Federal prosecutors have laid bare more of their most compelling evidence that former White House Counsel Gregory Craig lied to and misled authorities about his work for Ukraine, but the newly-disclosed proof also highlights one of the most glaring weaknesses in the government’s case.
In a public court filing Tuesday, prosecutors included copies of internal emails Craig sent to colleagues at his then-law firm Skadden Arps as well as drafts of a letter he prepared for the Justice Department in response to its request that the firm register as an agent for Ukraine under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Prosecutors said the letters and emails show Craig, who served as White House counsel during President Barack Obama’s first year in office, crafting a false narrative that understated his involvement in distributing to the media a 2012 report Skadden prepared on the corruption trial of Yulia Tymoshenko, an arch-rival of then-President Viktor Yanukovych.
“To my knowledge, no one in this law firm initiated any contacts with the media,” one of the draft letters says. “I did communicate briefly with two print-media journalists. Even with them, I took no action to contact them. They initiated the contact.”
Prosecutors said those claims are false because Craig not only offered a pre-release copy of the report to New York Times reporter David Sanger, but personally hand-delivered it to his home.
However, the letter Skadden eventually sent the Justice Department on October 10, 2013 — the day after a meeting between Skadden lawyers and Justice FARA-enforcement officials — did not contain the language in some of the drafts saying the firm never initiated contact with the press.
Instead, the final letter to the Justice Department took a slightly different tack, saying distribution of the Tymoshekno report “was done in response to requests from the media.”
Prosecutors argue that Craig used the letter and meeting to convey a misleading impression to FARA enforcers that his firm was entirely passive in its dealings with the press.
Grand jury testimony made public in the Tuesday filing shows two of Craig’s former partners at Skadden who attended the meeting — Kenneth Gross and Lawrence Spiegel — supported the government’s account, up to a point.
“The point that [Craig] was making as best as I can recall it is that the only reason he had spoken to members of the press about the report was to correct these mischaracterizations in the news stories that either had been written or were going to be written, but he had known somehow that it was going to be printed in that fashion,” Gross told the grand jury.
“I remember our themes for the meeting coming out in general terms, which were the idea that the press contact was, that Mr. Craig had was reactive, meaning that it was outreached [sic] to us, and corrective, meaning that it was to correct misstatements that were out there,” Spiegel said. “Mr. Craig presented most of the information and I remember that. I believe I presented our themes, but I’m not certain of that. But I believe I did, this, the concept of reactive and corrective.”
The head of the Justice Department’s FARA unit, Heather Hunt, struck a similar chord.
“My understanding of what [Craig] said at the meeting was that he needed to correct mischaracterizations and so that the proactive part was that, and then provided a report in response to a — you know, the media request. Because it’s like, okay, those are the mischaracterizations, can we have a copy of the report? That was my basic understanding of it,” Hunt told the grand jury.
However, Craig’s defense has said that no one has a transcript, recording or notes of what transpired at the meeting. In addition, the grand jury testimony seems somewhat hazy. Gross said he had “some recollection” of the event and appeared to struggle to recall details, while Spiegel said he wasn’t sure if he spoke at the meeting or if only Craig did.
At one point, Spiegel told the grand jury: “I don’t remember what he said.”
Craig’s defense team seems certain to try to exploit those ambiguities by contending that such vague recollections can’t be a sufficient basis to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Craig misled or lied to authorities.
Prosecutors are expected to argue that the details of precisely what was said at the meeting are not essential to their case, because Craig could be found guilty if he devised a scheme to mislead the government, regardless of whether or what specific lies were told.
Prosecutors filed the newly-disclosed emails, letters and grand jury testimony publicly Tuesday after U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson partially granted a defense request for more details about the specifics behind the two-count indictment returned in April that charged Craig with false and misleading statements to authorities and with making false statements in a FARA submission.
Craig has pleaded not guilty. In a video statement shortly after his indictment, he insisted he is innocent of the charges.
“I did not participate in a scheme to mislead the government or conceal material facts. I was always honest about the reason for my contacts with the media. This prosecution is unprecedented and unjustified. I am confident that both the judge and the jury will agree with me,” said Craig.
Craig and Skadden parted company last April as the probe into the firm’s work for Ukraine heated up.
In January 2019, Skadden finalized a $4.7 million settlement with the Justice Department, which agreed not to take enforcement action if the firm follows policies to comply with FARA in the future.
Gross, Spiegel and Hunt are all expected to testify at Craig’s trial, set to open August 12 in Washington.
At the trial, Craig’s team may be able to seize not only on vague memories, but inattention to detail.
For instance, Hunt’s letter responding to the October 2013 meeting with Craig appears to misidentify the Skadden Arps general counsel in attendance, referring to him as Robert Spiegel instead of Lawrence Spiegel.
Such mistakes could be of little consequence in an ordinary case, but in one where the nuances of language may be pivotal, even small inaccuracies are likely to be drawn out and seized upon as evidence that details of what transpired are so murky that Craig should not be convicted.