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Trump Colluded with Russia, and the Facts Don't Care About John Durham's Feelings
Michael Sussmann has been acquitted.
I am back to my beautiful babies after a long layoff. This will probably be a shorter Jackal because I have been under the weather (non-COVID) this week. And, to be honest, lots of other smart people are probably better at doing the heavy lifting than me.
I’ve written about the Michael Sussmann case before, but as a quick recap: In September of 2021, Special Counsel John Durham brought an indictment against Sussmann - a former attorney whose firm represented both the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s Campaign - for lying to the FBI. His trial started in mid-May, and on Tuesday a jury quickly returned a not guilty verdict. For Durham, who is a Federal prosecutor with tremendous resources, it is a pretty humiliating loss.
To summarize the case very quickly: Sussmann was working on a “white paper” with a guy named Rodney Joffe, that detailed the connections between a server in a Russian bank (Alfa Bank) and Trump Tower. The technical debate about the accuracy of that information is complicated, but most people who looked at it thought it was silly. Ultimately, the connections between Alfa Bank and Trump Tower were not a huge part of the 2016 Campaign. In fact, it flew under the radar even in conservative media:
After Durham indicted Sussmann, lots of people in conservative media began treating the Alfa Bank connection as the MOST IMPORTANT PART™ of the Russia investigation. But in reality, it was barely a blip on the radar in 2016. The evidence for it consisted of one Slate article and brief mention in a NYT’s piece in passing. That’s it. But for weeks, pro-Trump conservatives who had been following the case were convinced that Durham was about to blow the whole thing open.
In his telling, when Sussmann got a hold of the Alfa Bank information he was alarmed. He brought it to his friend at the FBI, Jim Baker, and told him he was not bringing it in “on behalf of any client,” but because he wanted to “help” the Bureau. Durham’s central argument in this case is that Sussmann was actually representing the Clinton Campaign when he brought that information to Baker, so Durham charged Sussmann with lying to the FBI, which is a Federal crime (even if the person you are lying to is your friend). For a lot of reasons, this argument never made sense, but the trial basically showed that Durham didn’t even have evidence for it.
On Tuesday, after they acquitted Sussmann, members of the jury even told the Press that it was “not close” and that it was generally a waste of time. Pretty striking. Here is Dennis Aftergut:
In charging Sussmann under 18 U.S.C. §1001, Durham’s team alleged that Sussmann lied to Baker—not about the substance of the tip but because Sussmann was working for the Clinton campaign. He was. But as Sussmann’s lawyer argued, “There is a difference between having a client, and doing something on their behalf.” Per Sussmann’s defense, he approached the FBI purely at his own behest to help keep Baker and the FBI from being caught unawares when the story imminently appeared in the press. It’s tough to disprove a private motivation. To do so “beyond a reasonable doubt,” you’d better have airtight evidence.
Durham didn’t. In fact, Baker, the prosecution’s own witness, bolstered the defense. He testified that Sussmann helped him identify the reporter working on the Alfa Bank story so that the FBI could try to stop it. (Premature publicity jeopardizes investigations.)
Here is Benjamin Wittes, largely pointing out the same weaknesses with Durham’s case but also noting the real goal of his investigation:
in the years since Donald Trump’s election, the former president’s supporters and opponents have often seemed to occupy entirely separate factual universes regarding both his conduct and the investigations of it.
In the factual universe occupied by Trump’s opponents, the former president serially engaged in the grossest of misbehavior, he was rightly subject to repeated investigations as a result, and he took aggressive and inappropriate actions to frustrate these investigations—leading to further investigative interactions.
Conversely, in the factual universe occupied by the former president’s supporters, a conspiracy to defame and discredit Trump—led by the Hillary Clinton campaign and including the campaign’s lawyers and investigators, the media and the FBI—developed during the 2016 campaign. The investigations of Trump during the campaign and subsequent to it were based not on any good faith belief, let alone any reality, that he or the people around him had done anything wrong. They were, rather, a “hoax”—a deliberate attempt to defraud the public.
To say the quiet part out loud: The factual universe occupied by Trump’s opponents is reality, and the factual universe occupied by his supporters is one created by both Trump and conservative media.
The latter point is especially important here, because I think without conservative media, you probably wouldn’t have a Durham investigation wasting around $4 million dollars (to date). The problem with the pro-Trump narrative in the Russia investigation is that it has now become too-big-to-fail. In that way, it is not all that dissimilar from the election fraud theories surrounding the 2020 election: Mike Lindell now basically has to pivot from selling pillows to selling 2,000 Mules because Lindell has made election fraud a huge part of his brand. Conservative media similarly has an entire ecosystem dedicated to presenting an alternative theory to the collusion narrative.
This used to happen a lot in the past. Normally, a guy on your side of the political aisle would make an argument and you’d back him up. The difference with Trump is that he was so egregious it was almost impossible to “both sides” an argument in his defense. So, conservative media had to invent a fantasy: The FBI, Obama Administration, and Hillary Clinton all invented the Russia story to frame Trump. Ground zero for this theory is The Federalist, which was a respectable conservative publication but has now become the Gateway Pundit without the editorial standards.
The alternative theory is pushed mainly by Mollie Hemingway, who - like the website she runs - has undergone her own transformation. During the 2016 election cycle, Hemingway openly stated that she was no fan of Trump, and wasn’t hesitant about calling him gross:
But the target is Donald Trump, a man who has been known for his misogyny for years. For decades! Telling us he’s a misogynist by reminding us of the stupid or immature things he’s said is too easy — and too ineffective.
Yes, we know he has called various women bimbos, dogs, fat pigs, flat-chested malcontents, fat-ugly-faced losers, etc. Yes, we know he has tried to fill up his insecurity by
hiringsleeping with women who put up with him in exchange for whatever. He seems to have a special insecurity around strong women, but it’s not like he does that while avoiding insults at men.
Like a lot of other Republicans in the 2016 cycle (🙋♂️), she was furious when Chris Christie endorsed Trump:
“I’m not entirely sure Chris Christie is that helpful,” she said. “I mean he’s another liberal, authoritarian bully who likes to sabotage conservatives in the Republican Party… It reminds us who Chris Christie is, how craven he is, maybe that Donald Trump has information on him, that sort of thing.”
Hemingway also suggested that Trump’s tendency to bully people by threatening them could have played a role in Christie’s decision to endorse the real-estate tycoon.
“If Donald Trump is willing to go after people who criticize him by threatening them, we have to at least entertain the possibility that he is going after people in order to get their support. It works both ways — offensively and defensively — and everybody knows that Chris Christie has a ton of skeletons in his closet.”
Here is Hemingway now:
You read that correctly: From calling Trump a misogynist and a bully, to writing a book called, Rigged: How The Media, Big Tech, and the Democrats Seized Our Elections. There is a lot of money in writing grievance pieces about how Trump was wronged in the 2016 election, and it helped catapult Hemingway from being senior editor of a Never-Trump website to writing a book and standing next to the President to promote it.
It’s not just limited to Hemingway: For instance, “Techno_Fog,” is an attorney who written almost exclusively about the Russia investigation for years (when they aren’t citing to Sydney Powell for election fraud evidence), and they currently have 377K followers on Twitter, and thousands of subscribers on Substack. All because they entertain a fantasy about Trump.
The actual facts about the Russia investigation are as follows:
The FBI opened an investigation into the Trump Campaign in July 2016, after one of his deputies blabbed to an Australian diplomat that he heard the Russians were going to hack Hillary Clinton's Campaign.
The Inspector General of the FBI found that the investigation was opened properly.
Mueller found a myriad of contacts between the Trump Campaign and the Russians, including an instance where Trump’s Campaign manager handed over polling data directly to a Russian agent.
Mueller found that while there was evidence of a conspiracy between the Campaign and the Russians, there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute the Campaign.
The final, largest hole in the conspiracy theory is that there were in fact serious grounds for suspicion. By 2016 it was already apparent that Trump had hired as his campaign manager a guy who owed money to a Russian oligarch and who had previously managed the foreign campaign of a Russian puppet, had publicly asked Russia to hack his opponent’s emails, had exploited the results of that hack, among other things. The investigation turned up many more details, including a secret meeting where Trump’s campaign manager passed polling data on to a Russian agent, a secret business deal that promised to give Trump hundreds of millions of dollars in profit at no risk (and which he was exposing himself to Russian blackmail by denying in public), and so on.
Why would Sussmann go to the FBI? No doubt he wanted Clinton to win. Durham presupposes this was his only motive. But Sussmann was also privy to an allegation whose technical details he wasn’t qualified to judge, but which had potentially alarming implications. The reason Sussmann was afraid Trump posed a security threat to the United States is that Trump posed a security threat to the United States.
Durham has another prosecution coming up in the Fall, but President Biden should fire him now and end his waste of taxpayer resources. And sure, people like Hemingway will be able to write Rigged 2: How Biden Stopped Durham from Uncovering Barack Obama’s Crimes, but that ecosystem is never going away, and will only metastasize over time.