• Mon. Sep 25th, 2023


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Defense Team for Democratic-Linked Lawyer Won’t Call Ex-Times Reporter to Testify

WASHINGTON — The defense team for Michael Sussmann, a lawyer with ties to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, has dropped its plans to call a former New York Times reporter to testify in a trial that centers on Mr. Sussmann’s motives in meeting with the F.B.I. in 2016.

Testimony in the case has underlined the role the news media played during the bare-knuckle fight between Mrs. Clinton and Donald J. Trump in the 2016 presidential election, particularly as suspicions about Mr. Trump’s possible ties to Russia grew.

Mr. Sussmann’s lawyers had argued that the former Times reporter, Eric Lichtblau, should testify about his communications with Mr. Sussmann over odd internet data that cybersecurity researchers said could be covert communications between the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank, a Kremlin-affiliated bank.

A special counsel, John H. Durham, has accused Mr. Sussmann of lying to the F.B.I. about his reason for meeting with a top bureau official at the time, James Baker, to convey that information, by saying he was not there on behalf of any client. Prosecutors contend he was in fact representing the Clinton campaign and a technology executive who worked with the researchers.

Defense lawyers have argued that Mr. Sussmann represented the campaign in efforts to get reporters to write articles about the Alfa Bank suspicions, but not when he approached the F.B.I. about the data and his belief that a news article about it would soon be published.

In his testimony last week, Mr. Baker said that the prospect of an imminent article led him to fear that the F.B.I. would not have time to investigate the possibility of a secret channel before the participants read the news and shut it down. But a week later, when he asked Mr. Lichtblau to delay, he said the reporter indicated that an article was not yet ready to publish.

The Times published an article that mentioned the Alfa Bank matter about six weeks later, but it said the F.B.I. “ultimately concluded that there could be an innocuous explanation.”

Prosecutors have insinuated that Mr. Sussmann sought to prompt an F.B.I. investigation so reporters would write articles about it, while defense lawyers have argued that he went to the bureau only when he believed an article was imminent.

“The defense’s theory is that the story was going to come out, or was likely to come out, or was close to coming out; and Mr. Sussmann wanted to give a heads-up,” Sean Berkowitz, Mr. Sussmann’s lawyer, told the court on Monday.

Mr. Lichtblau’s testimony could have shed light on what he told Mr. Sussmann regarding how soon an article might be published before he sought the F.B.I. meeting.

Mr. Lichtblau apparently consented to testify as a defense witness about the narrow topic of his interactions with Mr. Sussmann. But a dispute arose over whether prosecutors could ask him about other sources during cross-examination.

Late Tuesday, Mr. Sussman’s defense team withdrew its subpoena for Mr. Lichtblau’s testimony without stating a reason. A lawyer for Mr. Lichtblau declined to comment.

The Sussmann trial, which began on May 16, is the first case to be developed by Mr. Durham, a special counsel appointed during the Trump administration by Attorney General William P. Barr to examine the origins of the F.B.I.’s investigation into ties between Mr. Trump and Russia.

But the Alfa Bank matter was tangential to the official investigation. Trial testimony has shown that F.B.I. agents swiftly dismissed the suspicions as implausible.

Mr. Durham’s prosecutors have accused Mr. Sussmann of trying to persuade the F.B.I. to investigate Mr. Trump over his ties with Russia, to facilitate negative coverage about Mrs. Clinton’s rival and disseminate unsubstantiated claims before the election.

At the trial on Wednesday, prosecutors wrapped up their case by introducing a stack of written documents, including records from Mr. Sussmann’s law firm that showed he billed many hours on the Alfa Bank matter to the Clinton campaign.

Defense lawyers sought to raise doubts. They emphasized that Mr. Sussmann’s billing of several hours on apparent Alfa Bank matters the day of the F.B.I. meeting did not mention the F.B.I. or a meeting, as was his habit for other such meetings. They also pointed out that he when he expensed taxis for the meeting, he charged them to the firm, not any client.