The judge in the case of recently indicted Democratic lawyer Michael Sussmann is married to the lawyer who represented a disgraced former FBI official that worked on the Donald Trump Russia probe that Sussmann played some role in advancing.
U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper of the District of Columbia, who is presiding over the Sussmann case, is married to lawyer Amy Jeffress, who represented FBI lawyer Lisa Page in a civil case.
Cooper, an Obama-appointee, and Jeffress, a former top aide to Attorney General Eric Holder, are well connected in the Democratic party. Current Attorney General Merrick Garland even presided over their 1999 wedding.
On Wednesday, yet another wrinkle came during a Zoom conference when Cooper told parties in the case that he knew Sussmann in the 1990s when both worked for the Justice Department and would consider recusal if either side asked.
"I worked in the '90s at the deputy attorney general’s office two years following law school. Mr. Sussmann also worked at the building at the same time in the criminal division. We did not work together or socialize, but I think it’s fair to say we were professional acquaintances," Cooper said, according to The Washington Examiner. "I don’t believe that this creates a conflict, but my regular practice is to disclose these sorts of relationships with lawyers or with parties on the record. And I would advise you that I would be happy to entertain a motion if either side believes there is a conflict on that basis or any other."
The family link to the ongoing Page civil case should also be grounds for considering recusal, said Tom Fitton, president of the government watchdog group Judicial Watch.
"If a spouse has a substantial interest in the outcome of a proceeding, then a judge should consider recusal," Fitton told Fox News. "That is a question Judge Cooper will have to ask himself."
Special counsel John Durham secured a grand jury indictment against Sussmann as part of his investigation into the origins of the probe of potential Trump-Russia collusion.
Page – most known for her infamous anti-Trump text message exchanges with former FBI agent Peter Strzok – was involved in the collusion probe. But it’s not clear she would be a witness – or have any dealing – with the Sussmann case.
A recusal would have to be specific. The judge’s role on the Barack Obama campaign and transition team or other Democratic ties wouldn’t be grounds for departing the case, Fitton said.
"That is the insular nature of the D.C. political and legal establishment that causes public mistrust and I can understand why," Fitton said. "But if that alone were enough for recusal, you wouldn’t have any judges left in D.C."
One of the parties could request recusal, or the judge could recuse himself without a request, Fitton said.
"There would be a full analysis to determine if the fact pattern requires recusal," Fitton said, adding, "Durham will know if Page is instrumental in the case."
Sussmann has been charged with lying to the FBI. He said he was not working "for any client" during a September 2016 meeting with then-FBI General Counsel James Baker when he alleged the Trump Organization was communicating with Russia’s Alfa Bank. Prosecutors say Sussmann worked for the Hillary Clinton campaign but did not disclose it to the FBI.
President Barack Obama appointed Cooper to the bench in 2014 and he was unanimously confirmed by the Senate. His first high-profile case was presiding over the prosecution of Libyan terrorist Ahmed Abu Khattala, who participated in the Benghazi attack in 2012 and was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
After graduating from Stanford Law School in 1993, Cooper clerked for Chief Judge Abner J. Mikva on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit from 1994 to 1996. He then went to work as a special assistant to Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick in the Clinton Justice Department. In 2001, he went into private practice for 17 years, working at the firms of Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin; then Baker Botts, and finally at Covington & Burling, where Holder was a partner before becoming Obama’s first attorney general.
Cooper was part of the Obama administration transition team for hiring Justice Department personnel.
In private practice, Cooper and his father-in-law William Jeffress successfully defended senior-level Saudi Arabian government officials in U.S. court against a lawsuit brought by the families of 9/11 victims.
Jeffress is a former national security adviser to Attorney General Holder. She represented Page in her lawsuit against the FBI and Justice Department over the disclosure of her text messages to Strzok, several of which made it into reports by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz. Page also has a photo of herself and Jeffress in her Twitter profile photo. Page resigned from the FBI in 2018.
The lawsuit, filed in December 2019, alleges her former employer violated her privacy and gave her "unwanted media attention that has radically altered her day-to-day life," also stating President Trump "targeted Ms. Page by name in more than 40 tweets and dozens of interviews, press conferences, and statements from the White House."