It was a long day of travel but we’re back at it on the Sussmann trial.
This morning started with testimony from Bill Priestap, who in September 2016 was the FBI’s Assistant Director of Counterintelligence. His testimony was expected, even before the witness lists were put out. Back in January, we observed that Priestap had testified before a grand jury. In fact, Priestap himself stated today that he testified before the grand jury in June 2021.
A little bit of background on Priestap before we begin. Priestap approved the opening of Crossfire Hurricane and decided against defensive briefings being provided to the Trump Campaign. He was Peter Strzok’s supervisor and also approved the use of all the confidential human sources used against the Trump campaign (Stefan Halper, et al.).
Last week, former FBI general counsel James Baker testified that he spoke with Priestap about his meeting with Sussmann and “repeated to Mr. Priestap that Michael had said that he was not there on behalf of a particular client, that he was there as a citizen, as a – essentially as a human source of information, confidential source.”
At trial today, Priestap was presented with notes he took after that meeting with Baker. Those notes reflected that conversation with Baker, stating Sussmann “said not doing this for any client.” Priestap also said that the Alfa Bank/Trump Organization investigation ultimately fell under his control. Getting to the issue of materiality, Priestap was then asked about why the motivations of sources matter to the FBI:
Q: Based on your experience, if Mr. Sussmann had brought these allegations to the FBI on behalf of the Hillary Clinton Campaign, would that have mattered to the FBI?
Priestap: 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.
On cross examination, Priestap admitted he couldn’t recall the meeting with Baker or why he wrote in his notes that Sussmann wasn’t there on behalf of a client. After approximately 6 years, his memory was fuzzy:
Q: Do you remember anything more about why you wrote that down?
Priestap: I do not.
Q: You don't remember anything about the context in which that was said to you?
Priestap: I do not.
To summarize the defense theory of this case, it’s that Sussmann was there to help the FBI and that he supposedly acted against his clients’ interest by stopping a New York Times article on the Alfa Bank allegations from being published. On that topic, Priestap discussed how the FBI might ask a newspaper to not run a story:
Q: As a general matter, if the FBI knew that a newspaper story was coming out about a threat from a nation state, are there ever occasions in which you would, at the FBI, want to ask a newspaper to hold off on running that story?
Q: Okay. And that's because there are situations in which the FBI would want to have the chance to investigate before a story came out, right?
Priestap: Yes. If the FBI thought, let's just say, that publicly revealing a certain matter could potentially negatively impact not just things the FBI was doing but potentially negatively impact the country, we'd want to have a conversation about it.
Then there’s this blockbuster of a comment. Counsel for Sussmann presented Priestap with messages from the FBI’s internal messaging system, in which Priestap discussed how the FBI’s leadership – Comey, McCabe, et al. – were excited about pursuing the Alfa Bank/Trump allegations:
The influence that FBI leadership (Comey and McCabe) had on the investigations related to the Trump/Russia accusations is notable - but not an exception. This is the first time we heard that the Alfa Bank hoax was pushed by FBI leadership. However, this fits their broader pattern. Recall the statement of FBI agent William Barnett. He was part of the FBI’s investigation of General Flynn and decided it should be closed down. The FBI’s senior officials, who ran the investigation from the “top down,” called the shots.
Testimony from FBI Agent Ryan Gaynor
Back in 2016, Agent Gaynor was the FBI’s counterintelligence division’s unit chief in Washington, DC. He learned of the Alfa Bank allegations on September 23, 2016 during a briefing led by the FBI’s Chicago field office. Agent Gaynor reported to Supervisor Special Agent Joe Pientka (who, along with Strzok, interviewed General Flynn) and volunteered to help work on the case.
This is how he described some of the steps the FBI took in its Alfa Bank investigation:
As to the accuracy of the information and accusations provided by Sussmann? One investigating agent found it to be BS:
In fact, the Chicago Office itself was curious about the source of Sussmann’s data. Agent Curtis Heide e-mailed:
Whether or not the Chicago team would have access to the source of the Alfa Bank data was discussed - but not approved by - FBI headquarters.
Then there’s the issue of another confidential human source (CHS). The Chicago Field Office was informed that the Alfa Bank allegations had been provided to various media outlets. This source “was not Mr. Sussmann.”
This CHS was evaluated by the Chicago Field Office and “they thought the CHS was wrong.” They had several reasons for that assessment, including the fact that the source “made several technical assertions that didn’t pass an analytical merit.” In other words, the other source - whom we strongly suspect is Rodney Joffe - lied. This would be why he was terminated as a CHS.
During the break, there was a discussion of a sealed filing regarding Agent Gaynor’s “status.” It turns out he is being investigated by the FBI - not the special counsel. More on that, and more on Monday’s testimony, when the afternoon transcripts roll in….
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