WASHINGTON — Prosecutors and attorneys clashed Tuesday in opening arguments in the trial of Michael Sussmann, a cybersecurity attorney with ties to Democrats, who was accused by Trump-era special counsel of lying to the FBI in 2016 when he told the agency a tip about possible Trump-Russia connections.
Deborah Shaw, a prosecutor who worked for Trump-era special counsel John H. Durham, told a federal jury that Sussman partially represented Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign at the time. But he claimed to the FBI that he did not provide the tip on behalf of a client because he wanted to hide his ties to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.
Whether one loves or hates former President Donald J. Trump, Ms. Shaw said, the FBI must know the truth “and should never be used as a political pawn.”
But an attorney, Michael Bosworth, argued to the jury that Mr. Sussmann was not lying to the FBI when he disclosed the suspicions. No one at the Clinton campaign told Mr. Sussman to take the matter to the FBI, Mr. Bosworth said.
Mr. Bosworth did acknowledge that Mr. Sussmann was representing the Clinton campaign when he separately contacted a reporter from DailyExpertNews about the suspicions. The move prompted the agency, Mr Bosworth said, to try to postpone a news article while they were investigating it.
“The meeting with the FBI is the exact opposite of what the campaign would have wanted,” said Mr. Bosworth, adding, “They wanted a big story that hurts Trump and helps them. He was there to help the FBI”
The contrasting stories were a highlight of the first day of the trial, which is expected to last about two weeks. Witnesses may include Marc Elias, who was then Mr. Sussmann’s attorney as well as general counsel for the Clinton campaign, and James Baker, who was then general counsel for the FBI.
The case revolves around a meeting Mr. Sussmann had with Mr. Baker in September 2016, when Mr. Sussmann told Mr. Baker about some strange internet data and analysis by cybersecurity researchers who had said it could be a sign of a hidden communication channel that uses servers for the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank, a Kremlin-affiliated financial institution. The FBI investigated the matter, but concluded the concerns were unfounded.
While the charges of false statements against Mr. Sussmann are limited, the case has attracted widespread attention. It is the first developed by Mr. Durham, and the special counsel has used court files to insinuate that Clinton campaign officials were trying to frame Mr Trump for conspiring with Russia.
It has been clear for months that the trial will be partly about the interpretation of what it means to bring information to the FBI “on behalf of” a client. But the rival opening statements brought another contention to the fore: Sussmann’s understanding of the status of a potential DailyExpertNews article.
Ms. Shaw claimed that Mr. Sussmann and others decided to take the information to the FBI “to create a sense of urgency” when a Times reporter with whom he had previously shared Alfa Bank’s allegations, Eric Lichtblau, failed to act quickly. published a story about them.
But Mr Bosworth argued that Mr Sussmann believed The Times was about to publish the article when he contacted the FBI. give it a warning ahead of time so it doesn’t “get caught with flat feet.”
Mr Lichtblau, who no longer works for The Times, is allowed to testify. Meanwhile, things remain unclear about the status of the potential article he was drafting. Mr. Baker has testified to Congress that the FBI has asked The Times to “delay” its publication. But news reports indicated that editors weren’t ready to publish that article after all.
Mr. Sussmann got the data and analysis from Rodney Joffe, an Internet entrepreneur and domain name systems expert who was already his client. The analysis was developed by a group of data scientists who specialized in analyzing DNS data for signs of cyber threats and eventually teamed up with him.
After opening arguments, two FBI agents testified. The first explained to the jury technical details about so-called DNS data, a kind of internet logs that formed the basis of the suspicions.
The second agent, Scott Hellman, an FBI cybercrime specialist who was part of a two-person team that conducted a quick initial review of the material Mr. Sussmann had provided to Mr. Baker, testified that he was skeptical of the methodology and conclusions.
Hellman said, among other things, that he didn’t think it made sense for someone to use a server with Trump’s name on it for a secret channel. He also testified that he was frustrated that Mr. Baker did not tell him who gave him the data.
The prosecution and defense appeared to place different emphasis on a case that set the backdrop to the constellation of events at stake in the trial: Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.
In her opening address, Mrs. Shaw told the jury that Mr Sussman had represented the Democratic National Committee when it was hacked in the spring of 2016, but she ignored the fact that Russia was the culprit.
Mr. Bosworth, on the other hand, told the jury that the opening of events took place “at a time when questions were swirling about Donald Trump’s connections to Russia.”