Michael Sussman, a prominent cybersecurity attorney associated with Democrats, was acquitted Tuesday of a felony charge of lying to the FBI about the lack of an agent in 2016 when he shared information about possible ties between Donald J. Trump and Russia.
The ruling was a blow to the special counsel, John H. Durham, who was appointed by the Trump administration three years ago to look into the Trump and Russia investigation for any wrongdoing.
Mr Durham expressed his disappointment with the verdict but said he respected the jury’s decision, which deliberated for six hours.
“I would also like to acknowledge and thank the investigators and the prosecution team for their dedicated efforts in the search for truth and justice in this case,” he said in a statement.
The case centered on strange internet data discovered by cybersecurity researchers in 2016 after Russia went public hacked the Democrats Mr Trump had encouraged the country to Targeting Hillary Clinton’s Emails.
The researchers said the data may reflect a secret communications channel that uses servers for the Trump Organization and Alpha Bank, a bank linked to the Kremlin. The FBI briefly considered and dismissed the suspicions.
On September 19, 2016, Mr. Sussman brought those suspicions to a senior FBI official. Prosecutors accused him of falsely telling the official that he was not there on behalf of any client, and of concealing that he was in fact working for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign and the technology executive who had been tipping him.
Mr. Durham and his trial team used court files and trial testimony to detail how Mr. Sussman, while working for a Democrat-linked law firm and clocking his time on the Clinton campaign, was trying to get reporters to write about Alpha Bank’s suspicions.
But trying to persuade reporters to write about such suspicions is not a crime. Mr. Sussman’s guilt or innocence turned into a narrow issue: whether he made a false statement to a senior FBI official at a 2016 meeting, saying he was sharing those suspicions on behalf of only one person.
Mr. Durham used the case to present a larger conspiracy: there was a joint venture to frame Mr. Trump essentially for collusion with Russia by having the FBI investigate suspicions so that reporters could write about it—a scheme involving the Clinton campaign; Opposition Research Corporation, Fusion GPS; Mr. Sussman, a cybersecurity expert, brought individual data and analytics to him.
The hint impressed Mr Trump’s supporters, who share his view that the Russian investigation was a “hoax”, and sought to confuse the actual investigation with the scanty or sometimes dubious allegations. Indeed, the Alfa Bank affair was a sideshow: The FBI opened its investigation on other grounds before Mr. Sussman passed the party, and the final report of the special counsel, Robert S., did not mention. Alpha Bank’s suspicions.
But the case that Mr. Durham and his team used to put forth their broad allusions was scanty – the charge being making a false statement in a meeting with no other witnesses or contemporaneous observations. Evidence and arguments orchestrated by the attorney general, Andrew Devilps, and his colleagues, did not conflict with the 12 jurors, who voted unanimously to find Mr. Sussman not guilty.
Some Trump supporters have been preparing for this outcome, citing the District of Columbia’s reputation as a heavily Democratic district and raising the possibility that the jury was politically biased against the Trump-era attorney general trying to convict an accused who was working on the Clinton campaign.
The judge told the jury that they did not have to take any of their political views into account when deciding the facts.
The defense, which portrayed the prosecutors’ insinuations as “political conspiracy theories,” argued that Mr. Sussman brought the matter to the FBI only when he thought the New York Times was already about to write an article on the matter, to give the bureau a head up so it wouldn’t be arrested. It has flat feet.
Clinton campaign officials testified during the trial that they did not tell him or authorize him to go to the FBI — and that doing so was against their interests because they did not trust the office and could slow down the publication of any article.
This story is developing. Check again for updates.