Transcript: Former White House counsel Greg Craig on 'The Investigation' podcast

A transcript of Craig's interview as it appears in the latest episode.

Greg Craig, former special counsel to President Clinton who led Clinton’s defense during his Senate trial and was also White House counsel during President Obama’s administration, sat down for an interview for the latest episode of “The Investigation," an ABC News podcast. A transcript of Craig's interview as it appears in this episode of the podcast follows here:

ABC NEWS' CHRIS VLASTO: Welcome to the investigation. I'm Chris Vlasto senior executive producer here at ABC News. I'm joined by my colleague John Santucci in Washington. And we're joined by a special guest, Greg Craig, former special counsel to President Clinton who led Clinton’s defense during his Senate trial. Mr. Craig was also was the White House Counsel during President Obama’s administration. Recently, Greg Craig himself made headlines where he was acquitted on federal charges of lying to the Justice Department. We tried to ask him questions about his own case and he refused to answer. But we still wanted to get his insight on the Clinton impeachment and how it compares to the impeachment inquiry going on today. So, Mr. Craig, what did you do right 20 years ago in the impeachment proceedings?

GREG CRAIG: Well, I think the verdict speaks for itself. In a Republican-dominated Senate, 55 votes were for acquittal out of 100. Sixty-seven were required for conviction and removal of office. And so I think not only did we maintain President Clinton's innocence and gain the votes of all the Democrats in the Senate, but we picked up 10 votes from the Republicans. So, I think there are many lessons to be learned from that impeachment. One of the lessons is that it is possible in a divided country to impeach a president. But to remove a president in a divided country is not possible. It requires bipartisanship, it requires a unity, a consensus that the president should be removed and absent that kind of consensus. It's not going to happen. He will not be removed.

CRAIG: Yeah, I've noticed that myself. Actually, one of the strategies of the Clinton defense was for the president to be the best possible president he could be. During that period of time and he was able to do that. I think one of the reasons that his approval rating remains so strong throughout the period of his impeachment and his trial was the success he was having internationally, negotiated a peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. And on the budget he negotiated an agreement with the majorities in the House and the Senate for increased numbers of police in the communities and smaller class sizes in schools. At the same time, the economy was really performing well. So those three considerations in terms of a domestic agenda that was successful legislatively, an economy that was going well with a budget surplus, along with some international successes. I think all added to the fact that the American public were not ready and did not want to remove him from office. And that's putting apart the fact that - there was not evidence of the kind of misconduct that the House accused him of in the course of the trial. And I think, you know, that fact for fact, the reason that we were successful in the trial was that there was not sufficient evidence to support a conviction.

VLASTO: And did you have to convince President Clinton to do that? I mean, he's a Yale lawyer. He was very smart guy. Didn't he want to be part of his defense?

CRAIG: I think he understood the importance of him removing himself from it. I mean, I agree with that analysis that one of the reasons that we were successful was his success as a president. And so he had a very good team. It was a dedicated team. They were an experienced team. John Podesta was the chief of staff at the time. And Chuck Ruff was White House counsel. And David Kendall was the president's personal counsel. And I think the president had confidence in his team. And we kept in touch with him as to what was going on. And he certainly let us know his views about various issues that came about. But I think you're right that it would have been a mistake for him to engage in the lawyering of his own case. And I think perhaps President Trump is making that mistake right now.

VLASTO: And now, when you look at what Congress and let's get the Mueller report out of this, this new impeachment inquiry.

CRAIG: Right.

VLASTO: When you see what Nancy Pelosi is doing. I mean, it's a unique way of doing this now, though. She's not using the judiciary. It's not a formal inquiry. I mean, do you think she's doing the right thing with that?

CRAIG: I do. I think she's handled this very well. I think she made it quite clear that she was reluctant to begin an impeachment inquiry and felt that she had to do so because of the impact that the president's conduct might have on the 2020 election. And it would be irresponsible for her not to react to the fact that the president was doing - taking actions, engaged in conduct that could influence, unfairly, the outcome of the 2020 election. So, I think she felt the need to have an impeachment inquiry. And I think she is focused on the issues associated with and the evidence associated with the allegations of misconduct. And, of course, once an impeachment process begins, as you know, it takes all the oxygen out of everything else. It's very difficult to get things accomplished in the House or the Senate if there is an impeachment underway. It's very difficult for anything to occur in the presidential campaign, really, that's going to get the kind of attention it otherwise would. If there is an impeachment process underway. And so it is a hugely important and solemn decision. And that would be the last thing I would say. I think it's important for the House to go about this with the adequate gravitas. It is a serious business to consider impeaching a president and removing him. And the more it is fought out in the talk shows or the food fights in the media, the less solemn it is. And so she, I think, is appreciating that and is trying to make sure that it is dealt with the same kind of attention and seriousness as any other, you know, very important issue that comes before the House.

ABC NEWS' JOHN SANTUCCI: It's interesting you say that because, you know, one of the things that people have been saying to us is that it's a little hard to follow this through the way, because the depositions that we've been seeing happening for the last three weeks, they've all been done behind closed doors. But it sounds like just based on your answer there. That's a procedure that you actually respect.

CRAIG: I do. Now, she does not have the advantage that the Republican leadership had when President Clinton was being impeached because there's no special counsel that had conducted months and months of investigation, interviews, grand jury. I mean, I think you had John Podesta on this show earlier. And if you'd asked him, John, I think he had to testify a number of different times in front of the grand jury. So there was an investigation that had already been conducted in the Clinton era by Kenneth Starr's team. That hasn't happened here. And I think one of the things that the speaker is trying to do is to be - to be quick and to be speedy and to be efficient so that this process doesn't hang over the nation for a long period of time. If you recall the investigation of President Clinton when it began, I think in January, the Starr report was not sent over to the House of Representatives until September, of the impeachment hearings in the Judiciary Committee in the House weren't until September, October 1998. So there was eight or nine months that this cloud of impeachment hung over the present United States. I think the speaker is trying to get this accomplished expeditiously. And I agree with that process.

SANTUCCI: But don't you think, though, one of the things that's a little hard to follow is that you have six different committees right now as far as the House is concerned, anyway, they're trying to do these investigations. When you look at the Trump administration, so far, they're not cooperating. Right? They're not showing up for interviews. We've seen every request for documents that has been sent their way. They've said thanks, but no thanks. Where does that ultimately bring this fight? And is it a mistake, in your opinion, from having dealt with it in your past role for the Clinton White House? Is it a mistake to constantly rebuff? Does there have to be a little bit of give or take here?

CRAIG: Well, from the constitutional point of view, I think there are certain obligations that the White House has consistent with executive privilege, good faith and to get executive privilege claims to provide documents, even if it's not formally an impeachment inquiry. There's supervisory authority that this legislative branch of government has and responsibilities to oversee the activities of bureaus in the executive branch. So I think the process that the White House has adopted as of now almost guarantees that there's going to be at least one count of obstruction of justice, because it's very hard to believe that their position is in good faith and other than just trying to prevent access to evidence that's pertinent. And in fact, it may boil down to an issue of fact. Was, for example, was the military assistance to Ukraine withheld at the direction of the president because of a quid pro quo expectation? And I think Senator Graham has focused our attention on that with his most recent remarks, because he has said if that, in fact, occurred, then it would be a problem for him. So it does seem to me that on that issue, the House of Representatives is entitled to whatever communications exists in connection with that action that the president took.

VLASTO: Let me ask you, though, too, Greg-- is obviously, this investigation is focusing on the July 25th phone call of the president, you know, trying to dig up dirt or asking the Ukrainians to dig up dirt on his opponent, Joe Biden. Do you think, though, that Democrats should also use the Mueller report in an impeachment inquiry, or should they stick to what they have here, which a lot of people in America have changed? A lot of people thought Mueller didn't have the goods, but a lot of people look at this situation and say, OK, they can see the evidence clear as day. Do you think it would be bad strategy or good strategy to bring Mueller into it?

CRAIG: You're asking me, too, if I were an adviser to the speaker of the House of Representatives?

VLASTO: Yes. What I would say to her is I think she should be focusing on exactly what she is focusing on now, which is whether or not there was, in fact, efforts by the president to have a foreign government intervene in our political process by investigating one of his political adversaries. And I would focus the investigation on that issue and whether or not the president wrongfully used military assistance that had been voted by the Congress as leverage to get that kind of intervention. So let me just finish, my, my request, my question from John, because it does seem to me the president's theme with respect to the Mueller report was no, no collusion and no obstruction. And what we have developing now is evidence of both collusion and obstruction. And I think that's not in the president's interests, but it appears that that's where it's going. But would - but would the Mueller report kind of build the case stronger that he has, you know, past practices?

SANTUCCI: Track record?

VLASTO: Yeah, past practices of obstruction. I mean, even in the sense and show that nine difference cases. Or do you think that could be seen as overreach? Politically?

CRAIG: It’s going to be litigated. I mean, the issue - the president is not going to resign. He's probably not going to agree or stipulate any facts. So the real question is what issues should, in fact, be the issues that are at the heart of a decision, whether or not he should be impeached and removed? And I think it is - It is clearly becoming the focus of this Ukraine conversation. The use of the presidential power in ways that are unacceptable and inappropriate and unconstitutional and inconsistent with his oath. That is where I think we are focused on. And I think it would be a mistake to get the focus elsewhere.

VLASTO: Well, I'll just continue though, how about when the president the other day? Some say he was being facetious. Some say he wasn't. When he brought up the China idea, I mean, do you think I mean, do you think we forgive this president more than we would of Bill Clinton? If Bill Clinton had said that we would, we would have been all over him. Right? Do we accept the fact that the president says, I’m gonna tell the Chinese that?

CRAIG: The issue is whether he engaged in misconduct, whether he engaged in wrongdoing, whether he abused the powers of the president presidency, if - if it comes out that he, in fact, had the same kind of conversation with the Chinese and used the same kind of leverage and abused the powers of his office the same way with the Chinese as he has apparently done with the Ukrainians. That would be an appropriate article to include in the articles of impeachment. But that one comment, it's sort of an invitation to have an investigation of that. But I don't think it means that just by making that one comment, he is engaged in wrongdoing that rises to the level of an impeachable.

VLASTO: But could it open the door for them to ask for all his phone calls with the president of China?

CRAIG: I think they'd have to have more.


CRAIG: To do that, you now have a-- two whistleblowers, as well as the summary memo description of the conversation that he had with the president of Ukraine. So there is, I think, sufficient evidence of the president's abuse of power in that regard to warrant further investigation. I don't think. I'm not aware of evidence in connection with the Chinese, to, to warrant that. But there may be some. I'm just not familiar with it. A lot of evidence has come in, as you know, to the Select Committee on Intelligence that has not been available to the public.

SANTUCCI: But let's go back a little bit, if we can, Greg, to just how the White House that you worked for dealt with impeachment. I was pulling up some of the testimony that you and your colleagues gave to the Senate when it was the Bill Clinton trial. And I found it interesting. And Charlie Ruff actually labeled the charges against President Clinton as witches brew. And we see President Trump right now. The phrase that he likes to use almost every other second is witch hunt, witch hunt, witch hunt. Do you think that the branding and communication strategy that the White House is attempting to employ works and what would you say in that respect was the biggest lesson you took away from 20 years ago?

CRAIG: Well, you'd have to leave it to someone else to judge whether the president's strategy is working, it seems to me that every week he is adding more fuel to the fire of those people who are thinking about removing him from office. So I think the strategy that he's adopted over the last three or four weeks has not worked for him to date. Who knows? It may it may work in the future. You know, the greatest, I guess, the greatest lesson. There are so many lessons to be drawn from the Clinton impeachment. I think I've already cited a couple. But one is that when you go down the impeachment road, there is very little that's going on in the public domain that is as important when you go down the impeachment road. It is possible to have an impeachment in a divided country. But it's, I think, impossible to remove a president from office unless there is developed a consensus or a bipartisan recognition that he should be removed from office. And I guess the third lesson that I would draw from the experience 20 years ago was that it is a very solemn and important occasion that requires gravitas. I mean, not everybody has to be Barbara Jordan, but she certainly added a level of significance and sobriety and importance to the deliberations that the Judiciary Committee had during the Nixon era that I think was appropriate and was appropriate then and is appropriate now.

VLASTO: Let's take a quick break and we'll be back with more of our conversation with Greg Craig.


VLASTO: Welcome back to "The Investigation." Greg Craig, let me ask you - one big difference of actually even from the Nixon era to the Clinton era, both those impeachment inquiries and the trial of Clinton were in the second term of office. The dynamic that's different in this one is we are entering - there could be an impeachment trial at the exact same time. People are casting votes for the Democratic candidates for president. Don't you feel don't you worry a little bit about that, that that in some ways we’re seven months away or from then there were - the voters are going to decide anyway?

CRAIG: Well, I think that's one of the reasons that the speaker is being so expeditious. And I believe and I think I am in right in the understanding that they are going - The House is going to try to resolve this issue sometime with - before the end of the year. And it's my understanding that the leadership in the Senate is already organizing and having discussions about having a trial in December, three or four week trial in December. So it does seem to me that your concern, which is a legitimate concern and one that I think was, was dominant and was responsible for the speaker being so reluctant to go forward with an impeachment proceeding when she was receiving enormous pressure from inside the caucus to do that. I think that concern has been overcome, as I said earlier, by the by the equal concern that the misconduct that’s at issue here has to do with the trial, I mean, the election itself and that it just could not be ignored. And so I think the speaker is well advised to try to do this swiftly. I think she has a challenge when she and the House ultimately decides to hold hearings to educate the people, the American people, about what the issues are. Explain why this conduct is in fact worthy of impeachment, why it is an abuse of power. And that's a real challenge, not only just to present the evidence of wrongdoing, but to explain why this conduct rises to the level of an impeachable offense. It's one of most serious things the House of Representatives can ever do.

VLASTO: Well, now, I got to ask you one other question. Obviously, a character in this play, for lack of a better term, is Rudy Giuliani. And Rudy Giuliani obviously was a U.S. attorney, Southern District of New York and the - esteemed career. What do you make of his role in this?

CRAIG: I scratch my head. I - you know, it's difficult to - to sort out. Obviously, there was a desire on his part to serve President Trump in some respect. But I don't know enough of the details and circumstances about what he did and who he did it for and whether he was compensated and how he was compensated and what kinds of relationships he had with the State Department, with the White House, with the Justice Department to be able to comment on that. I do believe that it is a subject worthy of more investigation. I understand that is being investigated.

SANTUCCI: You obviously had an extensive relationship with the Clintons before you went and worked for Bill Clinton on the impeachment probe. You had gone to school with them at Yale. Rudy and Donald Trump have known each other. They've been friends since 1988. Obviously, now he serves the capacity as his personal lawyer, you know. How did you prior to joining the inside team, how did you conduct yourself with the Clintons? They were obviously friends. But how do you make sure at that point in time you never crossed a line with a friendship now that your friend was in a powerful position?

CRAIG: Well, I was never a social friend or very much of a political colleague of either the president or the first lady. I was a lawyer who practiced law happily in Washington, D.C., and I had very little to do with the White House. In fact, I was working in the State Department at the time. John Podesta called me up and said, we need another lawyer to throw on the pile. And he said, people are considering asking you to come over. And so I would have you know, I don't think I saw the president and the first lady when they arrived in Washington, D.C. from Arkansas. But once a year, maybe at the Christmas party. And that was all. So that - I had none, I had none of that sort of problem solving relationship that Mr. Giuliani appears to have with Mr. Trump.

SANTUCCI: So what he has right now is that there is a growing investigation, as I'm sure you've read, out of the southern district of New York related to Rudy. Some of the Ukrainians that he was working on for his independent. Investigation into the Bidens have been charged and they're going to their arraignments later this week. Rudy is being investigated for a FARA violation. If you were counseling Rudy, what would be your advice to him?

CRAIG: I just. Well, one thing that I would do would be to make sure not to give advice when I don't know exactly what all the issues are or what his jeopardy is or what the evidence establishes. So I am reluctant in the world of the public domain publicly to give advice to Rudy Giuliani as to what he should be doing. And so respectfully, I would decline that.


CRAIG: I would say, I would say one thing, though, when you're in a hole I would stop digging. So that's just a general application of principle that I think is a wise principle.

VLASTO: But could his criminal I mean, or the investigation that is going on with him affect the impeachment proceeding? I mean, in the sense of if he got indicted, - the hope, then maybe he'd flip on the president. Right. I mean, the same way Michael Cohen flipped on, flipped on Donald Trump. Wouldn't that be the hope of prosecutors to do that? So wouldn't it affect the impeachment inquiry or not?

CRAIG: I think you're mixing up with the Southern District of New York is doing with what the House of Representatives are doing – they’re two different processes. It's unlikely that the Southern District of New York is going to be engaged in plea bargaining with Rudy Giuliani to the benefit of an impeachment proceeding in the House of Representatives. That's just not - I think that's apples and oranges.

VLASTO: OK. No, but I just wondered if - if it would delay a process. I mean, because he's going to be a witness, isn't he a witness in the impeachment proceeding? And that’s the only thing I was thinking. If he's called to be a witness for the impeachment, he's going to maybe decline or fight it. Right?

CRAIG: I think under most circumstances, whether or not he's under investigation in the southern district, Mr. Giuliani is likely to decline or fight testifying in front of the House.

VLASTO: So that would go up to the courts?

CRAIG: Likely. It depends on what the basis is for him to decline. I mean, if he asserts an attorney client privilege, then there would have to be some taking of evidence to establish the attorney client relationship. If he is - if he claims an executive privilege, then he would have to present sufficient evidence to claim that he was functioning as an adviser to the president on national security issues that - whose conversations were protected. He might invoke the Fifth Amendment and declined to testify on that ground in front of the House Representatives. But those are the only three grounds that I would believe he would have some kind of legal basis to assert. But I think my prediction would be that he's likely to assert one of those.

VLASTO: Now, what advice would you give Donald Trump right now if he called you?

SANTUCCI: If he called you.

CRAIG: You keep wanting me to give advice to people.

SATNUCCI: Well, you you're experienced in these matters.

CRAIG: You know, I have the same thought of - that I had when you asked me to advise Mr. Giuliani. I think the obstructionism and the reluctance to respect constitutional processes and institutional rights is doing enormous damage to him. It may help him with his base. That's a political consideration that I certainly am not equipped or prepared to comment about. But if he is, if he is pursuing a path that seeks to be vindicated with the Congress, I think the choices and decisions he's made so far are not helping him.

VLASTO: Wouldn't you suggest that he should listen to his lawyers?

CRAIG: I don't know what his lawyers are telling him. So it's hard for me to say that. I always look. Gosh, Chris, every time - you're talking to a lawyer, I will always tell my client, listen to your lawyer. So what I'm advising other people that are seeking legal advice. I would also say it's always well advised to listen to what your lawyer has to - has to say.

SANTUCCI: And Mr. Reagan and we were mentioning before we sat down with you this obviously the first interview you've done in several months since everything you had gone through. What have you been up to since leaving the Obama administration and obviously the trial you just went through?

CRAIG: Well, I had a really great practice of law for many years from 2010 to 2017. So I practiced law and then I've retired. And let me just tell you, there's a lot to do when, when even at my age of 74 years old, there's plenty on my plate. It keeps me busy.

SANTUCCI: Thank you for joining us.

CRAIG: Thank you very much. Happy to be here.