Editor’s Note: Greg Craig was found not guilty on Sept. 4. Click here for the updated story.
Greg Craig, the former White House counsel in 2009 and 2010, has maintained he was not a foreign agent of the Ukrainian government when he worked with lobbyist Paul Manafort in 2012 regarding a report he wrote on Ukraine, as he testifies in his own defense Wednesday.
Craig says he is not guilty of illegally hiding from the Justice Department work he did for the Ukrainian government. Manafort, Craig’s law firm and others have admitted to attempting to shape the news coverage of Craig’s Ukraine report and the failure of those involved to register as foreign agents with the Justice Department.
His testimony is an astonishing cap to a criminal case that arose out of the Mueller investigation and has drawn attention because of how well-known the 74-year-old lawyer and former top Democratic official is in Washington. Defendants don’t often take the stand to testify on their own behalf – it’s often a risk to open the defendant to questioning under oath before the jury.
Craig began by speaking in full sentences in response to yes or no questions from his lawyer, often speaking directly to the jury.
He laughed or smiled occasionally but generally appeared serious and conversational as he describes the steps he took to get a New York Times reporter, David Sanger, and speak to other journalists his report on the trial of the then-Ukrainian President’s political opponent before the report was made public. The report was meant to be independent, but Craig’s law firm was being paid more than $4 million for it, and members of Manafort’s team had been in touch with Craig for planning of the roll-out, with the intention of minimizing damage to their client Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych about the approach to the trial of Yulia Tymoshenko.
Craig maintains, however, that he spoke to the media and gave Sanger a copy of the report before its release as a way to encourage accurate coverage of his own work.
“I did not trust Jonathan Hawker (a public relations person working with Manafort) to give an accurate or honest description of the report we had written of the Tymoshenko trial,” Craig said minutes after taking the stand.
Hawker testified earlier in the trial and is a major witness in the case. The British former journalist-turned-PR-person amused the courtroom for two days with off-color asides and jokes peppered through his descriptions of his efforts to “seed” the media with an angle about the report – and about discussions he had with Craig in advance of the report’s release. Rick Gates, Manafort’s longtime deputy and a cooperator secured by Mueller, also testified last week about the “master control grid” spreadsheet he and Hawker kept about shaping coverage of the report’s release in the US.
Craig’s interactions with Sanger – including delivering a copy of the Tymoshenko report to Sanger’s house – are central to whether Craig needed to register as a foreign lobbyist for Ukraine in 2012. He had not, and the US Attorney’s Office in DC indicted him in January this year. They accuse him of failing to disclose the extent of his Ukrainian work to the Justice Department’s Foreign Agent Registration Act at a 2013 meeting and in a follow-up letter he wrote memorializing the meeting.
The FARA unit’s former leader, Heather Hunt, testified Monday as the last among the prosecution’s 15 witnesses. She spoke about how she was convinced Craig’s firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom didn’t need to register as a foreign agent following her 2013 meeting with Craig and others from the law firm. Hunt said he and the others hadn’t told her relevant details about the public relations strategy and the interactions with Sanger.
“It would have been very relevant to my inquiry,” she said.
But when questioned by Craig’s defense attorney, she drew a distinction between a person acting at their own initiative (who wouldn’t need to register), while one acting at the direction of a foreign government would need to.
“I did not think it crossed the line,” Craig said Wednesday in court about his 2012 actions. “I did not think any of those contacts made me a press agent or agent for Ukraine.”
In describing his discussions with another journalist before the report’s release, “the headline about the report should be that this trial is flawed,” Craig said. That’s a different angle than what Manafort, Hawker, Gates and their Ukrainian client’s sought to have highlighted most in Western media coverage.
The prosecutors will have a chance to question Craig, likely later on Wednesday.