Ex-Obama Counsel Charged on Work Tied to Manafort

Former Obama administration White House counsel Gregory Craig arrives at U.S. District Court in Washington on Oct. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

MANHATTAN (CN) — Touching two successive presidential administrations, federal prosecutors indicted former President Barack Obama’s counsel Greg Craig on Thursday with lying about his work on a secret Ukrainian government campaign linked to Paul Manafort.

The charges follow a $4.6 million settlement over similar conduct that Craig’s ex-employers at Skadden Arps paid in January. 

Both the cases against Craig and the powerhouse law firm spawned from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Prosecutors claim that Craig lied about his role in a media blitz designed to quell public backlash against the Ukrainian government for jailing Orange Revolution leader Yulia Tymoshenko in 2012.

“In or about early 2012, in the face of the international criticism regarding Tymoshenko’s trial, Ukraine engaged the law firm and Craig, as lead partner, to conduct an independent inquiry into whether, under Western standards of justice, Tymoshenko had received a fair trial, and to prepare a report based on that inquiry,” the 22-page indictment states. “Ukraine planned to deploy the report as part of a strategy headed by an American lobbyist whom Ukraine had employed to, among other things, improve Ukraine’s international public image.”

Prosecutors say Craig “coordinated closely” with this lobbyist, whose identity is thinly veiled as Manafort.

On April 6, 2012, according to the indictment, Craig met in Kiev with a Ukrainian businessman who offered to “fully fund” the report for more than $4 million, which was funneled through a Cyprus-based bank account controlled by the lobbyist.

Manafort was previously reported to have controlled the Cyprus account used in the Skadden Arps scheme.

In what is thought to be the original “lock her up” campaign, Tymoshenko spent more than two years in prison on abuse-of-power charges by the administration of her former opponent, former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort acted as a lobbyist for Yanukovich’s pro-Kremlin Party of Regions before joining the Trump campaign.

Under the shroud of the Mueller investigation, Craig resigned from his role as a Skadden Arps partner in April 2018.

In the settlement with Skadden Arps, Craig is a match for the individual described in court papers as “Partner-1,” who participated in a cover-up operation that absolved Yanukovich’s administration of political motivations in prosecuting Tymoshenko.

Prosecutors did quote, however, what Craig told The New York Times in 2012. 

“We leave to others the question of whether this prosecution was politically motivated,” Craig had said. “Our assignment was to look at the evidence in the record and determine whether the trial was fair.” 

The Times noted that the Skadden-drafted report “seemed to side heavily with the government of President Viktor F. Yanukovich,” whose pro-Kremlin Party of Regions Manafort served before managing the Trump campaign.

After news broke last month that Craig would likely face criminal charges, allies of the former White House counsel suggested — without alleging outright — that the prosecution would be a politically motivated attempt by the Trump administration to turn the tables on its predecessor.

In an editorial for RealClearPolitics, one friend of Craig’s disclosed that the Department of Justice’s National Security Division referred the case to the D.C. United States Attorney’s Office after federal prosecutors in New York passed on bringing charges.

Citing Attorney General Bill Barr’s controversial decision to clear Trump of obstruction of justice, one of Craig’s allies quoted in that article described the prosecution as an attack on “a prominent Democratic lawyer with a sterling reputation for honesty and integrity in a case that is, by any measure, exceedingly weak.”

As if lending credence to suspicions of political payback, White House spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway took a victory lap over the fall of a Democratic luminary.

“BREAKING NEWS!” Conway tweeted. “FINALLY! WHITE HOUSE OFFICIAL INDICTED in connection with MUELLER investigation!”

Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn was also indicted and convicted in connection with the Mueller probe.

Craig’s attorneys and associates depicted the former White House counsel as a moderating influence who prevented Manafort and the firm from wholly whitewashing the Tymoshenko report more to Ukraine’s liking.

The indictment contains some support for this defense but also allegations undermining it.

Quoting from an email chain from July 30, 2013, prosecutors claim that Craig urged Manafort to tone down the conclusions of the Tymoshenko report to make them more credible to Western observers.

“The worst thing that could happen to the project, to this law firm, to your guy and to me would be to have someone on your side falsely leak a story that ‘[Law Firm] Finds Tymoshenko Guilty’ ‘[Law Firm] Report Exonerates Ukraine,’” Craig allegedly wrote in the email. “That kind of story would be a disaster. We have to join arms to get something just a little more nuanced. Yes?”

Prosecutors charged Craig with two counts of making and conspiring to make false statements to authorities to avoid having to register as a foreign agent. Craig is not charged with actually violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which is covered by a statute of limitations that expired, according to a CNN report.

Craig’s attorney William W. Taylor III, a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder, did not immediately return an email requesting comment.

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