WASHINGTON — A former FBI official testified on Thursday that when Mr. Sussmann met in 2016 with Michael Sussmann, a lawyer associated with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, he told him he had come to the FBI alone.
The testimony supports the case brought by special counsel, John H. Durham, against Mr. Sussmann, who has been accused of lying about his reason for bringing his suspicions to the FBI about a possible secret communication channel between the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank, a Russian financial firm with Kremlin ties.
The case revolves around whether Mr. Sussmann tried to hide his ties to Ms. Clinton during his meeting with the FBI, so as not to give the impression that he was coming for partisan reasons on behalf of a political opponent of Donald J. Trump.
While the Sussmann case is a false accusation, Mr. Durham’s documents have broadly suggested that the Clinton campaign was trying to get the FBI to investigate Mr. Trump about his ties to Russia, convincing reporters to tell stories about to write the case.
The former FBI official, James A. Baker, who served as the bureau’s general counsel in 2016, was adamant that Mr. Sussmann told him he was not representing anyone but himself at the meeting. “I’m 100 percent sure he said that,” said Mr. Baker. “Michael is a friend of mine and a colleague, and I believed it and trusted the statement to be truthful.”
Mr. Baker’s testimony was no surprise. It echoed a text Mr. Sussmann had sent him the night before, underlining that the matter may revolve around what it means to be “on behalf of” a client somewhere.
Mr Sussmann’s lawyers have admitted that he worked for the campaign when he tried to get journalists to write about the Alfa Bank case. But they insist he filed the case separately with the FBI when he thought a news article on the subject would be published so the agency wouldn’t be caught flat-footed.
Yet on Thursday they also tried to express doubts about whether Mr. Baker remembered correctly what their client said during the six-year meeting and the events that followed.
Sean Berkowitz, one of Mr. Sussmann’s attorneys, asked questions that seemed to indicate that Mr. Baker must have known that Mr. Sussmann was cooperating with the Clinton campaign.
At the booth, Mr. Baker offered a detailed account of their meeting and the steps he took to share the matter with top FBI officials, who were able to quickly investigate concerns raised by internet data and cybersecurity research. The FBI would later conclude that concerns about Alfa Bank were unfounded.
He would have “made a different guess” had he believed that Mr. Sussmann had approached him on behalf of a client, especially if that client was Mr. Trump’s political opponent, Mr. Baker said.
“It would have raised very serious questions,” added Mr Baker, “about the credibility of the source.”
The Sussmann trial, which began this week, is the first case developed by Mr. Durham, a special counsel appointed during the Trump administration by then-Attorney General William P. Barr, to investigate the origins of the investigation by the FBI. in ties between Mr. Trump and Russia.
Believing that the agency had limited time to act, Mr. Baker to senior FBI officials about the evidence, encouraging them to take it seriously because it came from Mr. sussmann.
Mr Baker said the FBI spoke to two DailyExpertNews reporters, one of whom was working on an article about the potential communications channel, to say the agency needed time to start an investigation before an article could be published. was published.
In that light, Mr Baker said he would also have reconsidered his dealings with the news media. He said the FBI was “aware and wary of” the fact that the existence of an FBI investigation could be used by reporters to report on something that is “flawed or incomplete.”