WASHINGTON (CN) – In a second round in the limelight of federal court, Rick Gates testified Thursday against former Obama White House counsel Greg Craig in a criminal trial that touches two successive presidential administrations.
Clean-shaven and smiling, Gates – the former deputy campaign chairman for Donald Trump – arrived at the courthouse to serve as the government’s star witness, one year after testifying against his long-time boss Paul Manafort.
After confirming for the jury that he pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to the FBI, Gates testified Greg Craig, under the direction of Manafort, willingly participated in a media rollout plan for the Skadden Arps report on the trial of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Federal prosecutors primed the jury for Gates’ testimony last week, saying Gates’ plea agreement “goes up in smoke” if he lies on the witness stand.
Like Manafort and Gates, the case against Craig stems from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and involves failure to register under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, or FARA. The government has dropped FARA charges against Gates, now a cooperating witness.
Craig has pleaded not guilty to the charge of falsifying and concealing information to the Justice Department’s FARA Unit, denying his work on the Tymoshenko investigation as a Skadden partner extended past rule-of-law consulting to include public relations work.
In all, Skadden raked in $4 million on the Tymoshenko investigation. From the witness stand, Gates confirmed he wired the payments from Manafort’s bank account in Cyprus named Black Sea View Limited.
He said Craig provided New York Times reporter David Sanger with a copy of the report and an on-the-record interview. The article ran in The New York Times on Dec. 12, 2012, with the headline “Failings Found in Trial of Ukrainian Ex-Premier” – one day before Ukraine released the Skadden report.
“And had he been asked to do so on Ukraine’s behalf?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez asked Gates, who replied “Yes.”
Gates said Craig was critical to the media plan – orchestrated with the help of six public relations firms based in Washington, New York, Berlin, Brussels, London and Paris – as only Craig could speak to the report’s independence.
The teams strategized to provide a select journalist an exclusive story ahead of the release of the Skadden report to steer future coverage. Not knowing if the first article would be critical of the Ukrainian government, Gates said, “They were willing to take the risk given Mr. Sanger was a very credible reporter.”
At trial, now in its second week, both parties have relied heavily on a vast collection of emails submitted as evidence.
On Thursday, the government highlighted an email sent to Craig by Jonathan Hawker, a PR consultant working from Kyiv under instruction from Gates.
“Thanks Greg – that’s great and I’ve shared with Gates. We are both keeping our fingers crossed for David and thank you for your efforts here, especially hand-delivering the report,” Hawker wrote.
The email is dated Dec. 11, 2012, a day before the Times story ran.
In the email, Hawker refers to an event the prosecution has continually turned to: Craig’s hand delivery of a copy of the Skadden report to the journalist’s home in Washington.
But the defense maintains that while Craig made contact with Sanger – who they describe as a long-time friend of Craig – he did so reactively in an effort to correct misinformation on the report’s conclusion put out by Hawker and Gates on behalf of Ukraine.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Paula Junghans questioned Gates on messaging documents his team crafted prior to accessing the final report.
“‘The report will conclude that the trial was valid, that the crime was committed and that the sentence was appropriate.’ That’s what you hoped the report would conclude, right?” Junghans said.
On direct, Gates had explained the Skadden investigation was just one component of the “Engage Ukraine” plan headed by Manafort to generate support in the West for the new Ukrainian government.
“They wanted to make sure the record was clear,” Gates told Junghans, adding, “It was a big part of their entry into the European Union.”
Gates also confirmed the Skadden conclusion on whether Tymoshenko was the subject of selective prosecution was the highest priority for then-Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych – Manfort’s client and Tymoshenko’s political opponent.
Looking to further her point that the media plans mischaracterized the investigation, Junghans gave the jury its first look at the Skadden report.
Plowing through 11 points in the executive summary – including representation by counsel, Tymoshenko’s court behavior and selection of judge – Junghans came to findings on selective prosecution.
“‘In this report we do not opine whether the prosecution was politically motivated or driven by an improper political objective – i.e. to remove her from political life in the Ukraine,’” Junghans read from the Skadden report.
She asked Gates about various journalists listed in September and October drafts of the media plan, running through document after document that did not list Sanger.
Gates said various names served as a “placeholder” until Sanger was finalized.
“This is a few days after you heard Mr. Craig had reversed course,” Junghans asked, referring to an email Craig sent to Gates and Manafort in September claiming an “ironclad policy” at Skadden Arps prevented him from making comments to the media.
“Mr. Craig had agreed to do background briefing; to whom and how many had not been decided at this stage,” Gates testified.
Repeatedly asked by Junghans if he sent draft media plans to Craig, Gates said no. But he maintained Craig was locked in to leak the story.
The day-long testimony ended with back-to-back arguments at the bench clocking in at over 20 minutes, set off by Campoamor asking Gates if Manafort directed Craig to reach out to Sanger.
Following a hearsay objection from defense, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson – also the judge in Gates’ case – rephrased the question.
“At the time someone reached out to Mr. Sanger on a particular date, do you know under whose direction they were acting?” she asked the witness.
“Mr. Manafort,” Gates answered firmly.
But the defense again objected. After a second lengthy conference at the bench, Campoamor returned to the lectern.
“Mr. Gates, did you get direction from Mr. Manafort to tell Mr. Hawker which journalist to contact for seeding?” Campoamor asked, referencing the word Hawker used to describe leaking the exclusive story.
“Yes” Gates said.
Campoamor asked, “And what journalist was it?”
Gates replied, “David Sanger.”
Campoamor continued: “And did Mr. Craig contact Mr. Sanger?” to which Gates replied, “Yes, he did.”
On Friday, the government plans to call five witnesses to testify in its final round. Among them will be Heather Hunt, the FARA Unit director who oversaw the inquiry into the Skadden investigation on behalf of the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice.
Defense witnesses will take the stand beginning Monday.