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John Durham's case against lawyer Michael Sussmann ends in acquittal

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The verdict is in. The first courtroom test for special counsel John Durham has ended in an acquittal. Now, as a reminder, it was - the Trump administration appointed Durham to investigate suspected wrongdoing at the FBI. The defendant, Michael Sussmann, addressed reporters outside the federal courthouse in Washington today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL SUSSMANN: Despite being falsely accused, I'm relieved that justice ultimately prevailed in my case.

KELLY: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson was among those reporters outside the courthouse. She's here with us now. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK. Remind us who Sussmann is, what the central question here was.

JOHNSON: Michael Sussmann is a Washington lawyer and former Justice Department prosecutor who's represented Democrats. The special counsel had accused him of lying to the FBI in September 2016, when he met with the FBI's general counsel. Sussmann said he wanted to share a tip about questionable links between the Trump Organization and a Russian bank. And prosecutors working with the special counsel, John Durham, said Sussmann was trying to influence the outcome of the presidential election in 2016 by using the FBI for political purposes.

Now, Sussmann's lawyers told the jury he didn't lie about whether he organized the meeting on behalf of Democratic clients and that, even if he did, it didn't matter anyway. It didn't change the way the FBI investigated.

KELLY: I will note that the trial ran for two weeks, but the jury deliberated for only a few hours. Do we know what influenced their thinking?

JOHNSON: Well, I caught up with the forewoman of the jury outside the courthouse after the verdict. She didn't want to give me her name, but she said basically that the case didn't seem to amount to much. She said, quote, "I feel like we could have spent our time more wisely." And then she said it was the government's job to prove it. And I think they succeeded in some, and in others, they failed. It didn't pan out in the government's favor, she said, and that's on them.

KELLY: I want to ask about something you wrote over the weekend - that this case could be considered a test of John Durham's legacy. Explain.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Current and former government lawyers have been very critical of the Sussmann prosecution, saying that others wouldn't have brought this case in the first place. And defense lawyer Sean Berkowitz and Michael Bosworth were even more blunt. They said this was a case of prosecutorial overreach and that politics is no substitute for evidence.

Sussmann, their client, has had a hard time since his indictment last year. He left his law firm and has been out of work. And his elderly mom and his wife and kids have been at the courthouse nearly every day. They were nearby when Sussmann made a statement to reporters. Here's more of what he said outside that courthouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUSSMANN: As you can imagine, this has been a difficult year for my family and me. But right now, we are just grateful for the love and support of so many during this ordeal. And I'm looking forward to getting back to the work that I love.

KELLY: So that's Sussmann speaking. Any word today, Carrie, from John Durham, from the special counsel?

JOHNSON: Well, after the verdict, Durham stood inside the nearly empty courtroom and checked messages on his phone. Later, he issued a written statement. He thanked his agents and investigators, and he thanked the jury for their service. But he said he was disappointed in the outcome of this case.

This trial was the first for Durham, who was appointed in the Trump administration to examine the investigators who investigated the former president in Russia. And the former President Trump had hoped Durham would find something shady or dodgy. But so far, over three years, Durham has turned up very little.

KELLY: NPR's Carrie Johnson, thanks for your reporting on this.

JOHNSON: Happy to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: June 1, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of the headline misspelled Michael Sussmann's last name as Sussman.
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.