Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election has snagged its first high-profile Democrat: Gregory Craig, former special counsel to President Bill Clinton during his impeachment and Barack Obama’s first White House counsel.
In a trial expected to last two weeks, a jury will hear how the former partner of the prestigious Washington firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP allegedly made false statements to the U.S. government and concealed the extent of his work for the pro-Russian Ukrainian regime. Due to a delay over jury selection, opening arguments are expected to begin Friday.
The case against Craig is the latest in a series of prosecutions arising from the Department of Justice’s revamped enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which requires people to make fairly extensive disclosures if they engage in political or quasi-political activities on behalf of foreign governments or officials. Almost all high-profile cases against unregistered foreign agents in the last two years have stemmed from Mueller’s investigation. Previously, the law had been lightly enforced.
Mueller’s probe led to FARA charges against Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates. The charges against Manafort stem from work he did on behalf of President Viktor Yanukovych and his pro-Russia party. Mueller’s team convicted Manafort, Gates, and former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn. Manafort received a seven and a half year sentence for conspiracy and financial crimes, some of it related to his work for Yanukovych.
With Craig, “the Justice Department is going after some high-profile scalps,” says Matthew T. Sanderson, a defense lawyer who specializes in foreign lobbying cases for the law firm Caplin and Drysdale.
Prosecutors say Craig was engaged by the Ukrainian regime to conduct an independent inquiry into the fairness of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s 2011 conviction, with the hopes of quelling international concerns that it was politically motivated by then-president and rival Yanukovych.
Manafort was also working with the regime to improve Yanukovych’s image. Craig’s law firm received $4.6 million for his work.
After Craig briefed American journalists on the report, Manafort effusively praised him in an email.
“Well done,” wrote Manafort to Craig. Officials in Kiev “are especially happy with the way the media is playing it. You are ‘THE MAN.’”
Journalists who published stories citing Craig’s work would not have known that he had been paid to write the report by a Ukrainian operative, as prosecutors now claim. Craig insists that he only discussed the document after it had become public to “correct misinformation,” according to court filings.
“I never discussed the findings of our report with any U.S. officials and certainly did not lobby any U.S. officials on behalf of Ukraine,” Craig said in a statement proclaiming his innocence. “I did not help Ukraine promote its spin when it released our report.”
If journalists had known that the report had been paid for by Tymoshenko’s rivals, it would have affected media coverage, points out Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy.
According to the indictment, although the report concluded that the evidence presented at Tymoshenko’s trial supported her conviction, in a memo for his own files, Craig wrote that the evidence against her was “virtually non existent.”
Craig backdated a letter and invoice to hide who had really paid for the report, which aided the Ukrainian government’s lies about its cost, prosecutors wrote in a 22-page indictment filed in April.
“I don’t want to register as a foreign agent under FARA. I think we don’t have to with this assignment, yes?” Craig wrote to another partner in the firm on February 13, 2012, reports Bloomberg.
In response to a partner’s suggestion that another lawyer at the firm could decide whether he should register, Craig wrote, “I don’t really care who you ask but we need an answer from someone who we can rely on with a straight face.”
Firms that take clients from countries with human rights abuses and other public relations difficulties don’t appear to have trouble attracting other clients, but they do charge a premium for that work, according to Freeman.
“Normally, if a Washington firm is going to write a report about a country, they can’t get $4 million for it,” Freeman says. “But a report written for someone who is friends with Vladimir Putin is going to cost more money.”
Craig flouted FARA’s reporting requirements and did not register because he did not want to limit his future career prospects, according to prosecutors.
The idea that registering as a foreign agent is a stigma, a “scarlet letter” that will prevent agents from getting other work, certainly prevails in Washington, “but the fact of the matter is, there’s nearly 2,000 registered foreign agents walking the streets of America,” says Freeman. “They’re not exactly a rare breed, and a lot of the firms that work for foreign governments also work for domestic clients. They’re lobbying for big American businesses too.”
A big reason companies may prefer to register under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, as opposed to FARA, is that the latter requires significantly more disclosure. With FARA, agents need to list the member’s offices they visited, everyone they spoke to, the days they met, and what issues were discussed—and that’s a lot of additional work, says Freeman.
In January, Skadden agreed to register under FARA and pay a $4.6 million fine, an amount that equals what it paid for the Ukraine report. Craig left the firm in April 2018.
The DOJ’s renewed interest in investigating and prosecuting FARA crimes may make Washington insiders think twice about concealing what foreign interests they represent. FARA registrations jumped 46 percent from 2016 to 2017, the year after Mueller was appointed special counsel and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s home was raided.
“I think the Craig case and the other cases like it change the calculus for folks who work for foreign entities or are doing this type of lobbying and PR work,” says Freeman. “It sends a clear message that if you’re at all uncertain if you should register under FARA, it behooves you to play it safe.”
Barbara Boland is The American Conservative’s foreign policy and national security reporter. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.