Former Obama White House counsel Greg Craig testified Wednesday that he never lied to Justice Department investigators about work he did in 2012 for the Ukrainian government and said he even was working “contrary” to Ukraine’s interests.
“I did not lie,” he said staring directly at the jury. “I did not withhold or conceal any information.”
Mr. Craig did admit contacting journalists to talk about his work on a politically sensitive report about Ukraine’s prosecution of a former prime minister, but said it was not about promoting the findings, but rather to make sure journalists didn’t bungle the conclusions.
Mr. Craig is on trial on a charge of deceiving the Justice Department, with prosecutors saying he concealed efforts he made to promote the report to reporters during meetings with the Foreign Agent Registration Act unit at the Justice Department. If Mr. Craig had been forthcoming, he might have had to register as a lobbyist for Ukraine.
“I did not think it crossed the line,” he told the court Wednesday. “I did not think any of those contacts made me a press agent or agent for Ukraine … I was defending the integrity of our report.”
Mr. Craig was previously the top lawyer in the Obama White House, though he had returned to private practice by the time of the events at issue in the trial. He worked on the Ukraine project with Paul Manafort, who later would become presidential-campaign chairman for Donald Trump.
Mr. Craig said Manafort and Jonathan Hawker, a public relations adviser who also worked on the project, were trying to present the report as a vindication of the Ukrainian government.
That didn’t jibe with how Mr. Craig viewed the report’s contents, saying he concluded the Ukrainian prosecution “had serious flaws.” He said his outreach to reporters was to point that out.
“We were doing something contrary to the client, so how could you consider us agents of the client?” the lawyer said.
While maintaining he didn’t mislead Justice Department investigators, Mr. Craig admitted he did mislead colleagues at his law firm Skadden Arps about the media contacts.
In response to a 2013 Justice Department letter stating that Skadden needed to register under FARA because of the Ukraine report, Mr. Craig sent an email his firm’s general counsel, Larry Spiegel, saying he’d only responded to journalists’ inquiries, and then only to share the report.
In fact, during the trial prosecutors presented an email Mr. Craig sent New York Times reporter David Sanger asking if he wanted to write about the report. He also personally delivered the report to Mr. Sanger’s house.
“I just muddled it up,” Mr. Craig testified Wednesday. “I had not done a review of those emails” to journalists.
He admitted he made the same mistake in a draft letter Skadden intended to send to the Justice Department. The letter was never sent, and the firm instead agreed to a meeting with department investigators.
Mr. Craig said his contact with Mr. Sanger wasn’t lobbying, but rather an attempt to get a fair shake after other reporters wrote stories he didn’t think represented the Ukraine report’s conclusions. He cited the National Law Journal, a legal trade magazine, as one publication that inaccurately wrote about the report.
“I did not believe correcting inaccurate information in the National Law Journal crossed a line or turned me into a foreign agent,” he said.
The government says Mr. Craig had a motive for trying to avoid registering — he feared being labeled an agent of Ukraine would hurt the careers of those who’d worked on the report.
Under questioning by his defense lawyer, William Taylor, Mr. Craig conceded that was true, saying when he was White House counsel people who served as foreign agents had to wait two years before they could be considered for an appointment in the Obama administration.
“I had high positions in government and was less concerned about myself although that policy would’ve affected me, but there were other people on my team that would have been adversely affected if they had to register as foreign agents.”
Two lawyers who worked on the Ukraine report later went on to join the government.
He also said registering could compromise the report’s perceived independence.
“If we also registered as an agent for the Ukraine at the same time we were writing this report, that was saying we could not do this report independently.”
Mr. Craig is expected to take the stand again Thursday as prosecutors continue their cross-examination.