By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON(Reuters) -Federal prosecutors on Friday presented closing arguments to a Washington jury in a criminal case against a former attorney for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, urging them to convict him for lying to the FBI in a bid to harm Donald Trump.
The case against the lawyer, Michael Sussmann, centers on whether he lied by claiming he was not representing any clients when on September 19, 2016, he arranged a private meeting with the FBI's then-general counsel James Baker to pass along a now-debunked tip alleging that the Trump Organization was secretly communicating with Russia's Alfa-Bank.
Prosecutors say Sussmann was representing two clients when he met with Baker: Clinton's presidential campaign and Rodney Joffe, a technology executive who oversaw the research into the alleged connections between Alfa-Bank and the Trump Organization.
"The defendant used his privilege as a high-powered Washington lawyer, as a former DOJ prosecutor and as a friend ... to bypass normal channels and to expedite a meeting with the FBI's general counsel," prosecutor Jonathan Algor said, adding that his political interests motivated him to lie.
Sussmann's attorneys in their closing arguments, meanwhile, accused the government of "misdirection" by trying to make the case look like a big political conspiracy.
"Opposite research is not illegal. If it were, the jails of Washington, D.C., would be teeming over," attorney Seth Berkowitz said.
He noted that Sussmann is a "serious" and respected attorney who had a high-level security clearance and a vibrant career before the government sought to prosecute him.
"It doesn't make any sense," Berkowitz said, noting that Sussmann had "everything to lose. Nothing to gain."
The case against Sussmann is being led by Special Counsel John Durham, who was appointed by then-Attorney General William Barr in 2019 to probe any missteps in the FBI's investigation into whether Trump's campaign was colluding with Russia.
The case is Durham's first to go to trial, and it is seen as a crucial test because it rests on a single alleged false statement made in a room with only two people, neither of whom took any notes or recorded the meeting.
To prove their case, prosecutors presented multiple records showing that Sussmann repeatedly billed the Clinton campaign for his work on the Alfa-Bank allegations, including a record from the date of his meeting with Baker.
They also showed a text message from Sussmann to Baker he sent a day before their meeting, in which Sussmann said he was coming "on his own" to "help the bureau" and not on behalf of a client. Earlier in the trial, Baker testified that he was "100% confident" Sussmann repeated this claim during their meeting.
"You should return the only verdict supported by the evidence in this case: Guilty," Algor said.
Sussmann's defense attorneys sought to poke holes in the evidence, noting that Baker previously made numerous inconsistent statements about his recollection of the September meeting, and that he never even took notes.
He also pointed to billing records that demonstrated that Sussmann billed his cab ride to the FBI to his law firm and not to the Clinton campaign, and noted that Joffe was never billed for the meeting either.
"It's your turn to do justice to prevent an injustice," Berkowitz said.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Mark Porter)