WASHINGTON — Gregory B. Craig, one of Washington’s most powerful Democratic lawyers, testified in his own defense in a federal felony trial on Wednesday, denying passionately that he had deceived federal investigators six years ago about whether he had aided a public relations campaign by Ukraine’s president to repair his battered image in the United States.
“I did not lie,” Mr. Craig said, looking directly at the jury in the most dramatic testimony of his nearly two-week trial in the federal courthouse in Washington. “I did not withhold any information.”
The unusual case against Mr. Craig, 74, turns on whether he misrepresented his contacts with journalists over a 2012 report by his law firm examining whether a political rival of Viktor F. Yanukovych, then Ukraine’s president, had received a fair trial on corruption charges.
Mr. Yanukovych was hoping the report, by the internationally known law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, would help him blunt criticism that threatened Ukraine’s hopes of joining the European Union. Federal prosecutors contend that Mr. Craig, then a Skadden lawyer, lied about his role in the public relations campaign to safeguard his reputations and career prospects, as well as those of his colleagues.
Court filings and exhibits have painted an unflattering portrait of the actions of both Skadden and Mr. Craig, who served as White House counsel in the first year of the Obama administration and represented President Bill Clinton during his impeachment hearings.
But his guilt or innocence turns on the narrow question of how he responded to Justice Department officials who were trying to determine whether he needed to register as a foreign agent for Ukraine. Anyone who tries to shape American public opinion on behalf of a foreign government is required to disclose that work to the Justice Department.
Prosecutors charge that Mr. Craig misled investigators in part because registering would have forced him to disclose embarrassing details about the project, including the fact that a Ukrainian oligarch had secretly financed $4 million of the work through an offshore bank account.
Mr. Craig appeared at ease in the courtroom, testifying calmly, sometimes smiling, for more than five hours. He acknowledged that he did not want to register as a foreign agent, but insisted that he had never deceived federal investigators to skirt the registration requirement. He admitted that he made some sloppy errors in what he told both the Justice Department and Skadden’s own general counsel about his contacts with journalists. But he insisted that “the answers were truthful.”
“I just muddled it up,” he said, when asked about a draft explanation to Justice officials that he circulated within Skadden.
The Skadden report on Ukraine drew a mixed picture of the prosecution of Yulia V. Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and political rival of Mr. Yanukovych. Although it found her trial to be flawed in some respects, the majority of the firm’s conclusions were either favorable or neutral to Mr. Yanukovych’s government.
But as the report neared publication in December 2012, Mr. Craig became engaged in a tug of war with Ukrainian officials, their lobbyists and their public relations specialists over how its conclusions would be presented to the press. Skadden lawyers had advised him to stick to lawyering and avoid public relations. But Mr. Craig testified that he felt compelled to engage with the media to combat Ukraine’s efforts to downplay the report’s criticisms.
He said he was especially concerned about the “honesty and reliability” of Ukraine’s lead publicist, a British citizen named Jonathan Hawker. “I did not trust him,” he said.
He said he was trying to head off Mr. Hawker — not carry out Ukraine’s media strategy — when, two days before the report was released, he hand-delivered an advance copy to the home of David E. Sanger, a New York Times reporter and offered to grant The Times the first interview about it.
Those interactions loom large in his case because Mr. Craig told Justice Department officials that he only engaged with journalists to correct mischaracterizations of the report that had already been published.
“If anybody was going to talk to The New York Times, it was going to be me,” he said. “I was not acting in the interest of Ukraine. I was defending the integrity of the report.” He added, “I did not think it crossed the line” requiring registration as a foreign agent.
The defense is expected to rest its case on Thursday. The offense of lying to federal authorities carries a maximum prison term of five years, but recent first-time offenders have been sentenced to a month or less behind bars.