claims Sussmann lied to the FBI when he said he was not acting on behalf of any client in relaying indications and internet data stream between a Trump-related server and one for Moscow-based Alfa Bank.
Called as a witness by Sussmann’s defense, Mook told jurors that he would have vigorously opposed taking the allegations to the FBI because the campaign had no faith in the bureau after the FBI’s then-director James Comey publicly blasted Clinton as he closed an investigation into her use of a private email account when she served as secretary of State.
Asked if he would have favored handing the server information to the FBI, Mook said: “Absolutely not.”
“We did not trust them,” the Clinton campaign manager said of the nation’s premier law enforcement agency. “Two or three of probably the most damaging days of the campaign were caused by James Comey, not by Donald Trump. ... We just did not want to have anything to do with the organization at that time.”
Mook said he had no knowledge of Clinton approving Sussmann to go to the FBI with the server information on behalf of the campaign.
“I don’t see why she would,” he said.
Mook confirmed that top campaign officials were aware of the Alfa Bank “secret server” allegations in the summer and fall of 2016, but said they favored handing them off to a reporter.
“Going to the FBI does not seem like a very effective way to get that information out to the public. We do that through the media,” he said.
Mook said that after discussions at the highest levels of the campaign, they decided to do just that. He also said that somewhere around that time he informed Clinton personally and she concurred.
“I discussed it with Hillary as well,” Mook said. “She agreed to that. ... She thought we made the right decision.”
During cross-examination, prosecutor Andrew DeFilippis seemed to suggest that it was reckless or underhanded for the campaign to relay the server allegations to a journalist without having fully explored them.
“You didn’t gather any details about the technical aspects of the data yourself?” DeFilippis asked.
“No. That was part of the issue: We didn’t have any subject matter expertise,” Mook said. “Part of the point of giving it to a reporter was that they could run it down further.”
The prosecution’s opening statement to the jury described Sussmann’s approach to the FBI as part of an attempt by the Clinton campaign to create an “October Surprise” that could devastate Trump, but Mook said the campaign didn’t view the server claims as that impactful.
“It was one of many pieces of information that we had. ... Every day, Donald Trump was saying things about Putin, saying things about Russia,” Mook said. “I don’t think we saw it as this silver bullet that was going to conclude the campaign and determine the outcome.”
However, Mook said the idea of a secret communications channel between Trump and Russia was disturbing, if true.
“We thought this was highly suspect, and if it was something troubling, then we wanted the public to know about it,” Mook said. “It was certainly alarming and suspicious. The issue was we didn’t know what this data going back and forth was.”
Jurors have already heard testimony that top cyber experts at the FBI quickly concluded that the purported evidence of a link between a Trump server and the Russian bank didn’t establish or even strongly suggest such a connection, although the FBI opened a formal investigation into the matter anyway. Prosecutors say the internet traffic at issue appears to have been caused by a server sending out marketing emails.
Mook also testified that during the campaign some opposition research work was done through the Clinton campaign’s law firm, Perkins Coie, where Sussmann worked along with the campaign’s general counsel, Marc Elias.
“Opposition research on Donald Trump was really complicated,” the former campaign chief said. “He was incredibly litigious, so there was a lot of work to be done around different lawsuits that he filed or had been filed against him. ... Understanding what was a very opaque web of businesses internationally was incredibly complex. And so that piece of the work was assigned to Perkins Coie.”
However, Mook said he didn’t know during the campaign a private investigation firm called Fusion GPS was doing opposition research for Hillary’s bid through the law firm
“I was not aware during the campaign of anyone they were engaging to do that work,” Mook said. “I did not know that they had been retained.”
Because of a scheduled trip overseas, Mook appeared as a defense witness even though the prosecution is still in the middle of its case. Prosecutors objected to the out-of-sequence testimony, but Judge Christopher Cooper said he would permit it to allow Mook to take his trip.
Jurors also heard Friday from two former CIA officers who were involved in Sussmann's efforts to relay information about alleged Trump computer links with Russia. Both men were called as prosecution witnesses to buttress claims by Durham's team that Sussmann continued to dissemble about his clients in interactions with government officials, although the single criminal charge against him stems only from his statements during a September 2016 meeting at the FBI.
One of the ex-CIA employees, Mark Chadason, said Sussmann indicated he wanted to share information about Trump with the spy agency on behalf of an unnamed client. Chadason said he pushed Sussmann for more information about his unnamed client and elicited that the client was a Republican and an engineer who either worked or had worked in the intelligence community.
However, another former CIA officer, referred to as Kevin P., said Sussmann insisted at a February 2017 meeting that he was not coming on behalf of any client. Some of the CIA's emails and memos surrounding the episode refer to Sussmann's clients as the ones who prepared the data he shared, while others reflect him denying he was acting for the clients in approaching the CIA.
One draft memo said Sussmann indicated he was dissatisfied with how the FBI had handled "similar, but unrelated" information he took them. The CIA deleted that "value judgment" from its report before forwarding it on to the FBI, Kevin P. testified.
"To deal with these issues, [Sussmann] wanted sophisticated technical resources which the FBI did not have, according to Mr. Sussmann," Chadason testified.
Chadason said his feeling at the time was that the information Sussmann had was interesting enough to pass along to his former colleagues at the CIA — and that "the source was credible enough to pass it on” — but one email sent to CIA officials warned of the lawyer's Democratic Party ties.
"Please remember this guy is a partisan lawyer who works closely with DNC. So I am not sure what the real story here is, but I am sure you guys will figure it out,” Chadason wrote in the email.
Earlier Friday, the former FBI official Sussmann met with to hand off the Alfa Bank allegations in September 2016, then-general counsel James Baker, completed his testimony, which began on Wednesday and stretched through the entire court session Thursday.
Defense attorney Sean Berkowitz questioned Baker about various anomalies in the FBI’s handling of the investigation. He noted that an FBI memo formally opening a counterintelligence investigation into the allegations Sussmann brought forward, just four days after he did so, said the information about the server was referred from the Justice Department.
“That makes no sense to me,” Baker said. “I did not receive the information from the Department of Justice. I got it from Michael.”
The defense’s repeated questions about inconsistencies in Baker’s statements and in FBI records seem aimed at generating reasonable doubt among jurors about Baker’s recollections from the September 2016 meeting and about the FBI’s overall approach to the case.
Prosecutors have indicated they expect to wrap up their case Tuesday or Wednesday of next week. It's unclear how many witnesses the defense plans to call, but among them is a New York Times reporter who investigated the Alfa Bank allegations, Eric Lichtblau. Prosecutors and Lichtblau are wrangling over the scope of his testimony, with Durham's team arguing that if Lichtblau takes the stand they should be permitted to question him about any aspect of his reporting.
Lichtblau's attorneys have asked Cooper to limit the reporter's testimony to his dealings with Sussmann, who has waived confidentiality with the journalist on that issue. Cooper, an appointee of President Barack Obama, has yet to rule on that request.
"The issues are a little tricky," the judge said as he left the bench Friday afternoon.