Department of Justice Mistakenly Referred to During Opening of Trump–Russia Probe
Department of Justice Mistakenly Referred to During Opening of Trump–Russia Probe

By John Haughey and Zachary Stieber

WASHINGTON—The investigation into claims of a secret communications channel between Donald Trump and Russia was not triggered by the Department of Justice (DOJ), despite the document memorializing the investigation stating it was, an FBI agent testified on May 24.

The electronic communications on the probe, dated Sept. 23, 2016, say the FBI received a referral of information from the DOJ.

“In that referral, the Department of Justice provided the FBI with a whitepaper that was produced by an anonymous third party,” the form says.

That was a “mistake in our paperwork,” Curtis Heide, a lead agent in the FBI’s Chicago office at the time, told the federal court in Washington on Tuesday.

Officials in the Chicago office “may have been conflating the U.S. Department of Justice and our own office of general counsel,” he claimed.

The DOJ’s Office of Inspector General alerted Heide to the error, the agent said, calling it a “typo.”

“They brought it to my attention and asked if it was accurate,” Heide said. Officials in the Chicago office “may have conflated the FBI’s office of general counsel with the DOJ.”

The watchdog’s office did not pick up the phone or return a voicemail. The FBI declined to comment. The DOJ did not return an inquiry.

The testimony came during the trial of Michael Sussmann, who, while representing Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016, handed over white papers and thumb drives with data allegedly supporting the narrative in the papers to James Baker, an FBI lawyer.

The data did not support the narrative, which is that the Trump Organization had a secret backchannel with Russia’s Alfa Bank, according to the FBI and the CIA.

The document on the opening of the investigation did not mention Sussmann or any other source besides the DOJ and the anonymous third party.

Prosecutors say Sussmann produced the information with the assistance of Rodney Joffe, another client who had been promised a position in the government if Clinton won the 2016 election; and researchers with the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Sussmann is on trial for allegedly lying to the FBI. He told Baker that he was not bringing the information on behalf of any clients. Prosecutors say the effort was meant to influence the election.

FBI records on the probe contained at least one other error, according to Heide.

The document detailing the closing of the investigation said the bureau completed a “preliminary investigation.” The opening file said a full field investigation was being launched. The latter was correct, the FBI agent said.

The matter could have been handled with a preliminary investigation, Heide testified. Prosecutors have asserted that Sussmann’s lie was material because the FBI would have been more cautious and acted on the information differently if officials were aware the information came from Trump’s rival.

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