Greg Craig, former Obama White House counsel, charged with lying to Justice Department

His attorneys said, "The government's stubborn insistence on prosecuting Mr. Craig is a misguided abuse of prosecutorial discretion."

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By Allan Smith, Doha Madani and Tom Winter

Former White House counsel Greg Craig was indicted by a grand jury Thursday for allegedly making false statements to the Justice Department about work performed for Ukraine in 2012.

Craig, 74, who was charged with concealing material information from the Foreign Agents Registration Act Unit, or FARA Unit, and making false statements, failed to disclose work he performed for Ukraine because he believed it would prevent him from assuming future roles within the federal government, according to the indictment, which stemmed from special counsel Robert Mueller's probe.

Craig, who served as former President Barack Obama's White House counsel, refused to accept a plea deal.

The Wall Street Journal first reported Wednesday that people familiar with the situation said Craig was likely to be charged with making false statements to the Justice Department.

Craig and his law firm were hired in early 2012 to lead an independent inquiry into whether former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko received a fair trial after she was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2011 for abuse of office, federal prosecutors say.

He was also signed on to consult about Tymoshenko's second trial. Craig's firm, Skadden Arps, at which he was partner, received more than $4 million for the report and consultation.

The effort, NBC News has previously reported, was spearheaded in part by Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman. Manafort was working with the government of former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych to produce a report that Ukrainian legal experts have called a politically motivated "whitewashing" of the facts.

The investigation into Craig grew out of Mueller's probe of lobbying efforts undertaken at Manafort's direction and at the behest of the pro-Russian, pro-Putin government of Yanukovych.

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Manafort pleaded guilty to failing to register as an agent of Ukraine during this time period when he amassed millions of dollars in work lobbying on behalf of the country's government.

Emails showed that Craig was resistant to registering under the Foreign Agents Registration Act and asked the co-author of his inquiry whether the project would require him to.

In a May 2012 email, Craig debated whether to hire a public relations firm after being told that Tymoshenko's attorneys might speak publicly about his firm's inquiry, according to the indictment.

"I have been clear that we cannot run close to the FARA line and if we were seen as hiring and directing [PR Firm] we would be doing much more than just lawyering," Craig wrote.

Craig allegedly made false statements about the report in 2013 in response to the FARA Unit's inquiries and again in 2017 after being interviewed by Mueller.

He allegedly stated in a formal written response to the FARA Unit that his firm did not inform, consult or act under the instruction of Ukraine.

According the indictment, he failed to inform the FARA Unit that he generated the written inquiry report, that his firm advised the hiring of a public relations firm, was informed about the firm's strategy and met with a lobbyist whom he informed of the firm's strategy.

Craig also allegedly failed to disclose that he met with reporters in coordination with representatives to the Ukraine.

Because of the allegedly misleading information provided by Craig, the FARA Unit determined that he and his firm did not have to register as a foreign agent, according to the indictment.

In a statement he posted to YouTube on Thursday, Craig said that his comments to reporters were actually intended to "prevent mischaracterization of our report by Ukraine and its public relations firm" and that "I was always honest about the reason for my contacts with the media."

"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. "I did not help Ukraine promote its spin when it released our report."

Craig's attorneys, William Taylor and William Murphy, released a statement Thursday calling the indictment "unfair and misleading."

"It ignores uncontroverted evidence to the contrary," the statement said. "Mr. Craig had no interest in misleading the FARA Unit because he had not done anything that required his registration. That is what this trial will be all about."

Craig was interviewed multiple times by Mueller's team. In addition to working for Obama, Craig served as a senior legal adviser to former President Bill Clinton.

He faces up to five years in prison if convicted.