WASHINGTON—Former FBI Director James Comey and his top deputy were briefed on claims against then-presidential candidate Donald Trump brought to the FBI by a lawyer working for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the bureau’s former general counsel testified in court on May 19.
James Baker, who was the bureau’s top lawyer at the time, met with Michael Sussmann, the Clinton campaign lawyer, on Sept. 19, 2016.
During the meeting, which took place in Baker’s office, Sussmann handed over white papers and thumb drives that allegedly contained data proving a secret back channel between Trump’s business and a Russian bank—claims that were later deemed false by the FBI and CIA.
Baker, testifying during Sussmann’s trial on a charge of lying to the FBI, said Sussmann repeated what he had told his friend the night prior—that he was bringing the information on his own accord, not on behalf of any clients.
“It was part of his introduction to the meeting, ‘I’m not here on behalf of any particular client.’ I’m 100 percent confident that he said that,” Baker said.
Sussmann told Baker that media outlets were preparing to publish stories on the claims. Within minutes of getting the data, Baker picked up the phone and called Bill Priestap, a top FBI official.
“It involved Russia, and this bank had links to the Kremlin. That seemed to me, on its face, to be a potential national security threat,” Baker said, noting that the bureau was already investigating alleged connections between the Trump Organization and Russia. “It was a very high priority for me.”
During a meeting with Priestap, Baker vouched for Sussmann, who he has described as a friend. The pair met while working in the same Department of Justice division.
Baker repeated Sussmann’s claim—which led to a criminal charge against Sussmann and the trial—that he wasn’t bringing the information on behalf of a client, but noted that Sussmann had represented the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign.
Baker said he gave the data the next day to Peter Strzok, another top FBI official.
“I wanted to get rid of this material as quickly as possible. I hated having it on my desk. I didn’t want to have this material any longer than I needed to,” Baker said.
The FBI lawyer soon spoke to Comey, the bureau’s director at the time, and Andrew McCabe, the bureau’s deputy director, about the allegations.
“It seemed to me of great urgency and seriousness that I would want to make my bosses aware of this information,” Baker said.
He recounted both men being “quite concerned” about the allegations.
FBI experts who analyzed the data found that it didn’t support the claims, FBI agent Scott Hellman testified earlier this week. The CIA in early 2017 determined that the allegations weren’t only “untrue and unsupported,” but that the data was “user created” and “contained gaps.”
It became clear “that there was nothing there,” Baker said.