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Special counsel Durham wants to bring up Trump-Russia dossier at trial against Clinton campaign lawyer

CNN logo CNN 4/5/2022 By Marshall Cohen, CNN
John Durham, center, outside federal court in New Haven, Connecticut. © Bob MacDonnell/Hartford Courant/Getty Images John Durham, center, outside federal court in New Haven, Connecticut.

Special counsel John Durham wants to bring up the infamous Trump-Russia dossier and might even call its author Christopher Steele as a witness at the upcoming criminal trial of Hillary Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann, according to court papers filed on Monday.

Two late-night filings from Sussmann and Durham provided the first indication that the special counsel plans to introduce Steele and his politically fraught dossier from 2016 into the case.

Sussmann was charged with lying in regard to a September 2016 meeting with a senior FBI official, where he provided a tip about strange cyberactivity between the Trump Organization and a major Russian bank. Prosecutors say Sussmann falsely denied providing the tip on behalf of a client -- and was really working for the Clinton campaign at the time. He has pleaded not guilty.

The new filings on Monday suggest that instead of narrowly focusing on Sussmann's alleged lie and the specific meeting where it allegedly occurred, Durham plans to describe at the trial how the Clinton campaign tried to dig up dirt about then-candidate Donald Trump and his ties to Russia.

Attorneys for Sussmann want the judge to block Durham from introducing evidence about the dossier at trial and to stop prosecutors from calling Steele as a witness at the trial next month.

"The Special Counsel should not be permitted to turn Mr. Sussmann's trial on a narrow false statement charge into a circus full of sideshows that will only fuel partisan fervor," the lawyers wrote, saying Steele's work has "no bearing" on the case and is "inflammatory and irrelevant."

Durham's prosecutors said in their own filing that they expect to bring up at trial an old Steele deposition about a meeting he had with Sussmann where they discussed the Trump-Russia cyber claims. Taken together, the filings indicate Durham may try to call Steele as a witness.

It's ultimately up to Judge Christopher Cooper of the DC District Court to decide how much information about Steele can come up at trial. He is also reviewing a motion from Sussmann to throw out the indictment altogether, citing legal flaws. Durham's team says their case is sound.

The Durham investigation has repeatedly faced criticism for trying to keep alive right-wing grievances about the Russia probe. Durham hasn't brought any cases alleging the widespread abuses by US intelligence or law enforcement agencies that are central to these grievances.

There's no indication in the 27-page indictment against Sussmann that he discussed the Steele dossier during his meeting in September 2016 with then-FBI general counsel James Baker, where Sussmann allegedly uttered the false statement that is the basis of his criminal charge.

However, Sussmann was working at the time for Perkins Coie, the law firm that was retained by the Clinton campaign and indirectly hired Steele to research the Trump-Russia relationship. And Sussmann met with Steele one month before he met Baker, but he didn't know that the dossier existed until after the 2016 election, according to Sussmann's previous testimony to Congress.

The Steele dossier contained explosive and salacious allegations about Trump, including unproven claims that his campaign worked closely with the Kremlin to defeat Clinton in 2016. But in the years since that election, a series of federal investigations and civil lawsuits have discredited many of Steele's central allegations and exposed the unreliability of his sources.

If Durham is allowed to bring up the dossier at trial, it would put a spotlight on the secretive efforts by Clinton allies to push the collusion narrative, which has become a hotly debated political topic. Trump denies wrongdoing and says the Democrats faked his ties to Russia, while many Democrats still believe Trump's dealings with Russia are a grave national security threat.

The FBI investigated Sussman's tip but didn't find any improper cyberlinks between the Trump Organization and the Moscow-based Alfa Bank. But related inquiries found substantial ties between Trump's orbit and Russians who were connected to the Kremlin's pro-Trump meddling efforts. The new filing now indicates that Sussmann's case will likely revisit some of this history.

Special counsel Robert Mueller spent two years investigating potential collusion in the 2016 election. His investigation did not establish a criminal conspiracy between Trump and Russia, but it uncovered dozens of contacts between Trump campaign associates and Russian agents.

For his part, Steele previously testified in a deposition as part of at least one civil lawsuit related to the dossier, met with Mueller's investigators, and gave written testimony to a Senate panel.

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