WASHINGTON—The trial of President Obama’s former White House counsel opened on Thursday, promising to shed new light on the inner workings of Washington lawyers, public relations firms and journalists.

In opening statements, prosecutors accused Gregory Craig—a veteran Democratic attorney who has served in two presidential administrations—of misleading a unit of the Justice Department responsible for enforcing the laws about foreign government representation.

“Gregory B. Craig had a choice. He could tell the truth and be forthcoming when the Department of Justice asked him questions about his work for a foreign government, or he could lie and conceal,” said Molly Gaston, a federal prosecutor who delivered the government’s opening statement before a crowded courtroom here on Thursday morning.

“We are here today because the defendant chose to lie and conceal,” Ms. Gaston said.

Mr. Craig’s lawyers painted a much different picture—portraying him as a diligent attorney who spoke to the media about his work on behalf of the government of Ukraine because he worried it was being misrepresented by Kiev’s hired U.S. PR agents. They dismissed suggestions he was part of a PR campaign on Ukraine’s behalf and rejected claims that he lied to the U.S. government to cover it up.

“The evidence will show that Gregory Craig is entirely innocent,” said Bill Taylor, a defense attorney for Mr. Craig.

Mr. Craig, 74 years old, served in senior legal roles for two Democratic presidents,

Bill Clinton

and

Barack Obama.

He also has been a top State Department adviser and Capitol Hill aide. But it is his work in 2012, after he left the Obama White House, that has come under scrutiny.

The trial pits the longtime public servant determined to clear his name in court against a Justice Department bent on a more aggressively enforcing laws governing work done by Americans for foreign governments. Mr. Craig is on trial for one count related to false statements prosecutors say he made to the Justice Department component that enforces the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA.

The charges against Mr. Craig grew out of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of President Trump’s former 2016 campaign chairman,

Paul Manafort,

and his years of work for the pro-Russia regime in power in Kiev. Mr. Manafort and his associate Richard Gates pleaded guilty to crimes related to their Ukraine work.

Mr. Gates is expected to be called as a witness in the Craig trial, prosecutors said.

At issue is work Mr. Craig performed for Ukraine while he was at the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP in 2012. Skadden Arps was hired by the pro-Russian regime that was then in power in Ukraine to evaluate the fairness of the corruption trial of former Ukrainian Prime Minister

Yulia Tymoshenko.

The firm ultimately concluded that Ms. Tymoshenko’s trial didn’t meet Western standards of justice but also declined to answer whether there was any political motive in her prosecution or whether she was innocent of the charges.

Skadden has since entered into a $4.6 million settlement with the U.S. government—the fee the law firm collected from the client in this case. Mr. Craig has left the firm.

The opening day of the trial revealed deep disagreements between prosecutors and defense attorneys about Mr. Craig’s role after his report was delivered. Prosecutors say Mr. Craig was tapped by several Washington PR consultants to help advance a pro-Ukraine narrative in the U.S.

After Mr. Craig was contacted by the Justice Department, prosecutors said he engaged in a pattern of misrepresentations and half-truths to avoid registering as a foreign agent.

Mr. Craig’s lawyers disputed this interpretation of events. They said that he wasn’t part of any PR effort, and that Skadden had insisted on independence in the drafting of the report. They said Mr. Craig was concerned about the reputation of the firm and didn’t want the Tymoshenko report to be portrayed in the press as vindicating Ukraine’s trial of her.

“He was not signing up to do some sort of a whitewash,” said Mr. Taylor, Mr. Craig’s attorney, about the integrity of the firm’s Ukraine findings.

As a result of his concerns about how the report would be received, he contacted David Sanger of the New York Times—a longtime acquaintance—in order to ensure that the newspaper properly covered Skadden’s findings. Evidence introduced by Mr. Craig’s lawyers also showed how he spoke to several other reporters, even offering to be an anonymous source to a British reporter.

He disclosed most of those contacts, but prosecutors said his answers were misleading and designed to conceal his role in a PR effort. The distinction is important because legal work typically is not governed by FARA, but public relations work is more strictly controlled.

The government’s first witness revealed that Skadden was simultaneously working on not one but two projects for Ukraine—and that there were internal concerns that they represented a conflict of interest. Michael Loucks, a partner at Skadden, testified that he and other Skadden lawyers were secretly advising the Ukranian government and writing a report on a similar topic.

“Project One” was the report on the integrity of Ms. Tymoshenko’s 2011 trial on corruption. But there was also a “Project Two”—advice the firm was providing about a second potential trial against Ms. Tymoshenko on tax charges. Mr. Loucks said he was worried about the appearance of a conflict of interest, and as a result, he played no role in the drafting of the Project One report.

Write to Byron Tau at byron.tau@wsj.com

Copyright ©2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: