On September 4, after five hours of deliberation, a federal jury in D.C. acquitted Gregory Craig of crimes related to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). What scant attention the news received was devoted to Craig’s involvement with Paul Manafort, the lobbyist and campaign manager for President Trump who is serving a seven-year sentence for fraud and obstruction of justice. The Craig story was much larger than foreign influence-peddling, however. It revealed how Washington works, the degradation of the liberal establishment, and the corrupting power of money.
Craig is an attorney. He is also what denizens of the nation’s capital like to call “a name.” He defended President Clinton against impeachment. He served as White House counsel for President Obama. He practiced at Williams & Connolly and, from 2010 to 2018, was partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. A man of Craig’s stature, with contacts and connections at the highest levels of government, commands authority and respect among the Beltway elite. By the time he reached his seventies, Craig had ascended to the point at which a single phone call or fair word from him was worth millions of dollars.
“That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet,” the Bard said. Clearly he never visited Washington. Here the visibility and reputation of names unlock access, opportunities for advancement, and hoards of cash. In 1991, in a profile of another titan of the Democratic establishment brought low by revelations of self-dealing, Marjorie Williams wrote: “Although he has made himself a multimillionaire, his true capital is in the name Clark Clifford and what it stands for. This is what his investors knew, in hiring him to represent their deal.”
And it is what the government of Viktor Yanukovych, then-president of Ukraine, knew when it went looking for a respected American to bolster its legitimacy. Back in February 2012, an intermediary connected Craig and Manafort. The Republican lobbyist’s client, Yanukovych, had been criticized for the trial of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. Manafort wanted to know if Craig would be the lead author of a report on the fairness of the proceeding. The payout would be huge.
FARA requires agents of foreign governments to register with the Department of Justice. It has been on the books since 1938; it is maddeningly vague and, until recently, selectively enforced. “In the 50 years through 2016,” the Wall Street Journal editorial page observed, “the Justice Department brought only seven criminal FARA cases and won three convictions.”
According to the indictment against him, Craig “did not want to register as an agent for the Government of Ukraine, however, at least in part because he believed doing so would prevent him or others at the Law Firm from taking positions in the federal government in the future.” Operating in the gray zone between consulting and lobbying, he signed the deal with the Ukrainian government in April 2012. Omitted from the contract was the identity of the man who actually footed the bill.
The arrangement was for steel oligarch Victor Pinchuk, not the Ukrainian taxpayer, to pay Craig some $4 million for his report. “In turn,” the indictment continues, “the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice executed a contract for CRAIG’s services, which falsely set out a total fee for the work to be completed of 95,000 Ukrainian hryvnyas, or approximately $12,000 U.S. dollars.”
As he prepared his report, Craig worked closely with Manafort, whose reputation was not nearly as burnished as his own. The two Americans went into damage-control mode in August 2012 when a Ukrainian paper noticed that Craig’s official compensation was less than he earned for brushing his teeth in the morning. The paper demanded that Skadden Arps clarify. Craig and Manafort decided the public might accept an “official” fee of $1.25 million for the lawyer’s services. That was about a quarter of what Craig was really making.
“CRAIG and the Lobbyist,” the indictment reads, “exchanged emails and documents to create a backdated letter and false invoice from the Law Firm to the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice, which lent the appearance that CRAIG and the Law Firm’s work was paid for by the Ukrainian government, not the Private Ukrainian.” In the meantime, Pinchuk wired the money to Manafort’s offshore accounts, where it was transferred to Skadden.
Manafort wanted something in return. His daughter had just graduated from Georgetown Law and needed a job. He asked Craig to set up interviews. When Skadden rejected Manafort’s daughter’s application because it was missing a cover letter, the lobbyist let his displeasure be known. He attached the rejection notice to an email to Craig and wrote, “Thanks for your help. I see Skadden knows how to show appreciation for a $4 MILLION gift account.”
Craig was embarrassed. “I am pissed,” he replied. Manafort tied future business to his daughter’s employment. Craig appealed to Skadden’s leadership. Within a week, Manafort’s daughter had a job. “You are the MAN,” the proud papa wrote to Craig.
Craig used his connections to ensure a proper rollout of the report. He hand-delivered an exclusive copy to David Sanger of the New York Times. “Failings Found in Trial of Ukrainian Ex-Premier,” read the headline in the December 12, 2012, edition. Noting that Craig’s inquiry had found that “Ms. Tymoshenko was denied legal counsel at ‘critical stages’ of her trial,” Sanger and co-author David Herszenhorn also wrote that Skadden “seemed to side heavily with the government of President Viktor F. Yanukovich, which commissioned the report.”
Manafort was pleased. “Well done,” he emailed Craig. “The pro has emerged again. The initial rollout has been very effective and your backgrounding has been key to it all.” A few days later Manafort followed up: “People in Kyiv are very happy. You are ‘THE MAN.’”
Sanger’s article caught the eyes of FARA lawyers at the Justice Department. They entered into a prolonged legal back-and-forth with Craig over whether he ought to register as an agent of Ukraine. Craig resisted. By 2014, the government accepted Craig’s explanation that he did not need to register because he was responding to journalists’ queries. The matter appeared settled.
And then Donald Trump became president.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller failed to uncover a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence, but he did find that a lot of people associated with Trump lied to law enforcement. He also found that Manafort had defrauded clients and the government of millions of dollars. And he found that Craig hadn’t been straight with the FARA division over his business in Ukraine. Mueller referred Craig’s case to the Southern District of New York.
The Southern District balked at filing charges. It sent the case back to D.C. Not wanting to become further embroiled in the Mueller mess, Skadden and Craig parted company in 2018. Last April, Craig was indicted for false statements and for concealing information from the Department of Justice. He launched an aggressive public defense.
The trial lasted two and a half weeks. Craig emerged a free man. He could not have felt completely vindicated, however. His shenanigans had exposed the underbelly of official Washington, the benefits of insider status, the underhanded tactics to which men will resort when money is at stake, the blurred lines between lobbying, consulting, public relations, and media, the rewards for dishonesty and rationalization and selective indignation, the gravitational pull of greed. “Mr. Craig’s trial,” wrote the Times, “has supplanted any image of Washington’s elite as sage Brahmins with a vivid picture of the ruling class at its avaricious worst.”
And for that, at last, Greg Craig has performed a sort of public service.