Trump-era special counsel faces first test as attorney goes on trial John Durham's probe led to a single false statements count against Michael Sussmann for allegedly lying to the FBI about possible ties between a Russian-bank and Donald Trump's company.

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Trump-era special counsel faces first real test as Washington attorney goes on trial

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AMARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The origins of the FBI's probe into former President Trump and Russia will finally be laid out in court. Veteran federal prosecutor John Durham was appointed in 2019 to examine what happened. Now, three years later, his team is taking its first case to trial. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas joins us now. Ryan, let's start with the basics. Who's going on trial, and what are the charges?

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: So the man going on trial is Michael Sussmann. He's a Washington attorney. And, like a lot of lawyers here in D.C., he used to be a federal prosecutor. He later went into private practice for Perkins Coie. And that's a law firm that for a long time has done work for the Democratic Party, and that includes Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. And the case against Sussmann dates back to that 2016 presidential race between Clinton and, of course, Donald Trump.

Sussmann is going on trial on a single count of making a false statement to the FBI. He allegedly lied in a conversation that he had with the FBI's general counsel in September of 2016 - so weeks before the election. And in that conversation, Sussmann passed along a tip about internet data suggesting possible communications between a Russian bank and the Trump organization.

MARTÍNEZ: And what does Durham accuse Sussmann of lying about?

LUCAS: So this case revolves around a very narrow question. Durham's team of prosecutors says that in September - in that September meeting, Sussmann told the FBI that he wasn't providing this tip on behalf of any client. And Durham's team says that that was a lie. Instead, they say Sussmann was there on behalf of a client, a tech executive named Rodney Joffe, and on behalf of the Clinton campaign. And prosecutors say that matters because the FBI would have treated the information differently if it had known Sussmann's political connection. The FBI did follow up on Sussmann tip. It didn't pan out.

In pretrial court hearings, Durham's team has accused Sussmann of being part of what they call a, quote-unquote, "joint venture" - in essence, a conspiracy with the Clinton campaign and others to collect derogatory information about Trump, get the FBI to investigate it and then leak that to the media. But as the defense points out here, Durham's team hasn't charged Sussmann or anyone else with conspiracy.

MARTÍNEZ: Durham has been at work for three years now. I mean, how significant is this trial to that work?

LUCAS: This is a major test for his investigation. It's really the first test. Remember, Durham was appointed back in 2019 by then-Attorney General William Barr to look into the early days of the FBI's investigation into possible links between Trump and Russia. Trump and Barr and their allies on the Hill, in particular, frequently talked up Durham's investigation. They suggested that it would dig up horrific wrongdoing by the FBI targeting Trump. Trump, of course, hoped Durham would deliver a report that would help him win reelection in 2020. That, of course, did not happen.

But even so, Trump and his allies have looked to Durham to confirm their suspicions that the so-called deep state was out to get Trump. Democrats, meanwhile, have accused Durham's investigation of being misguided and politicized. They say it's an attempt to undermine the original Russia investigation. So this case, and Durham's investigation more broadly, in many ways is just an indication that the fight over the 2016 election is indeed still going on.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so what's on the schedule today?

LUCAS: So jury selection will start today. If they get a jury seated by the end of the day, we'll have opening statements tomorrow. And there will be several days of testimony. Several current and former FBI officials are expected to be called to testify for the government. A former New York Times reporter and the current inspector general for the Justice Department are expected to testify for the defense. So it's going to be interesting - a very interesting trial. And in all, they expect that this trial will last about two weeks.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's Ryan Lucas, NPR justice correspondent. Ryan, thanks.

LUCAS: Thank you.

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