The top lawyer on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid, Marc Elias, testified in federal court Wednesday that his hiring of a private research firm to turn up damaging information about candidate Donald Trump was part of a broader effort to guard against possible libel suits against the campaign from Trump or others.
Prosecutors from special counsel John Durham’s office called Elias in the ongoing criminal trial in Washington of Michael Sussmann, one of Elias’ former colleagues at the Perkins Coie law firm. Sussmann is charged with lying to the FBI by denying he was acting for the Clinton campaign or any other client when he alerted the FBI in September 2016 to possible communication links between a Trump-related computer server and a bank owned by allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The prosecution’s main goal in questioning Elias appeared to be to reinforce its contention that Sussmann’s outreach to the FBI was part of a deliberate, broader effort by the Clinton campaign to spur press attention to the potential link between the Trump server and the Russian bank, Alfa-Bank. Sussmann’s defense has maintained that he was acting on his own behalf when he contacted the FBI and passed on data and documents supporting the notion of such a communications channel.
Under questioning by assistant special counsel Andrew DeFilippis, Elias acknowledged that he retained the private investigation firm Fusion GPS to assist him in representation of the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. One “bucket” of Fusion’s work involved the ties Trump and his associates had to Russia, Elias said.
“As things went along, there was a bucket that related to the unusual connections that the Trump campaign, and people associated with it, seemed to have an affinity for Russia and Vladimir Putin,” Elias said.
He said that during most of the campaign season he held “weekly check-ins” with two principals of Fusion, Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch.
As the controversy and various investigations into Trump’s ties to Russia unfolded during his presidency, Fusion GPS became a flashpoint for attacks by Republicans, who slammed the firm for its role in creating a widely disputed dossier of claims about Russia and Trump, as well as various figures in his orbit.
Elias also confirmed that he first learned of what he called the “secret server” allegations from Sussmann, who was another partner at Perkins Coie and who focused primarily on cybersecurity issues. Jurors saw numerous emails and billing records Wednesday that appeared to show Sussmann involved with Elias and Clinton campaign matters around the time the claims about the server surfaced. However, precisely what was discussed remained murky because of certain attorney-client matters being off-limits at the trial.
Elias is the most prominent figure to take the witness stand at the politically charged trial. A widely known figure in the legal community for his role on behalf of Democrats in voting-rights and election litigation, Elias became a mini-celebrity during the 2020 cycle for his online updates about the legal battles that unfolded as Trump tried to contest his loss to Joe Biden. Last year, Elias left Perkins Coie and started his own law firm, Elias Law Group.
Given the prosecution’s claim that Sussmann covered up aspects of the origin of the server allegations, the prosecution sought to use Elias to underscore the secrecy of the work Fusion did on ties between Trump and Russia. Elias said he considered the relationship confidential, but he also said that was par for the course in such work.
“I typically, when I hire any consulting firm, I want there to be confidentiality,” Elias said. “In my business, given who I tend to represent, I tend to not want more people to know about it than have to. … When you represent presidents, former presidents, vice presidents, Senate leaders, speakers, there is a general sense that it is better to keep things more limited because of leaks, because of things that can be done to disadvantage the candidate — the client.”
Sussmann stood by previous congressional testimony and arguments from lawyers for the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee that Fusion’s work was privileged and amounted to litigation support because they were providing research that could be useful in vetting statements that had the potential to result in litigation from Trump or others. In February of this year, Trump filed a wide-ranging suit against Clinton and dozens of other individuals and entities alleging they engaged in racketeering by spreading false claims about his links to Russia.
In campaign finance reports, the Clinton campaign and DNC listed amounts paid to Fusion as payments to Perkins Coie for legal fees. That prompted an investigation by the Federal Election Commission into whether the committees improperly disguised opposition research expenses.
Earlier this year, the Clinton campaign and the DNC agreed to resolve those misreporting allegations by paying a total of $113,000 in fines. The Clinton campaign and the DNC maintained that the disclosures complied with federal law and regulations, arguing as Elias did Wednesday that the private investigation work was not ordinary opposition research but ancillary to legal services.
“A lot of it was just research I needed for my own purposes,” Elias said, while acknowledging he sometimes passed on the information to various departments of the Clinton campaign.