The last time reporters and photographers scrambled after the Washington power lawyer Greg Craig as he entered the federal courthouse blocks from the Capitol, he was shepherding a high-profile defendant — Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright — to face charges of lying in a leak investigation.
On Monday, the press scrum will again descend on the former Obama White House counsel as he makes his way into U.S. District Court, but the cameras will be pointed squarely at him. This time, Craig’s the one in the defendant’s chair, set to face trial on a felony charge of lying to and misleading Justice Department officials about his work with Paul Manafort for Ukraine’s government.
Craig, 74, isn’t the only veteran of the Washington establishment to play a starring role in the two cases. Key to both narratives is a prominent and well-connected journalist: New York Times correspondent David Sanger.
The centerpiece of the government’s case against Craig involves his delivery to Sanger on Dec. 11, 2012, of a 186-page report that Craig and other lawyers at Skadden Arps had worked on for months examining Ukraine’s prosecution and conviction of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko on corruption charges.
U.S. prosecutors say that when Craig reached out to Sanger, the longtime D.C. lawyer was using his personal connections to kick off a carefully choreographed public relations plan designed to maximize the political benefit of the report for Ukraine’s president at the time, Viktor Yanukovych. In doing so, Craig was violating the Foreign Agent Registration Act because he had never registered as an agent for Ukraine, prosecutors allege.
Craig’s defense contends that in his dealings with Sanger, Craig wasn’t really acting for his client, but was trying to protect himself and his law firm. Craig’s lawyers and allies say that in the months leading up to release of the report, Manafort and others close to Yanukovych made plain that they were planning to spin the review as a vindication for the Ukrainian government and an endorsement of the fairness of Tymoshenko’s trial.
Craig’s prosecution comes amid a broad effort by the Justice Department to step up enforcement of FARA, but his allies suggest that he’s being singled out because of the case’s connections to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and to Manafort.
“It’s really off that the first-ever prosecution of this kind of thing would be for someone talking to a journalist and saying things to him that were accurate,” said Stuart Taylor, a former New York Times reporter and close friend of Craig’s. “That’s something to be applauded, not indicted for. … What harm was done? What villainous thing has happened?”
According to Craig’s defense, his move to get the report to Sanger was not the opening salvo in Ukraine’s public-relations barrage, but rather a defensive parry by Craig to get the report to a journalist likely to capture the report’s ambivalent tone and findings about Tymoshenko’s treatment.
“There was indeed a media plan, and Mr. Craig was an impediment to it,” defense attorney William Murphy said during a pretrial hearing Friday. “He obstructed it. He detoured it. … He was never a part of the media plan, and that was his state of mind at the time that he talked to David Sanger.”
But prosecutor Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez said Friday that this notion was belied by Manafort’s reaction after Craig spoke to journalists about the report.
“Well done,” Manafort wrote to Craig. “The pro has emerged again. … The initial rollout has been very effective and your backgrounding has been key to it all.”
Two days later, Manafort followed up with another message: “People in Kiev are very happy. You are ‘THE MAN.’”
But defense lawyers contend that by the time of the final rollout of the report, Craig was gravely concerned that Manafort, his aide Rick Gates and the public relations firm FTI Consulting were going to distort the findings so badly that it would haunt Craig and his firm.
“FTI and Manafort and Gates had to lie about the report in order to convince their client, Mr. Yanukovych, that they had done a great job,” Murphy said.