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Greg Craig trial exposes infighting, skullduggery on Manafort’s Ukraine team

By Josh Gerstein

Greg Craig, the former Obama White House counsel, surely regrets he ever wound up working with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, but Craig’s ongoing criminal trial is opening a new and often entertaining window into infighting and skullduggery on the team Manafort assembled to advise Ukraine’s government.

A British public relations adviser Manafort hired to aid in the roll-out of the Ukraine-focused report Craig prepared in 2012, Jonathan Hawker, testified in federal court in Washington on Tuesday that Hawker and a colleague came to so detest Manafort’s right-hand man, Rick Gates, that they came up with an insulting moniker for him: “(P)Rick.”

“That was what we called him,” Hawker said. “I’m afraid it was a routine name for the man.”

Hawker explained that the firm he was working for at the time, FTI Consulting, struggled for months to get a contract and to get payment for the public relations advice the firm was providing to Ukraine’s government, headed at the time by President Viktor Yanukovych.

The P.R. consultant said Gates — who’s expected to be called as a witness at the trial later this week — repeatedly promised that money was being wired to FTI, but the payments did not arrive.

“We felt that trying to get the money delivered by Mr. Gates that he had promised was a bit like trying to grab eels with your hands: You feel you’ve got it, you look down, and there’s nothing there,” Hawker said.

FTI was ultimately paid its fees for work publicizing Craig’s report on the trial of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. However, about $300,000 in expenses the firm racked up were never reimbursed. Hawker said ill will at FTI over that shortfall led him to resign.

While the Ukraine project appears to have cost Hawker his job, it could cost Craig his freedom. The veteran Washington lawyer and longtime human rights advocate is on trial on a felony charge of implementing a scheme to conceal information from Justice Department officials who inquired about Craig’s work on the report, prepared by a team from the law firm Skadden Arps.

While Craig’s defense team is trying to undermine the credibility of prosecution witnesses, it also seems intent on painting their highly respected client as having inadvertently and unexpectedly found himself thrust into a world of liars and scoundrels.

Of course, Craig voluntarily assumed the project, knowing it was commissioned at least in part as a public relations exercise by Yanukovuych, who had a checkered reputation in the West. Craig also knew from the outset that the bulk of the fees Skadden would earn for the work — ultimately, $4.6 million — would not be paid by the government but secretly covered by a Ukrainian oligarch, Viktor Pinchuk.

However, Craig’s attorneys drew out a story for jurors on Tuesday that showed his trust was betrayed even by a member of his own Skadden team, Alex van der Zwaan.

Hawker said he was under extreme pressure in the summer of 2012 to prepare detailed P.R. plans for the report but faced a major problem: He had never seen it.

“I tried to get a copy of the report from Mr. Craig and he said it wasn’t ready,” Hawker said. “I kind of needed the draft to make a start. I reported back to Mr. Gates that I couldn’t get it.”

A short time later, Hawker was summoned to van der Zwaan’s room at a hotel in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. There, the young Skadden lawyer made a furtive proposal.

“He said to me, ‘There’s a copy of the report on my desk. I’m going to go out now for a period of time, half-hour. Do what you like and I’ll see you later.’ I took that as he wants me to read the report,” Hawker said. Van der Zwaan then left Hawker alone with the report while he made notes on it, Hawker said.

Asked by Judge Amy Berman Jackson whether he knew if Craig authorized van der Zwaan to share the report, Hawker said he was almost certain Craig did not.

“I thought it extremely unlikely that Mr. van der Zwaan would have authority from Greg, who just earlier told me I couldn’t have the report,” Hawker said.

Van der Zwaan came under scrutiny in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation as Mueller’s team looked into Manafort, Gates and potential Russian connections to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Early last year, van der Zwaan pleaded guilty — before Jackson — to making false statements to investigators in the course of the Mueller probe.

The Belgian-born Dutch attorney also conceded at the time of his guilty plea that he leaked the Skadden report to Ukraine’s P.R. team without Craig’s knowledge. Jackson sentenced van der Zwaan to 30 days in a U.S. prison, which he served before being deported.

Hawker, who lives near London, testified as a prosecution witness. Prosecutors sought to establish through him that Gates was involved in public relations efforts for the Skadden report, including a plan to share an advance copy of the document with a New York Times reporter, David Sanger.

Hawker said that Craig went back and forth on whether he would be involved in efforts to publicize the report, but the prominent attorney was fully on board with the plan to give Sanger an exclusive.

“Did he express any hesitation about talking to Mr. Sanger?” prosecutor Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez asked.

“No,” Hawker said.

Craig’s attorneys signaled in pretrial hearings that they planned to try to demolish Hawker’s credibility by calling him a liar, but they appeared to soften that approach after hearing directly from the P.R. adviser and seeing his apparent rapport with the jury.

Hawker, a former TV reporter for the BBC and ITV, often faced jurors directly as he testified. His frequent use of British colloquialisms produced laughter and amusement in the courtroom.

Hawker testified that a Manafort aide in Ukraine, Konstantin Kilimnik, was nearly always agitated as the men worked on preparations to release the Skadden report. The Russian-born Kilimnik was indicted last year on charges of obstruction of justice, accused of tampering with witnesses in the Manafort case.

While the FBI has said Kilimnik has ties to Russian intelligence, Hawker described a man who sounded too wound up to be a spy.

“His emotional state was always the same. He was in a complete panic,” Hawker said. “He was generally in a total flap about how the Tymo people were going to damage the reputation of the government. He was a flapper — full stop.”

Asked by the judge to define a “flap” or getting “flappy,” Hawker said it meant those in the Manafort orbit were extremely stressed by pressure from the Ukrainian government about the anticipated report. “It’s an English expression, it’s so normal — panicking, getting all excited, tense, irritable.”

Craig defense attorney William Murphy tried to keep the mood light. “Two countries separated by a common language,” he quipped.

However, the defense attorney did gently take on Hawker’s credibility by pointing to various statements and talking points Hawker prepared that seemed to misstate or overstate findings of the Skadden report. The P.R. specialist insisted he was simply expressing the views of the Ukrainian government.

“It was an accurate characterization of the Ministry of Justice’s interpretation of the report,” Hawker said. “I’m a P.R. consultant. My job is to try and convey things in the best way possible in the interests of my client, and that’s what I’m doing.”

During several hours of cross-examination by Murphy, Hawker conceded that he lied to a Radio Free Europe reporter by saying, incorrectly, that FTI was representing Skadden and not the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice.

“Yes, it was a very bad decision,” Hawker said.

Hawker also acknowledged that he altered some quotes Craig provided to a reporter for the London-based Daily Telegraph without telling Craig, then boasted to Gates about having done so.

“His [Craig’s] quotes to the Telegraph were also not massively helpful, but I changed them. He might be pissed about that if he finds out,” Hawker wrote in an email shown to jurors Tuesday.

“Did you change its meaning?” prosecutor Campoamor asked.

“No, I didn’t,” Hawker said. “I just compacted it. … But I didn’t tell Mr. Craig, and you know, in all honesty, I should have.”

One of the more surprising revelations at the trial has been the sheer scope of the work that Manafort, Gates, Hawker and others did, for months, on plans to distribute a report that was — at best — a mixed bag for Ukraine. It found a series of serious flaws in Tymoshenko’s trial but also included several conclusions favorable to the Ukrainian government.

Testimony on Tuesday delved deep into the sausage-making of that public relations drive, including numerous iterations of highly detailed battle plans calling for outreach to journalists and politicians across the globe.

The press strategy included what Hawker called “seeding” — providing advance copies of the report to selected journalists. The P.R. expert said the hope was that their stories would be more favorable than just releasing the document and letting reporters race to reveal its contents as Tymoshenko’s backers weighed in with attacks.

Hawker said Craig’s contact with Sanger was a key example of such “seeding.” Jurors saw an email in which Craig seemed to flatter the veteran Times national security reporter, who was then the paper’s chief Washington correspondent.

“Is this something that you are truly interested in and have the time for? I have always assumed that these days your time would be taken up selecting our new Secretary of State,” Craig wrote in the message, sent in December 2012 as Hillary Clinton was preparing to step down from that Cabinet post.

“But if you are interested I would be happy to get you a copy (all 186 pages of it) and even happier to talk about it,” the former adviser to Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton added.

Craig later hand-delivered a copy to Sanger’s Washington home after the reporter had trouble opening an electronic version he was sent.

While prosecutors seemed to be encouraging jurors to conclude that Craig’s involvement in public relations for Ukraine was so extensive that he needed to register under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, the former White House counsel is not charged with failing to register. The only count the jury will be asked to consider is whether Craig schemed to conceal material facts from the Justice Department when it inquired about his role in that work.