On opening day of week two of the Michael Sussmann trial about “Trump Russia Collusion,” we found out that when it comes to remembering a domestic threat to the national security of the United States — supposedly from a person who could become the President — the guy who used to run the FBI Counterintelligence department has a really, really bad memory.
The Special Counsel prosecution team put former FBI counterintelligence chief Bill Priestap on the stand to ask him about the Alfa-Bank hoax. This was a smear of Donald Trump by Hillary Clinton’s campaign that used bogus data to tie Trump to the Kremlin in order to entice law enforcement into opening an investigation before the 2016 election. Prosecutors called it an “October Surprise.”
Priestap left the bureau after a 21-year career to found a security company called “Trenchcoat Advisors” in 2019, the same year the Inspector General issued his report naming the former high-level FBI man as the person who green-lighted all other investigations into Trump-Russia Collusion.
In trial testimony, Priestap produced notes from a meeting with the former FBI General Counsel, James Baker. The notes confirmed that Sussmann, a former DOJ prosecutor, did not bring the bogus information to the FBI on behalf of his clients, Hillary Clinton or the DNC, or the cybersecurity executive who produced the data. Rather, he did it because he was a concerned American and not because he was paid to do so by Hillary’s campaign. That’s important because prosecutors contend that Sussmann lied to the FBI about this material point in bringing that data to them.
Priestap didn’t remember much and seemed cagey about the Alfa-Bank debacle. He didn’t remember details of the Alfa-Bank investigation, nor meeting with reporters about it, nor thinking that the Chicago FBI field office assigned to the investigation needed to know about the provenance of the dirt. That information was kept from line officers investigating the case.
After several questions about whether it would be important to know why or on whose behalf a person brought information to the FBI, Priestap finally relented. “Yes, yes,” he said. Here’s an excerpt:
Q: Is it important for the FBI to understand how those individuals came into possession of that information that they provide?
A: Important? It’s something we would like to know.
Q: Okay. And why is that?
A: When we—I say “we,” I’m not with the FBI anymore—when the FBI obtains information, it basically has to look at it and decide what to do with it.
A: In other words is it something that the FBI should look into further, so on and so forth. But as a result, it considers a variety of factors before deciding what if anything to do with information.
Q: Okay. Is it, based on your experience, is it important to understand the motivation of an individual bringing information to the FBI?
A: Important? I guess I’d say it is relevant. It’s not dispositive.
Q: Okay. Based on your experience, is it important to understand if someone is providing information to the FBI on behalf of someone else?
A: Again, we get information from a variety of sources, to include a variety of human beings who come to the FBI…motivated by a variety of things.
Q: And your testimony is that that motivation is important to the FBI; is that correct?
A: It’s certainly relevant.
Q: Mr. Priestap, the jury’s heard testimony in this case that Mr. Sussmann brought in the Alfa Bank allegations to the FBI on September 19, 2016 [two months before election]. Based on your experience, if Mr. Sussman had brought these allegations to the FBI on behalf of the Hillary Clinton campaign, would that have mattered to the FBI?
A: Again, the somebody, anybody, bringing information to the FBI, we’re interested—the FBI is interested in knowing the motivation of the person providing the information.
Q: Right, but particularly if, if someone’s bringing information on behalf of a political campaign—is that important information for the FBI to know?
A: I guess I’m struggling a bit on your use of the word “important.” There’s a variety of factors on the importance of that, and so it, again it’s…motivation is relevant but it’s not…it’s not the only factor.
And then the prosecutor got to a key point.
Q: Understood. Okay, if Mr. Sussmann had brought in the Alfa Bank allegations to the FBI on behalf of a confidential human source of the FBI, would that have mattered?
A: Again, relevant, yes. It would have been relevant.
Q: And why is that?
A: Again, a variety of people are providing the FBI all day every day. The FBI can’t look into every, let’s call it “allegation” that people are bringing to our attention…
Priestap, who was Peter Strzok’s boss, took the word of a confidential human source (CHS) who was not Michael Sussmann in this case. And later testimony from FBI investigators showed that the 7th floor, the executive suite of the FBI, kept the identity of the CHS from the line officers and put it on “close hold.” They testified Monday that they thought the data linking Trump to Russia via a super-secret server was bogus. And if they’d known the provenance of that information was the Hillary Clinton campaign, it would have helped them toss it sooner. Instead, the case was pursued and ultimately laughed out of court.
There are two data points to consider. We learned in testimony that Rodney Joffe, a private cybersecurity wonk who worked with Georgia Tech to produce the data for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, was previously a CHS but lost his status later in 2021. The judge ruled that Joffe’s status and the reason he was booted from CHS status can’t be brought up in the trial.
Priestap was criticized in the Inspector General’s report for his use of CHS in the rest of the Crossfire Hurricane “Trump is a Russian secret agent” investigation.
Special Counsel John Durham has been tasked with finding out the origins of the Trump Russia Collusion hoax. This is his first trial stemming from the case, and there are possibly more to come.
The trial is expected to wrap up this week.