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EXPLAINER: Why stakes are high in trial tied to Russia probe

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The first trial resulting from special counsel John Durham’s investigation of the early days of the Trump-Russia probe hardly seems an explosive affair. It’s about a single false statement that a cybersecurity lawyer with ties to the Hillary Clinton campaign is alleged to have made to the FBI in 2016.

Yet the stakes are high.

The verdict in the case of lawyer Michael Sussmann will help shape the fate and legacy of Durham’s three-year probe. An acquittal would hasten questions about the purpose of the inquiry and the cost to taxpayers. A guilty verdict would energize supporters of Donald Trump who have long looked to Durham to expose what they see as biased mistreatment of the former president.

The trial, beginning Monday with jury selection in Washington’s federal court, will not focus on Trump’s claims of government misconduct during the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election in the United States. Jurors will not be asked to decide whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin to tip the outcome of the race.

But the trial will rewind the clock to a frenetic stretch in recent American history when the FBI was scrambling to investigate ties between Trump and Russia — and the rival Clinton campaign was eager to push its own suspicions.

WHAT’S THE CASE ABOUT?

Sussmann is accused of lying to the FBI’s general counsel, James Baker, during a meeting on Sept. 19, 2016, in which Sussmann presented research that he said suggested a possible secret backchannel of communications between computer servers for Russia-based Alfa Bank and Trump’s company, the Trump Organization.

The allegation of covert contact, if proved, would have been explosive at a time when the FBI was already investigating whether the Kremlin and the Trump campaign were conspiring to influence the election.

The claim was false, Durham says, but that’s not the lie at the center of the Sussmann case.

The indictment accuses Sussmann of misleading the FBI by denying that he was representing any particular client during the meeting when he was actually acting on behalf of two clients: the Clinton campaign and a technology executive who had helped assemble the computer data.

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WHY WOULD THAT MATTER AND WHAT DOES SUSSMANN SAY IN HIS DEFENSE?

Had the FBI known Sussmann was representing the interests of the Clinton campaign, prosecutors say, they would have carefully weighed his potential biases and motivations — as well as the reliability of the information he provided — before investigating the Alfa Bank allegations.

Prosecutors insist it was not a stray statement either, pointing to a text message they say Sussmann sent to Baker the night before the meeting in which he requested a sit-down and said that he would be coming on his own and “not on behalf of a client or company.”

Sussmann’s lawyers deny he lied during the meeting and point out that it wasn’t recorded and no one took notes. They say Sussmann’s Democratic Party affiliations were well known, including to the FBI. Beyond that, they contend the false statement Sussmann is alleged to have made is ultimately irrelevant because they say there’s no evidence it influenced the FBI’s decision to begin investigating the Alfa Bank claims.

In addition, they point to notes from an FBI and Justice Department meeting from March 2017 in which the FBI’s then-deputy director is described as telling his colleagues that the Alfa Bank claims were presented to law enforcement by a lawyer acting on behalf of clients. Sussmann’s lawyers say that shows the FBI understood Sussmann did indeed have a client in connection with the meeting.

They also have argued that allowing the case to proceed could have the effect of discouraging tipsters from reporting suspicions or potential wrongdoing to the FBI if they fear their motivations or possible political biases would be scrutinized.

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WHAT DOES THIS CASE HAVE TO DO WITH THE WORK OF SPECIAL COUNSEL ROBERT MUELLER?

The prosecution centers on a limited slice of the original investigation into ties between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign, which concluded in 2019 with a report from special counsel Robert Mueller and his team.

No matter the jury’s verdict, it will not affect the core findings of Mueller’s repor t — that Russia sought to aid Trump’s campaign but that insufficient evidence exists to prove the two sides criminally collaborated.

In fact, the Mueller report ignored the Alfa Bank allegations. The FBI did investigate but concluded by early 2017 that there was no troubling contact between the servers.

Even so, the case does make clear that Clinton associates leveraged professional contacts to present the FBI with information about Trump that they thought was pejorative and deserving of investigation. And it will draw attention to the little-known universe of cyber researchers who sift through Internet data for potentially suspicious trends.

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WHAT IS DURHAM INVESTIGATING?

Durham, the former top federal prosecutor in Connecticut, was appointed in 2019 by then-Attorney General William Barr to examine whether anyone committed misconduct as federal agencies investigated Russian election interference.

His investigation has gone on longer that Mueller’s did and he has charged three people so far, including Sussmann. Though Durham’s initial mandate was thought to focus on government officials, and though his team has interviewed FBI personnel, Justice Department lawyers and CIA officials, the investigation has also focused on private citizens such as Sussmann who came forward with information about Trump.

It is unclear how much longer the investigation will last, though Attorney General Merrick Garland has shown no public interest in curtailing the work and Durham was given a specific title of special counsel in the weeks before Barr resigned to ensure he could continue his work in a new administration.

In 2020, a former FBI lawyer named Kevin Clinesmith pleaded guilty to altering an email related to secret FBI surveillance of an ex-Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page. In applying for warrants to eavesdrop on Page, the FBI relied on a dossier of anti-Trump research known colloquially as the “Steele dossier” that contained rumors and uncorroborated claims.

Last year, Durham charged a Russia analyst who was a source for that dossier with lying to the FBI about his own sources of information — among them, a longtime Hillary Clinton supporter. Igor Danchenko has pleaded not guilty. The case is pending and set for trial in October.

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Follow Eric Tucker on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP

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Trump calls for ‘immediate’ release of Mar-a-Lago warrant

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Former President Donald Trump called late Thursday for the “immediate” release of the federal warrant the FBI used to search his Florida estate, hours after the Justice Department had asked a court to unseal the warrant, with Attorney General Merrick Garland citing the “substantial public interest in this matter.”

In messages posted on his Truth Social platform, Trump wrote, “Not only will I not oppose the release of documents … I am going a step further by ENCOURAGING the immediate release of those documents.” He continued to assail the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago as “unAmerican, unwarranted and unnecessary.”

“Release the documents now!” he wrote.

The Justice Department request earlier Thursday is striking because such documents traditionally remain sealed during a pending investigation. But the department appeared to recognize that its silence since the search had created a vacuum for bitter verbal attacks by Trump and his allies, and that the public was entitled to the FBI’s side about what prompted Monday’s action at the former president’s home.

“The public’s clear and powerful interest in understanding what occurred under these circumstances weighs heavily in favor of unsealing,” said a motion filed in federal court in Florida on Thursday.

Should the warrant be released — the request is now with the judge — it could disclose unflattering information about the former president and about FBI scrutiny of his handling of sensitive government documents right as he prepares for another run for the White House. During his successful 2016 campaign, he pointed frequently to an FBI investigation into his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, over whether she mishandled classified information.

It’s unclear at this point how much information would be included in the documents, if made public, or if they would encompass an FBI affidavit that would presumably lay out a detailed factual basis for the search. The department specifically requested the unsealing of the warrant as well as a property receipt listing the items that were seized, along with two unspecified attachments.

To obtain a search warrant, federal authorities must prove to a judge that probable cause exists to believe that a crime was committed. Garland said he personally approved the warrant, a decision he said the department did not take lightly given that standard practice where possible is to select less intrusive tactics than a search of one’s home.

In this case, according to a person familiar with the matter, there was substantial engagement with Trump and his representatives prior to the search warrant, including a subpoena for records and a visit to Mar-a-Lago a couple of months ago by FBI and Justice Department officials to assess how the documents were stored. The person was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Neither Trump nor the FBI has said anything about what documents the FBI might have recovered, or what precisely agents were looking for. But the former president complained anew Thursday about the search.

Trump, who for years has lambasted the FBI and sought to sow distrust among his supporters in its decisions, said the warrant was served and the search conducted despite his cooperation with the Justice Department over the search.

In a post to his Truth Social platform, Trump said that his “attorneys and representatives were cooperating fully” prior to the search, and that government officials “could have had whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, if we had it.”

The Justice Department has until Friday afternoon to alert the judge about whether Trump will object to the release.

FBI and Justice Department policy cautions against discussing ongoing investigations, both to protect the integrity of probes and to avoid unfairly maligning someone who is being scrutinized but winds up ultimately not being charged. That’s especially true in the case of search warrants, where supporting court papers are routinely kept secret as the investigation proceeds.

In this case, though, Garland cited the fact that Trump himself had provided the first public confirmation of the FBI search, “as is his right.” The Justice Department, in its new filing, also said that disclosing information about it now would not harm the court’s functions.

Even so, Garland, in a hastily scheduled public statement delivered from the Justice Department podium, appeared to acknowledge the unusual nature of the department’s request as he declined to take questions or provide any substantive details about the FBI’s investigation.

“Much of our work is by necessity conducted out of the public eye. We do that to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans and to protect the integrity of our investigations,” he said. “Federal law, longstanding department rules and our ethical obligations prevent me from providing further details as to the basis of the search at this time.”

The Justice Department under Garland has been leery of public statements about politically charged investigations, or of confirming to what extent it might be investigating Trump as part of a broader probe into the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol and efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

The department has tried to avoid being seen as injecting itself into presidential politics, as happened in 2016 when then-FBI Director James Comey made an unusual public statement announcing that the FBI would not be recommending criminal charges against Clinton regarding her handling of email — and when he spoke up again just over a week before the election to notify Congress that the probe was being effectively reopened because of the discovery of new emails.

The Mar-a-Lago search warrant served Monday was part of an ongoing Justice Department investigation into the discovery of classified White House records recovered from Trump’s home in Palm Beach, Florida, earlier this year. The National Archives had asked the department to investigate after saying 15 boxes of records it retrieved from the estate included classified records. Multiple federal laws govern the handling of classified information.

The attorney general also condemned verbal attacks on FBI and Justice Department personnel over the search. Some Republican allies of Trump have called for the FBI to be defunded. Large numbers of Trump supporters have called for the warrant to be released hoping they it will show that Trump was unfairly targeted.

“I will not stand by silently when their integrity is unfairly attacked,” Garland said of federal law enforcement agents, calling them “dedicated, patriotic public servants.”

Earlier Thursday, an armed man wearing body armor tried to breach a security screening area at an FBI field office in Ohio, then fled and was later killed after a standoff with law enforcement. A law enforcement official briefed on the matter identified the man as Ricky Shiffer and said he is believed to have been in Washington in the days leading up to the attack on the Capitol and may have been there on the day it took place.

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Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Lindsay Whitehurst and Meg Kinnard contributed to this report.

More on Donald Trump-related investigations: https://apnews.com/hub/donald-trump

Eric Tucker And Michael Balsamo, The Associated Press

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Ex-police officer gets 7-plus years in prison in Jan. 6 case

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By Michael Kunzelman in Washington

WASHINGTON (AP) — An off-duty Virginia police officer who stormed the U.S. Capitol with a fellow officer was sentenced Thursday to more than seven years in prison, matching the longest prison sentence so far among hundreds of Capitol riot cases.

Former Rocky Mount Police Sgt. Thomas Robertson didn’t speak in court before U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper sentenced him to seven years and three months in prison. Cooper also sentenced Robertson to three years of supervised release after his prison term.

Federal prosecutors had recommended an eight-year prison sentence for Robertson. The sentence he got equals that of Guy Reffitt, a Texas man who attacked the Capitol while armed with a holstered handgun.

Robertson gets credit for the 13 months he has already been jailed.

In April, a jury convicted Robertson of attacking the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, to obstruct Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s 2020 electoral victory. Jurors found him guilty of all six counts in his indictment, including charges that he interfered with police officers at the Capitol and that he entered a restricted area with a dangerous weapon, a large wooden stick.

Robertson traveled to Washington on the morning of Jan. 6 with another off-duty Rocky Mount police officer, Jacob Fracker, and a third man, a neighbor who wasn’t charged in the case.

Fracker was scheduled to be tried alongside Robertson before he pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge in March and agreed to cooperate with federal authorities. Cooper is scheduled to sentence Fracker next Tuesday.

Prosecutors have asked Cooper to spare Fracker from a prison term and sentence him to six months of probation along with a period of home detention or “community confinement.” They said Fracker’s “fulsome” cooperation and trial testimony was crucial in securing convictions against Robertson.

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