WASHINGTON (CN) — A powerful Washington lawyer facing charges spun off from the Mueller probe testified in his own defense Wednesday, telling federal jurors that his work on behalf of Ukraine never crossed the line into foreign lobbying.
Taking the stand two weeks into trial — after a dozen government witnesses teeming with his former Skadden Arps law firm colleagues — Greg Craig smiled sunnily at the jury box as he recounted the investigation he undertook in 2012, working out of Kiev and Washington on behalf of the Ukrainian government.
In those days, Ukraine was controlled by President Viktor Yanukovych with the Party of Regions, a pro-Kremlin political organization that secretly paid the now-convicted former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort millions to lobby on its behalf in the United States.
Yanukovych came to power in 2010, after an election where he defeated Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister who in turn found herself at the center of a series of criminal prosecutions later ruled to be politically motivated.
Craig had been White House counsel for the Obama administration in 2009, but in 2012 he was steering a team of Skadden Arps attorneys hired by Ukraine to report on whether Tymoshenko’s trial adhered to Western standards of justice.
Wearing a light gray suit and red-rimmed glasses in court today, the lawyer said he stuck to rule-of-law consulting and did not engage with public relations.
The distinction is key to Craig beating charges that he misled the Department of Justice to avoid registering as a foreign agent. Shielded by the statute of limitations, Craig is not charged with failing to register under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, or FARA. Skadden Arps reached a settlement to related charges earlier this year.
Though the government accuses Craig of contacting U.S. journalists to generate positive press coverage for Ukraine, Craig denied these allegations on the stand.
He said he made contact with three U.S. news outlets only to correct misinformation Ukraine spread on the conclusions of his report, which was prepared outside of FARA obligations as a rule-of-law consultant.
Grounding his testimony in a deep-seated mistrust of Ukraine’s PR consultant, Jonathan Hawker, Craig said he reached out to New York Times reporter David Sanger confident that he would publish fair coverage of the Skadden report.
Prosecutors previously showed the jury an email to Sanger in which Craig told the reporter that Ukraine wanted him to have an exclusive. Craig denied, however, that this email showed wrongdoing.
“I made a point of saying the Ukraine made the determination,” the lawyer testified. “I did not want David to think I was asking him for a favor here.”
Meantime, Craig was allegedly urging Hawker to back down. “I said ‘I’m handling it. Don’t worry about it,’” Craig testified.
Craig also testified about documents presented to the jury that show he communicated with Manafort over the course of the six-month Skadden Arps investigation. Two recurring issues in these messages are payment — specifically the more than $4 million routed through Manfort’s bank account in Cyprus — and concerns from the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice.
“Paul Manafort really wasn’t very much on the scene,” Craig testified today, until he received a draft copy of Skadden’s report.
At that point, Craig said, Manafort stepped into a more active role as an “interlocutor,” ferrying suggested changes to the report’s conclusions.
Craig’s defense team exhibited as evidence Tuesday a series of six documents sent by the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office between August and September 2012 with suggested edits to the report, ranging from 3 to 20 pages in length totaling 50 single-spaced pages in all.
Repeatedly on the witness stand today, Craig said he feared, after reviewing the media-rollout plan created by Hawker, that Ukraine was determined to spin the report.
“Did you take any action to further that goal for the Ministry of Justice with Mr. Hawker?” defense attorney William Taylor asked. Craig replied, “I did not.”
After receiving the media-rollout plan in September 2012, Craig emailed Hawker saying anyone who read the messaging statements in the plan would think Skadden had been “bought and paid for” and that the report on Tymoshenko’s trial was a “total whitewash.”
The New York Times article by David Sanger ran on Dec. 12, 2012, with the headline “Failings Found in Trial of Ukrainian Ex-Premier.”
Craig said the article correctly interpreted the report’s findings.
“To me the lead finding is the trial wasn’t fair,” Craig said. “That there was a flawed prosecution. So I’ll take credit for that headline.”
Asked three times by Taylor if he believed he had crossed a FARA line when communicating with journalists from three U.S. news outlets — The New York Times, The Lost Angeles Times and the National Law Journal — Craig said he did not.
Saying the National Law Journal article was “erroneous in fundamental ways,” Craig detailed his efforts to offer corrections after publication.
“I did not think my talking to the National Law Journal to correct mischaracterizations given to them by Ukraine crossed any line or turned me into a press agent,” Craig testified.
The defense also showed jurors a government exhibit, an email from Manafort to Craig the day following the public release of the report.
“The pro has emerged again,” Manafort wrote to Craig on Dec. 13, 2012. “Initial rollout has been very effective and your backgrounding has been key to it all.”
Craig recalled the email confused him at the time, given he did not offer journalists any background and that Skadden contacted the press to correct misleading statements put out by the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice.
“We were doing something contrary to the interests of our own client,” Craig said.
Throughout his four-hour testimony under direct examination by his attorney, Craig maintained that he was innocent of the charge of making false and misleading statements. He testified he did not intentionally leave out information about public relations plans orchestrated by Gates and Manafort when responding to FARA Unit inquiries.
“I did not, I did not lie to the FARA Unit,” he said.
“They were focused on Skadden,” Craig added saying the federal agents did not ask about other actors involved in the Tymoshenko investigation for the Ukrainian government.
On cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez revisited email chains between Craig and Manafort.
“So Mr. Manafort, he called the shot?” Campoamor-Sanchez said.
“He certainly didn’t call the shots for our team,” Craig replied.
Answering the prosecutor’s questions in a markedly different demeanor from his morning testimony, Craig kept his expression focused and took care several times to clarify small details in the events Campoamor-Sanchez stitched together from the emails.
Twice Craig also corrected mispronunciations by the prosecutor — offering up the correct pronunciations of a Skadden associate’s name and the Ukrainian currency hryvnia.
Campoamor-Sanchez fired off questions — at a rate that prompted the court reporter to ask him to slow his pace — looking to tighten the link between Craig and Manafort.
While confirming that Manafort routed payments through his Cyprus bank account — named Black Sea View Ltd. — from a Ukrainian oligarch funding the project, Craig maintained that Manafort in no way tainted the independence of the investigation.
The prosecutor later in the afternoon questioned if Craig was aware at the outset of Ukraine’s ultimate plans for the report — under heavy criticism from the West already that Tymoshenko did not appear to have received a fair trial.
Ukraine was focused at the time on gaining entrance to the European Union, Campoamor-Sanchez noted, and the negative headlines clouded their efforts.
“So solving their public-relations nightmare would help with that right?” he asked.
“I guess,” Craig responded.
Earlier in the day, Craig claimed he had no idea how Ukraine planned to make use of Skadden’s findings.
“I didn’t know what they were going to do with the report,” he testified. “I thought it was highly likely they were just going to kill the report.”