WASHINGTON (CN) — Nearly seven years ago to the day, former White House counsel Greg Craig agreed in a meeting with future Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Rick Gates to communicate with journalists on behalf of the Ukrainian government, according to testimony Monday in Craig’s criminal trial.
A former BBC journalist turned media consultant, Jonathan Hawker said his public relations firm FTI Consulting became involved in the law firm Skadden Arps’ investigation into the trial of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko because Craig gave credibility to the project.
“The key reassuring point was that Greg Craig was the leader of the legal part of the process … and so we were reassured because if it was problematic then he wouldn’t be there and we wouldn’t be there,” Hawker said.
The former White House counsel under President Barack Obama has pleaded not guilty to the charge of falsifying and concealing information, denying that he waded from rule-of-law consulting into public relations work for the Ukrainian government.
The criminal trial now in its second week emerged from the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into interference in the 2016 election, with the government alleging Craig lied about his contact with U.S. news outlets in reports to the Justice Department to avoid registering under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, or FARA.
But Hawker said he was betting on Craig being involved in the media rollout – code named Project Veritas — concerned its negative findings would undermine Ukraine’s aim to leverage the report in seeking entrance into the European Union.
“If I had read [the report] as a journalist I would have written a nasty story about Ukraine,” Hawker said, describing his mounting worry as the report’s release drew near.
The defendant’s initials — marked as “SKA/GC” — are scattered throughout the plan Hawker prepared for a 2012 meeting with Craig, Manafort and Gates held at the Harvard Business Club, which the government presented as evidence Monday.
During two hours of questioning, Assistant U.S. Attorney Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez probed Hawker as to his familiarity with the Skadden report in developing the media plan.
Hawker said he was working without access to the report, under constant pressure from Gates, a former campaign aide for Donald Trump who worked under campaign chairman Manafort.
“It was starting to get a bit stressful and we had Rick Gates calling up everyday,” he said, later adding that he was “basically trying to keep Rick Gates off my back.”
The witness admitted that the plan was “hypothetical,” developed prior to consulting Craig. But to his relief, Craig agreed.
“Craig basically said that he was comfortable engaging with the media reactively,” Hawker said, adding that the defendant’s role would be “to provide guidance and possibly a quote.”
But Craig called the next day, claiming an “ironclad policy” at Skadden Arps prevented him from making comments to the media.
The government said in opening statements last week that no such policy exists and Craig went on to make contact with New York Times reporter David Sanger, as well as other news outlets.
Hawker said he immediately called Manafort to inquire how FTI Consulting could roll out a report for Ukraine, authored by Craig and the Skadden team, without the firm standing by the investigation.
“Paul is the big boss, or was the big boss,” Hawker explained. “It was his show.”
On Tuesday, prosecutors plan to continue questioning Hawker in what is expected to be a full week of government witness testimony.
Hawker said the FTI Consulting team had occupied the same nearly-empty hotel situated along the river outside Kyiv as the Skadden Arps lawyers — including Allon Kedem, the principal author of the report.
Kedem took the stand Monday prior to Hawker. Both the prosecution and defense noted that the witness, with a diverse legal career, had clerked for Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Elena Kagan.
“We were in this representation as lawyers, not spin doctors,” Kedem said in testifying about his email communications with Craig during the Tymoshenko investigation and later when the defendant responded to the FARA unit.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Molly Gaston presented various emails between Kedem and Craig to demonstrate the defendant was weary of registering as a foreign agent early on.
But in cross-examination, defense attorney William Murphy appeared set on undermining Kedem’s reliability as a witness.
“This is just one of many emails from the email chain 7 years ago that you don’t really remember that well?” he said.
“That’s correct,” Kedem said.
Murphy also questioned Kedem on a Ukrainian dinner party he attended the night before interviewing the judge who oversaw the Tymoshenko trial.
“This was a Ukrainian celebratory dinner of some sort with a lot of shots of vodka being consumed?” Murphy asked.
He continued, asking the witness to confirm he had felt “under the weather” the following morning.
When the attorney began to ask if Kedem received a clock as a gift at the party, the government objected.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson sustained the objection.
She later warned the defense to limit cross-examination and refrain from leading questions that created “awkward and cumbersome” proceedings last week with frequent objections.