Trial Kicks Off for Ex-Obama Counsel With Ties to Manafort & Ukraine

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)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Out to safeguard his “sterling reputation,” the government claims, former White House counsel Greg Craig lied about his work on behalf of Ukraine rather than tarnish his long-running career as a top D.C. lawyer by registering as a foreign agent.

Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright – Craig played a key role in all three powerful Democrats’ careers, a 14-person jury learned Thursday as opening arguments kicked off in federal court.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Molly Gaston said Craig’s reputation led the former president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych in 2012 to direct Paul Manafort – then working as a lobbyist for the pro-Russia Yanukovych – to recruit law firm Skadden Arps where Craig was a partner for an investigation into the trial of former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

“They [Ukraine] wanted to leverage the defendant’s image to improve Ukraine’s image around the world,” Gaston said in her opening statements.

Craig has pleaded not guilty to the charge of falsifying and concealing information, denying his work extended past rule-of-law consulting to include public relations work for Ukraine. His indictment is one of many high-profile criminal cases stemming from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that involve failure to register under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, or FARA.

The government claims Craig’s outreach to U.S. journalists in December 2012 ahead of the release of the Skadden investigation report was a calculated plan to ensure positive media coverage for Ukraine as it sought to join the European Union.

Craig went so far, Gaston said, as to drop the Skadden report on the doorstep of New York Times reporter David Sanger’s home after emailing him with information on its release.

But defense attorney William Taylor, of Zuckerman Spaeder, rebuffed the government’s claim.

Sanger was a trusted friend, Taylor said. The two men met years ago when their sons played on the same Little League Baseball team.

He argued Craig made contact with Sanger, then a Los Angeles Times reporter and other outlets, in an effort to counter misinformation from Ukraine on the report’s conclusion that the Tymoshenko trial was in fact flawed.

“The last thing that Ukraine would have thought is that Mr. Craig was acting as an agent when he talked to the LA Times,” Taylor said.

Laying out the case for the jury for more than 90 minutes, Taylor made little mention of Paul Manafort, now imprisoned for financial crimes as well as FARA violations and conspiring against the United States.

But Gaston made a point of telling jurors Rick Gates, former deputy to Paul Manafort on the Trump campaign, will testify against Craig in cooperation with the government.

Gates has pleaded guilty to conspiring against the United States and making false statements to the FBI.

“If Rick Gates lies in this courtroom his plea agreement goes up in smoke,” Gaston said.

The government called its first witness, Skadden Arps partner Michael Loucks, who worked with Craig on the Tymoshenko investigation on the ground in Ukraine.

Loucks described wrapping up a day’s work in the capital Kyiv and returning to his hotel to find news of Tymoshenko across the BBC and CNN World.

“We were only there because there was a lot of bad press about it,” Loucks said, explaining why Ukraine had recruited his firm.

Questioning Loucks about Craig’s opinion on Skadden’s recommending that Ukraine contract with a public relations firm to facilitate the report’s rollout, U.S. Assistant Attorney Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez drew nearly 10 objections from Craig’s attorney Paula Junghans who said he was asking leading questions.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson sustained only two.

The trial is expected to run at least two weeks.

The jury of 12 plus two alternates includes 10 men and 4 women – six of them people of color – and contains a number of Washington residents with notable government backgrounds.

A CIA analyst who acknowledged knowing highly classified information about Ukraine made the cut, though she told Jackson it would be difficult to “turn off” her “CIA analyst brain.”

A private communication consultant who advises GOP candidates for congressional and presidential campaign sits behind the CIA analyst.

Another juror served on the Homeland Security Advisory Council following the 9/11 attacks, appointed by George W. Bush. Asked by Jackson if he could set aside what he read in the news about the Mueller investigation, he answered candidly.

“That’s a tough question, it really is, because having read through the Mueller report I presumed he [Craig] was guilty,” he replied, though later said he could “wall up” his prior knowledge of the case to serve if called.

Another prospective juror worked as an Obama speechwriter at the same time Craig served in the White House. He was eliminated early.

“I came to admire him [Craig] during the impeachment proceedings,” the prospective juror said, referring to Craig’s work for Clinton during that time.

Another juror – one of the many who indicated the involvement of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates in the case could influence their judgment – said he was surprised that an Obama White House staffer was implicated in the special counsel’s investigation.

Now seated on the jury, he also acknowledged holding strong opinions on Manafort’s political career. “I hold his work in contempt, that’s all,” he said.

Both sides made clear to the jury pool during voir dire that Manafort, now imprisoned, would not be called to testify.

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