By Naftali Bendavid. Chicago Tribune, April 27, 2000
As Republicans prepare for hearings on the raid that whisked 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez from Miami, they also are focusing on a surprising target: Gregory Craig, the lawyer for Elian's father, who was an outspoken attorney for President Clinton during his impeachment trial.
Some Republicans suggest that might have biased the administration toward the father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, or even created an inappropriate "back channel" to Atty. Gen. Janet Reno.
"It appeared that attorney Greg Craig was very much involved, and as perhaps he should be, but that he even had veto authority over the agreements or agreement that might be reached," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said this week.
Administration officials deny any inappropriate influence on Reno's decisions during the weeks of volatile negotiation that preceded the Miami raid early last Saturday. Critics of the Republicans say the charges are just another political attack on the Clinton administration.
The accusations against Craig are sure to focus more attention on a lawyer who has played a highly visible role in two of the more explosive recent national dramas: the Monica Lewinsky matter and the Gonzalez case.
The public has seen the telegenic, white-haired Craig—a certified member of the Washington Establishment—emerge periodically from his office to make statements on Gonzalez's behalf. Viewers are likely to see even more of him as the Elian battle moves from Little Havana to
congressional hearing rooms in Washington and federal courtrooms in Atlanta.It was Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who brought Craig to the attention of the church group that is paying his bills.
"Craig is a Vermonter, and he and the senator go way back," said Leahy spokesman David Carle. "He is a good, decent person. He is well-respected."
The United Methodist Church says it views representing Gonzalez as a humanitarian act and is paying for Craig's service through a special fund that accepts contributions from church members and others. The fund is administered by the National Council of Churches, an umbrella group to which the
Methodist Church belongs.
"The churches saw a need here and stepped in," said Carol Fouke, spokeswoman for the National Council of Churches. "The conspiracy thing sounds totally preposterous to me. It sounds really crazy."
Craig did not return calls Tuesday or Wednesday.
What is beyond dispute is Craig's status as a powerhouse Washington lawyer, a combination political-legal fixer of the sort that is a special creature of the capital. Craig, who is 55 and married with five children, attended Harvard University, where he was a leader of the anti-war movement, and
Yale Law School, where he met the Clintons.
Craig was hired by Williams & Connolly, one of Washington's premier law firms, known for no-holds-barred criminal defense. The firm's attorneys specialize in fighting their clients' battles in all venues—public and political as well as legal—and Craig is a master of that
"Greg has a superior talent at the crossroads of policy, politics, media and law," said Robert Barnett, a firm partner who used to be President Clinton's personal lawyer. "That allows him to perform admirably in these difficult, multifaceted cases."
An early example was the trial of John Hinckley Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Craig was on the team that formulated Hinckley's insanity defense, which surprised many and angered some by succeeding.
At the same time, Craig has been active in Democratic foreign policy circles, periodically leaving his firm to take government jobs. In the mid-1980s he served as foreign policy adviser to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), helping steer Kennedy through such controversies as the war in El Salvador.
"Greg's an excellent, great lawyer with sound judgment and good instincts," Kennedy said recently. "He did a brilliant job as a foreign policy adviser in my office in the 1980s. He traveled with me to South Africa in the battle against apartheid, and he was a key part of our
successful effort in Congress to impose sanctions on South Africa."
Craig has kept his foreign policy credentials burnished, serving on the boards of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Three years ago, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tapped him to be her director of policy planning, one of the top
positions at the State Department.
"He worked with Secretary Albright and me very closely," recalled outgoing department spokesman James Rubin. "He was a very intelligent and very thoughtful and very fair-minded individual. He had a great ability to synthesize the policy implications and the public implications of
issues in foreign affairs."
In addition to helping focus attention on Africa and tending to the nation's sometimes raw relations with Japan, Craig coordinated policy on Tibet—a highly sensitive issue, especially because Clinton held two summits with Chinese leaders during Craig's tenure.
Associates say Craig's easygoing style puts people at ease. This combination of skills led Clinton's defense team to enlist him in September 1998, as the House impeachment inquiry was beginning in earnest.
David Kendall, Clinton's personal lawyer and a Williams & Connolly partner, knew Craig from law school, where they met during a moot court exercise in which Kendall played a prosecutor and Craig a criminal.
"In our later lives neither one of us was able to assume those roles," Kendall quipped dryly.
Kendall wanted Craig aboard because "he had three things: enormous legal intelligence and awareness of how the case had to be defended legally, high energy, and a great knowledge of Congress."
Plunging into the case, Craig sought to craft a different defense for each arena. Before the House Judiciary Committee, Craig asserted that Clinton may have done wrong but did not break the law. In a much-quoted statement, he said Clinton's testimony in the Paula Jones case was "evasive,
incomplete, misleading, even maddening" but not perjury.
When that argument failed, Craig told the public the process had been unjust, an accusation that polls suggested had some effect. "Nothing about this process has been fair. Nothing about this process has been bipartisan. Nothing about this process has won the confidence of the American
people," Craig said.
At the impeachment trial in the Senate, Craig's presentation was workmanlike though hardly dazzling. He focused relentlessly on the weakest charges and ridiculed them—for example, that Clinton said he had had sexual encounters with Lewinsky "on certain occasions" when it was
actually 11, a distinction few could see.
In the end, of course, the defense prevailed, and so to Leahy, Craig was a natural choice when it was time to locate an attorney for Juan Miguel Gonzalez.
Since taking over the case in mid-February, Craig has sent a stream of steady, low-key messages to the public: Elian belongs with his father; the Miami relatives are breaking the law and exploiting Elian.
Polls suggest this has gotten through.
"I think he has done a good job under difficult circumstances," said attorney Ronald Weich, also a former Kennedy staffer. "He achieved the result his client wanted by deploying a public-relations strategy as well as a legal strategy."
That strategy was most recently on display last weekend, when The Associated Press distributed a photo of a helmeted federal agent in full gear seemingly pointing a gun at a scared Elian during the raid.
Within hours, Craig, whose media savvy led him to carry a disposable camera, released a photo showing a smiling Elian reunited with his father, blunting the first photo and prompting many newspapers to run the two images side by side.
Craig now very likely faces battles that will test his other skills. The Senate hearings next week and an appeals court session May 11 will pit the Justice Department against Elian's Miami relatives, but Juan Miguel Gonzalez may well have a role in both proceedings, which means Craig could be
To pay for his services, the Methodist Church has raised about $50,000 so far and aims to raise up to $100,000, with Craig accepting reduced rates, the church says.
Still, Craig's simultaneous connection to Clinton and Juan Miguel Gonzalez have proved to be irresistible to conspiracy theorists. Larry Klayman, chairman of the watchdog group Judicial Watch, has asserted that Clinton must have cut some sort of deal with Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
"It is shocking that Elian Gonzalez' father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, is being represented by Bill and Hillary Clinton's lawyer and law firm," said a recent press release from Judicial Watch, which regularly attacks the administration and has filed numerous lawsuits against it.
"It is certain that Juan Miguel Gonzalez cannot afford the legal fees of Williams & Connolly, and thus it is likely that they are being paid by Castro or someone on his behalf."
Those involved say such notions are fantasy.
"I suppose the conspiracy theorists out there are willing to believe almost anything," said Thom White Wolf Fassett, general secretary of the Methodist Church's General Board of Church and Society.
"There is not a thing they are saying that has a modicum of truth."