Ex-Obama Counsel Apologizes for Talking to Trial Witness

WASHINGTON (CN) — The criminal trial of Greg Craig continued Friday with an offbeat start as the former White House counsel spoke up in court for the first time with an apology.

Greg Craig, left, arrives ahead of his arraignment at federal court in Washington on April 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

“Yes ma’am, it was impulsive and it won’t happen again,” Craig said to U.S District Judge Amy Berman Jackson.

The night before, as a summer storm rolled in, Craig had approached Skadden Arps partner Michael Loucke outside the federal court in Washington shortly after Loucke testified as a government witness in the criminal trial again Craig for allegedly lying to the government about his work for Ukraine back in 2012.

The two men shook hands.

“I know I’m not supposed to do this but I just wanted to say hello,” Craig said.

Jackson reprimanded Craig, reminding the defendant of her instructions to not engage with witnesses or jurors when court adjourns. Just hours before, both the government and defense attorneys had emphasized Craig’s decades of experience in the D.C. legal field.

“This witness was in the middle of his testimony. He is still on the witness stand,” she said Friday, cautioning Craig to “resist the temptation to connect with old colleagues.”

The judge went on to say that the attorneys arguing the case do not need to be “schooled on trial advocacy” but reminded them to let the witnesses in the trial inform the jury.

“We had a situation yesterday where the lawyers talked for two and a half hours and now it’s time for the experts to tell the story,” Jackson said, arguing it will prevent unnecessary objections during the trial expected to run at least two weeks.

Following cross-examination of Loucke, the government on Friday called its second witness, Douglas Schoen, a Democratic campaign advisor who in 2012 was working for the Ukrainian oligarch funding the Skadden Arps investigation into the trial of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Craig has pleaded not guilty to the charge of falsifying and concealing information, denying that his work as one of the leads on the investigation extended past rule-of-law consulting.

But the government laid the groundwork in court Friday for his alleged contact with U.S. journalists on Ukraine’s behalf, claims that if true would have required him to register under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, or FARA.

His indictment is one of many high-profile criminal cases stemming from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into interference in the 2016 election that involve failure to register, including that of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, now imprisoned for financial crimes as well as FARA violations and conspiring against the United States.

Schoen’s testimony described Manafort — then working as a lobbyist for the pro-Russia president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych — as orchestrating the Skadden project.

On the witness stand, Schoen said his involvement with Skadden amounted to little more than introducing Craig and Manafort at a breakfast meeting in Kyiv on behalf of his client, Viktor Pinchuk,  who would finance the project to the tune of more than $4 million.

“Mr. Manafort was handling the finances from this time forward,” he said.

Schoen also recalled that Craig “was enthusiastic about the engagement and made it clear there would be no issue with FARA or registration.”

Defense attorney William Taylor of Zuckerman Spaeder produced an email chain sent from Craig to Schoen that included the defendant asking if Skadden’s client was Pinchuk or the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice, after the witness denied any recollection of such an inquiry.

“Does that refresh your recollection, sir, on whether it was Mr. Craig who asked who the client would be?” Taylor said.

But Schoen held firm that Manafort was the lead man.

“I see an email where I say please talk to Paul,” Schoen said.

Former Skadden associate Alex Haskell later took the stand. Now a staffer for U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Haskell worked closely with Craig on the Ukraine project.

“Do you know sitting here today if Mr. Craig was in touch with Ukrainian public relations firms?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason McCullough asked.

“I don’t recall,” Haskell said, a frequent response throughout his testimony to questions about conversations with Craig.

But McCullough pushed on. Following more than an hour of questioning, Haskell revealed that Craig tasked him with emailing the Skadden report to New York Times reporter David Sanger in December 2012.

McCullough asked Haskell if he knew whether Sanger — described by defense attorneys as a longtime friend of Craig — had requested Craig hand-deliver a copy of the report to his home in Washington, in the lead up the report’s release.

Haskell denied any knowledge of the incident and said Craig requested in an email that he send Sanger an electronic copy of the report.

“Time is of essence, given time difference with Russia,” Craig wrote to Haskell.

But defense attorney Adam Abelson, also of Zuckerman Spaeder, said Craig’s actions were in line with what he later reported to the FARA unit.

“’This was done in response to requests from the media’ with respect to the electronic version of the report that you sent to Mr. Sanger?” Abelson asked, quoting the letter from Craig to the FARA Unit, and later asking the same question about Haskell’s contact on Craig’s behalf with a Los Angeles Times reporter.

“Correct,” Haskell replied.

The L.A. Times headline read “Ukraine Lawmakers Brawl: Report Finds Tymoshenko Trial Flawed.”

“Does that accurately characterize the Skadden report conclusions?” Abelson asked the witness, who responded affirmatively.

Haskell’s testimony reinforced the argument by defense attorney William Taylor in opening statements that Craig was working to counter misinformation Ukraine was spreading in the wake of the report’s release to generate favorable headlines.

Haskell also confirmed in cross-examination that a press release out of the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice and news reports that followed stating Skadden found Tymoshenko’s mistrial claims “groundless” mischaracterized the investigation.

“We simply said there wasn’t enough [evidence] to get across that high bar,” Haskell said, referring to a conclusion of political prosecution.

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