The trial of former Obama White House counsel Gregory B. Craig, accused of lying to the Justice Department about his work for the Ukrainian government, turns on the nature of his interactions with journalists, both sides agreed Thursday during opening statements in federal court in Washington.
At issue is Craig’s work performed while with a leading law firm in Washington and arranged by GOP lobbyist and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was a political adviser to the Ukrainian president.
Craig, who was President Barack Obama’s first White House counsel and special counsel for President Bill Clinton, was the first prominent Democratic figure to be charged in connection with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Craig, 74, is accused of misleading and withholding information from Justice Department officials seeking to determine whether he was required to register as a foreign agent. He pleaded not guilty to one count of making false statements to investigators and has called the case against him “unprecedented and unjustified.”
The case is a high-profile test of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, once a near-dormant law that since 2017 has been invoked in more than 20 federal prosecutions aimed at combating foreign interference in U.S. politics. The law requires Americans to publicly register when they are paid to influence U.S. policy for foreign governments.
The trial will also provide a behind-the-scenes look at relationships in Washington among lobbyists, lawyers, public relations consultants and journalists.
The question for jurors is not whether Craig was required to register but whether he lied to Justice Department officials about alleged public relations work on behalf of Ukraine that would have triggered the registration requirement.
In 2012, Manafort helped arrange for Craig and his then-law firm — Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom — to be hired to write an independent report reviewing the jailing of a political rival of Manafort’s client: Ukraine’s then-president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Molly Gaston told jurors that Craig’s role went beyond the report. He “participated in meetings about the media plan and executed part of it,” she said. Craig personally dropped off an advanced copy at the home of a New York Times reporter, she said, while displaying in the courtroom emails between the two.
Prosecutors contend Craig did not want to register, because he believed it could prevent him from reentering government service and because he feared having to disclose that Ukrainian businessman Viktor Pinchuk had paid the firm $4.15 million for the report, undermining perceptions of Skadden’s independence.
Craig attorney William W. Taylor III countered Thursday that Craig was concerned the Ukrainian government was inaccurately portraying the firm’s report and that Craig wanted to talk directly with journalists — not in coordination with the government but to set the record straight about his findings.
He delivered a copy to David Sanger, a veteran national security reporter at the New York Times whom he trusted and had known for years since their sons played baseball together, Taylor said. “He wasn’t signing up to do some kind of whitewash,” he said. “He did it precisely because he was concerned about his own reputation.”
Craig’s attorneys have said he is being singled out for conduct no one would have thought required registering under the act at the time. Taylor said Thursday that Craig signed on to work with Manafort in 2012 before people “knew what we now know” about Manafort.
As part of the special counsel’s investigation, Manafort was convicted in Virginia for bank and tax fraud and in the District for conspiracy to defraud the United States and conspiracy to obstruct justice. The judge who sentenced Manafort, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, is presiding over Craig’s trial.
Jurors are expected to hear from Craig’s former law firm colleagues and Rick Gates, a former top deputy to Manafort. Gates pleaded guilty in February 2018 to charges of conspiracy and lying to the FBI, becoming one of the first targets to cooperate in Mueller’s investigation. Gates is awaiting sentencing.