Judge drops one charge against Obama White House counsel Greg Craig in foreign lobbying case

Attorney Greg Craig (L) Arrives with Retired Gen. James Cartwright, (R), for a hearing at US District Court, October 17, 2016 in Washington, DC.

Mark Wilson | Getty Images

A federal judge on Tuesday dropped one of the two criminal charges against President Barack Obama’s White House counsel, Greg Craig, who is accused of lying about his work for Ukraine.

Judge Amy Berman Jackson dismissed a count of making false and misleading statements to the Department of Justice’s Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, unit.

The other charge of lying, brought under a separate but related law, will proceed to trial. Craig had argued that both counts should be dismissed. He had faced a maximum of five years in prison for each count.

Craig’s legal team had no comment on the judge’s decision. Craig’s trial is set to begin next Monday.

The charges against Craig stemmed from the federal probe of Russian election interference, possible obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump and possible coordination between the Kremlin and Trump’s campaign led by former special counsel Robert Mueller.

Craig, 74, was charged with lying to the special counsel’s office about his work in 2012 and 2013 for the government of then-Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovich, during his time as a partner at law firm Skadden Arps. He was accused in Washington, D.C., District Court of making false statements to avoid registering as a foreign agent.

He also faced a count of making false statements and leaving out important information in a 2013 letter he sent to the FARA unit about that work.

But Jackson determined that, while she can “fairly square the plain language” of the FARA law’s provision about lying, she determined that “that the legislature’s clear intent cannot be discerned.”

She concluded: “Given this ambiguity concerning the breadth of the provision and the documents to which it was intended to apply, the rule of lenity requires the dismissal of the count.”

“This is a close question,” Jackson wrote. “At the end of the day, one ends up with two equally plausible and supportable textual interpretations.”

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Given that ambiguity, Jackson wrote that she must dismiss the charge. The Supreme Court has held that ambiguous statutes should be interpreted in favor of the accused.

“The Court cannot overlook the fact that the Supreme Court has been steadfast in insisting upon clarity in the language of criminal statutes,” she wrote.

The Justice Department declined to comment.

The charge Jackson dismissed was brought under a law that has rarely been used in recent years. The Justice Department’s inspector general found in 2016 that in the five decades between 1966 and 2015, the DOJ brought only seven criminal FARA prosecutions.

But Mueller’s inquiry led to a spike in those cases.

In one high-profile case, Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn pleaded guilty in 2017 to making false statements, including in documents filed in connection with FARA.

Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his longtime associate Richard Gates, who served as deputy chairman of the Donald Trump Inaugural Committee, both pleaded guilty to FARA violations, among other charges last year.

Mueller’s grand jury also returned an indictment alleging 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies violated FARA during the 2016 presidential campaign as part of a scheme to meddle in the election.

The special counsel’s Russia probe found insufficient evidence to show a conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia during the 2016 election. Mueller declined to make a determination on whether Trump obstructed justice, though he listed numerous instances of possible obstruction in his 448-page report, which was made public with redactions in April. That decision was left to Attorney General William Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who concluded that the report did not support an obstruction offense against Trump.

Read the judge’s order to dismiss one of Craig’s criminal counts:

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