Washington lawyer Gregory B. Craig pleaded not guilty Friday to charges that he lied to Justice Department officials who were examining whether he needed to register as a foreign lobbyist for work he and his law firm did on behalf of the Ukrainian government.
Craig, who worked in the Clinton administration and served as President Barack Obama’s first White House counsel, appeared at an arraignment hearing before U.S. Magistrate Deborah A. Robinson of Washington.
Craig was ordered released after reporting to the FBI and appeared in court voluntarily with his attorneys William J. Murphy and William W. Taylor III, who told the judge Craig was pleading “not guilty as to both counts.”
Craig left the courtroom without comment.
Craig’s two felony charges stem from work he did on behalf of the Ukrainian government and in coordination with Paul Manafort, the former campaign manager to President Trump. Prosecutors allege that he made false statements to Justice Department officials in 2013 and during a 2017 interview with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s office.
The indictment against Craig, which is being prosecuted by the Justice Department’s national security division and the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, grew out of the special counsel investigation.
Craig’s work for the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice came when he was a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, the law firm he joined after serving a year in the White House in 2009. He left the firm last year.
Craig is the first prominent Democrat to be charged as part of an investigation spun out from Mueller’s probe. Trump and his allies have seized on the fact that the special counsel investigation has led to an indictment against a figure closely tied to both Obama and the Clintons. On Friday, the president tweeted that Craig was facing “very serious charges” and he called on the media to give the case more coverage.
Manafort, who served as a political adviser to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, helped arranged for Craig and Skadden to be hired in 2012 to write a report reviewing the jailing of Yanukovych’s political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko.
Manafort pleaded guilty last year to failing to register as a foreign lobbyist for his Ukraine work, as well as for financial crimes. He was sentenced to serve 7½ years in prison.
The report Craig’s team produced offered a mixed review of her trial. But human rights advocates charged that it was a self-serving attempt by Yanukovych to convince the international community that her sentence was fair. Manafort made the report the centerpiece of a lobbying campaign to improve Yanukovych’s reputation in the West, which had suffered as a result of his treatment of Tymoshenko.
Prosecutors allege that interactions Craig had with the media to explain and publicize the report in 2012 triggered a requirement to register under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, which is intended to ensure transparency when foreign governments work to lobby U.S. officials or shape public opinion.
They said Craig did not want to register as a foreign agent because he believed it could prevent him from reentering government service. And they allege he feared the disclosure requirements would force him to reveal that a wealthy Ukrainian businessman had mostly funded the $4 million report, undermining perceptions of Skadden’s independence.
In a statement released Thursday, Craig said he had not acted on Ukraine’s behalf when he briefed journalists and instead had been working to correct misinformation and Ukrainian spin about Skadden’s work. He denied ever lying to federal officials and called his prosecution “unprecedented and unjustified.”
Skadden reached a settlement with the Justice Department in January in which it agreed it should have registered as a foreign agent and paid a fine in lieu of prosecution.
Robinson ordered Craig to appear on April 15 before U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson.
Murphy, one of Craig’s attorneys, said he would ask that Craig be allowed to retain his passport and travel outside the Washington area, where he has “a number of family members and children.”