Hillary Clinton personally approved the dissemination of now debunked opposition research linking Donald Trump and a Kremlin-backed Bank in the run-up to the 2016 election, former Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook testified in court Friday.
The trial of former Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann—the first to be indicted by Special Counsel John Durham in his years long probe into the origins of the Trump-Russia hoax—began on May 16.
Sussmann has been charged with making a false statement to the FBI when he told FBI General Counsel James Baker in September 2016 that he was not doing work “for any client” when he requested and attended a meeting in which he presented “purported data and ‘white papers’ that allegedly demonstrated a covert communicates channel” between the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank.
Mook, who was called to the stand by Michael Sussmann’s defense, testified that he was first briefed about the Alfa Bank by campaign general counsel Marc Elias. He said campaign officials were not “totally confident” in the legitimacy of the material, but were hoping the media could verify it.
During cross-examination by government prosecutor Andrew DeFillippis Friday, Mook was asked about the campaign’s understanding of the Alfa Bank allegations against Trump and whether they planned to release the data to the media.
Mook said he was first briefed about the Alfa Bank issue by campaign general counsel Marc Elias, who at the time was a partner at lawfirm Perkins Coie.
Mook testified that he was told that the data had come from “people that had expertise in this sort of matter.”
Mook said the campaign was not totally confident in the legitimacy of the data, but had hoped to give the information to a reporter who could further “run it down” to determine if it was “accurate” or “substantive.”
On Thursday, Baker testified that the FBI investigated the material alleging a Trump connection to Alfa Bank, and found that “there was nothing there.”
Mook said he discussed with several senior campaign officials whether to give the information to a reporter, “including campaign chairman John Podesta, senior policy advisor, now White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and communications director Jennifer Palmieri.”
‘I don’t remember the substance of the conversation, but notionally, the discussion was, hey, we have this and we want to share it with a reporter,’ Mook said.
They decided to share it with the reporter after the meeting, he testified.
“I recall it being a member of our press staff,” Mook said. “We authorized a staff member to share it with the media.”
“I discussed it with Hillary as well,” Mook said. “I don’t remember the substance of the conversation, but notionally, the discussion was, hey, we have this and we want to share it with a reporter,” Mook explained.
DeFillippis asked Mook if Clinton approved “the dissemination” of the data to the media, and he answered: “She agreed.”
Mook later said he couldn’t “recall the exact sequence of events,” when asked if he shared the idea with Clinton before or after the decision was made.
“All I remember is that she agreed with the decision,” Mook replied.
Durham’s team alleges Sussmann was, in fact, doing work for two clients: the Hillary Clinton campaign and a technology executive, Rodney Joffe. Following the meeting with Baker, Sussmann billed the Hillary Clinton campaign for his work.
Sussmann has pleaded not guilty to the charge.
When asked by defense whether he or anyone on the Clinton campaign approved or gave Sussmann permission to bring the allegations to the FBI, Mook said “no.”
Later, the defense pressed further, asking him if Clinton herself gave Sussmann the approval to go to the FBI.
“I’m not aware,” Mook testified.
When asked again, he said: “I don’t know…I don’t know why she would.”
The government, in its opening statement Tuesday, argued that Sussmann’s delivery of the Trump-Alfa Bank allegations to the FBI was part of the Clinton campaign’s plan to create an “October surprise” against then-candidate Donald Trump, and admitted a tweet from Clinton dated Oct. 31, 2016 as evidence:
Computer scientists have apparently uncovered a covert server linking the Trump Organization to a Russian-based bank. pic.twitter.com/8f8n9xMzUU
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) November 1, 2016
The statement from Jake Sullivan read in part: “This could be the most direct link yet between Donald Trump and Moscow. Computer scientists have uncovered a covert server linking the Trump Organization to a Russian-based bank.”
Sullivan said the “secret hotline may be the key to unlocking the mystery of Trump’s ties to Russia.”
“This line of communication may help explain Trump’s bizarre adoration of Vladimir Putin and endorsement of so many pro-Kremlin positions throughout this campaign,” Sullivan’s 2016 statement continued. “It raises even more troubling questions in light of Russia’s masterminding of hacking efforts that are clearly intended to hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”
The statement said they “can only assume federal authorities will now explore this direct connection between Trump and Russia as part of their existing probe into Russia’s meddling in our elections.”
When asked for the definition of an “October surprise” Friday, Mook answered that it is “the idea that you have a devastating piece of opposition research and drop it on candidate so the candidate doesn’t have time to respond or recover from it and, as a result, loses the election.”
In defense of the tweet, he added: “I did not see it as some sort of silver bullet and I don’t think that others on the campaign did either.”
Mook insisted that the campaign believed the Trump-Alfa Bank allegations were a legitimate concern.
“We thought this was highly suspect and, if it was true, we wanted the American public to know about it for sure,” he testified.
The Alfa Bank smear persisted in the media for years.
Billionaire Elon Musk tweeted Friday afternoon that he’d only heard about the Durham investigation last month, and was “blown away.”
I only heard about it last month and was blown away
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 20, 2022
You are absolutely correct. That tweet is a Clinton campaign hoax for which their campaign lawyer is undergoing a criminal trial. https://t.co/avtjEdthmA
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 20, 2022