The man who sent “the most famous email in history” is ordering a Chicken Kiev for lunch at the Russian Tea Room, under the watchful gaze of golden eagle statues and bear ice sculptures.
Rob Goldstone is an unmistakable presence on this warm fall day in midtown New York, even without one of the fanciful hats for which he became a tabloid fixture and an online meme. Wearing a denim jacket over a blue patterned shirt, a golden Buddha necklace hanging below his chin, the chatty music publicist overflows with wit and bonhomie. And he’s eager to tell his side of the story.
Ever the pitchman—he claims to have worked with Michael Jackson, BB King, and Richard Branson—he’s anxious to sell himself as anything but the useful idiot he’s been depicted to be by too many Russiagate sleuths, the patsy who emailed Donald Trump Jr. to set up the Trump Tower meeting with Russians peddling dirt on Hillary Clinton in the summer of 2016.
After all, Goldstone’s got a book to sell (Pop Stars, Pageants & Presidents: How an Email Trumped My Life, a breezy and entertaining account of his career and his moment in the eye of the storm), notoriety to monetize, and a reputation to make over. Goldstone was the publicist for Emin Agalarov, a Azerbaijani-Russian singer, whom he accompanied to the Miss Universe contest in Moscow in 2013, which was hosted by Agalarov’s father, Aras, a well-connected oligarch. That’s where Goldstone met Trump, and Agalarov pitched the real-estate mogul on the idea of a Trump Tower in Moscow while “Emin’s driving Trump around in a golf cart . . . and because Trump is Trump, an hour later, he does a press conference where he’s like, ‘We’re doing a Trump Tower in Moscow.'” As a result of his role in these scandals, Goldstone has testified before a grand jury as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry and in front of three congressional committees.
Bubbling with British charm, dropping names, and retelling anecdotes from his career in publicity, he makes me feel a hint of nostalgia and a strong dose of déjà vu for an earlier time in my career. When I used to run around New York City as the legman for a gossip column at the Daily News, I practically talked to guys like Goldstone every day, either fending off pleas to cover the launch of a new cologne at a midtown boutique, or trying to cadge some juicy details about the sex life of one of his clients. That’s what makes it so surreal to talk to him about presidential politics, international corruption, and the minutiae of prosecutorial discretion.
The Trump-Russia scandal is the strangest kind of drama, combining the high stakes of Watergate, the cold war intrigue of a John Le Carré novel, but with characters out of a Page Six column. And it’s a plot that remains a conundrum. It seems simple on its face, the “stupid Watergate” described by John Oliver, involving a bunch of dolts who sought to please Donald Trump with amateurish antics, of which the illegality and inappropriateness would have been obvious to anyone with the slightest bit of common sense. But it might be something much more nefarious, involving Trump as a Manchurian candidate controlled by the Kremlin, or at the very least, corrupt enough to get financing and/or dirt on Hillary Clinton from Putin in return for pro-Russia policies. And yet we still don’t really know, for all the partisan hyperbole on cable news.
And Goldstone perfectly embodies that enigma, like a Russian nesting doll that’s empty inside. He seems so obvious, utterly lacking in guile, eager to spill the beans. But his explanations seem so suspect . . . to anyone who’s been bombarded by the intricate Russia-gate infographics in the New York Times and the complicated corkboard conspiracies sketched out by Rachel Maddow every night. It’s puzzling . . . or maybe it’s perfectly plausible.
Basically, it was BS (or was it?)
For a man whose career in publicity and at the heart of the fame machine has been based on creating drama and building up expectations, his account of the Trump Tower scandal is surprisingly dull and pretty disappointing.
He asserts that he made up or exaggerated some of the most important details in the infamous email—the Kremlin’s support for the Trump campaign, his highlighting of “high-level and sensitive information” and “documents” that would “incriminate Hillary,” the reference to the “crown prosecutor of Russia”—just to get the attention of Donald Trump Jr.
“I was so intent on getting a response from Don Jr. that, honestly, I would have told him I was bringing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the meeting if I thought it would get his immediate attention,” he writes.
So, it was (mostly) BS.
In addition, Goldstone is the first one to describe what really happened at the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Don Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Veselnitskaya, and lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin. And again, his account is unsatisfying, as if a Jason Bourne thriller ended with the resolution of a Friends-style misunderstanding.
According to Goldstone, the meeting was a complete snore (almost literally, when it comes to Manafort), with Veselnitskaya droning on unintelligibly about abortion and the Magnitsky Act (a U.S. law that sanctions Russians and is fiercely opposed by the Kremlin). Nothing about Hillary’s emails. Nothing about the Kremlin’s support for Trump. Nothing about oligarchs cutting deals with Trump. Nothing about Putin blackmailing Trump with kompromat.
Goldstone claims to have been so bored, scrolling through his Facebook and Instagram and text messages, that he doesn’t remember if Veselnitskaya spoke Russian or English or even used a translator at all. “I was literally fighting to stay awake as she rambled on.”
Though Goldstone claims that Veselnitskaya didn’t offer any dirt on Clinton, she did describe a complicated tax-fraud scheme involving prominent Democratic donors the Ziff brothers (whose investment partner Bill Browder pushed for the passage of the Magnitsky Act). Though Trump Jr. later said that her information was “useless,” it’s still illegal for “an American political campaign to accept anything of value from foreigners, and opposition research is considered something of value,” reports NPR. Meanwhile, the Trump team’s account of the substance of the meeting keeps shifting—first claiming it was about adoption, then “vague, ambiguous” claims of dirt on Clinton, to the president acknowledging in a recent tweet that it was to “get information on an opponent” (adding that it was “totally legal” and “done all the time in politics.”)
Both of these explanations seem dubious. Even someone who calls himself naive and uninformed would have to know that helping connect a Kremlin-connected lawyer with the presumptive U.S. presidential nominee of a major party is improper, if not illegal. “You know, a lot of people have said to me, ‘Why didn’t you, Rob Goldstone, know it was wrong and call the FBI’? You know what my answer is? I’m an idiot. We’ll go with that when it comes to this because it’s true.” Later, he adds, “I wouldn’t do it again, knowing what I know now. Of course, I wouldn’t do it.”
And his explanation in the book reads like something a hostage held by terrorists would say on camera: “I would have hoped that people would understand that my email was not an official statement on behalf of anyone, but my own personal opinion. When I wrote that this government support was helped along by Emin and Aras, it goes without saying that Aras and Emin Agalarov do not, at least to my knowledge, help the Russian government in any way. It was pure fawning, flattery by me.”
Goldstone’s account of the meeting defies belief: Wasn’t he the least bit curious about what this mysterious Russian lawyer had to say about information that could hurt the Democrats and help Trump? “I was sneaky curious,” he tells me, explaining that if she mentioned something incendiary, he’d be able to see a change in the others in the room: “They’d suddenly all sit up.” Instead, he says they were all annoyed–Kushner fidgeting in his seat, Manafort never looking up from his phone, and Don Jr. perplexed and cranky, telling Goldstone as they left, “I have no idea what that was about.”
Really? Don Jr. didn’t ask her any questions about dirt on Hillary or the Clinton Foundation? Manafort, drawing on his deep knowledge of Russian-Ukrainian relations, didn’t pose a few questions of his own?
“Look, Dad, I did this!”
Goldstone’s exoneration of the Trump team feels like the witness suddenly introduced at trial who provides an improbable alibi for the mob boss on trial for murder. So what’s really going on here: Is he afraid? Did the U.S. administration get to him? Did the Agalarovs pressure him to play dumb?
It doesn’t seem likely. For a man who could help put the president’s son in jail, get the most powerful man in the world impeached, and embarrass the Kremlin, Goldstone seems awfully relaxed.
And he’s remarkably unrestrained in his opinions. In our wide-ranging interview, he belittles Don Jr. (“idiot”), condemns his father and his base of supporters (“I honestly believe that he would drive over these people in his Maybach sitting on his gold toilet and they would still believe in him”), and says he believes that Don Jr. told his father about the Trump Tower meeting:
If my father was running for the president of the United States, and I was taking a meeting with a bunch of Russians, allegedly to talk opposition research, whatever it was, in my father’s conference room, a floor or two below where my father was sitting, with my father’s son-in-law and the campaign manager . . . having a meeting. Would I tell my father? Sure, before and after, I would tell my father. Do I know that he did? I have no idea. But do I think he did? I’m more inclined to think that he would have mentioned it. I read somewhere that when Don Jr. bench presses more than 180 pounds, he tells his father. So the chances are that, ‘Look, Dad. I did this!’
When asked if he thinks Manafort or Kushner mentioned it to Trump, Goldstone says, “You would think so.”
He claims that none of them—Don Jr., Manafort, or Kushner—has contacted him since that meeting. Sometimes he sent notes to Jr., praising him for speeches he gave during the campaign, and then congratulated him on Election Night (to which Jr. just replied: “Thanks”). Looking back, Goldstone calls those messages “fawning nonsense.”
Not until June 2017, while Goldstone was shopping for flip-flops on vacation in Brazil, did two lawyers for the Trump Organization (including longtime counsel Alan Garten) call him to ask him questions about the meeting. “And I said, ‘Yeah, it was about adoption.’ And I’ve always thought that maybe that’s what stuck in their head, if you look at the statement they released,” referring to the misleading statement that Trump personally dictated while flying home on Air Force One, in which Trump Jr. said that he and Veselnitskaya had “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children.”
He also says that he rejected another statement to be released on his behalf and crafted by the Trump Organization’s lawyers because it was “ludicrous, not because it was wrong, but because I thought it looked like an endorsement. I can’t remember what it said, something like, ‘Donald Trump is 100% correct.’ I was never going to sign it.”
“That’s the 64 billion ruble question”
And Goldstone has plenty of his own questions. He says that his three biggest unanswered questions are:
- Who really is Natalya Veselnitskaya and why did she want to meet with the Trump team? “Was it a bait and switch, where she hinted about illegal funding to Democrats but it was really all about the Magnitsky Act? Or was there more going on?”
- What did Emin and Don Jr. talk about on the phone call (set up by Goldstone’s email to Don Jr.)? “It was never explained to me. Never.” He doesn’t accept Emin’s explanation: “His answer is ridiculous, ‘Well, I said to him [Don Jr.] there’s someone, I’m not sure who it is or what it’s about and it might be nothing.’ Nobody would take that meeting–and bring Jared and Manafort, the campaign manager! So that leaves a big question mark: What did they say to each other?”
- Why does Aras care so much about the Magnitsky Act? “Because he’s so friendly with the Kremlin? That’s the 64 billion ruble question.”
Even after the Trump Tower meeting “fiasco,” Goldstone claims that the Agalarovs made two more requests to talk to Trump about the Magnitsky Act, “nothing else,” one in fall 2016, and one after Trump was already sitting in the White House. But he put it off, telling Emin, “I cannot ask for a meeting with the same absurd cast of characters about the same thing. So I just did a dance and did nothing.” He says he waited until just before Thanksgiving 2016 and then sent a request to Rhona Graff, Trump’s longtime secretary. And he claims that he never got a response, and that he never made the later request.
Weeks after our lunch, when the revelations came out that Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen told prosecutors that talks about a Trump Tower Moscow continued through June 2016, shortly after the Trump Tower meeting, I reached out to Goldstone again (via Twitter DM, which has been our only way of communicating, though he insists he’s not spooked about email). He claimed that Trump’s Moscow deal never came up when he was arranging the Trump Tower meeting, and that Emin never discussed the idea with him after it was announced by Trump in Moscow in 2013. Asked why the deal was canceled just days after the Trump Tower meeting, Goldstone says he “always believed it was shelved because Crocus group [the Agalarovs’ company] put the residential project on hold due to” a decline in the Russian economy.
Over an hour of discussion, Goldstone repeats many of the same stories and points he describes in his book. But very few revelations. And even after peppering him with dozens of questions, I feel like I’m no closer to the truth.
But there’s one conspiracy that Goldstone believes. He claims he was forced to self-publish his book after the big publishing houses in liberal New York wouldn’t give him a book deal because he’s associated with Trump. “Have you heard of Random House? Well, I published this in my random house because nobody would publish my book, or even read it.” He claims that friends in the industry told Goldstone that it would sell well, but that he is “perceived as to the right of Steve Bannon” and they were “scared on some level that their peers will say, ‘We can’t believe you’re doing a book that helps Trump.'” It’s not clear how valid those claims are. And he won’t disclose how well his book is selling since it came out in September.
But that’s not stopping him for another book project called “100 emails you wish you’d written and one you’re glad you didn’t.” It would go back in history to key moments—such as Cleopatra reaching out to Marc Antony— “and write emails about the way I’d do it, how it would be looked at like an email.” The one you wish you didn’t write “would be mine.”
Currently, he’s traveling the world, pitching his book, trying to relax. Touching his Buddha necklace, he explains, “I actually wear it because I like the Buddhist philosophy of southeast Asia . . . they say out there that the West is obsessed with knowing the answer to why.” He adds, “They would say, ‘You guys are crazy, you spend all your lives asking why: Why did something good happen to me? Why something bad? Why did he win the lottery? Why did he get hit by a bus? And we don’t ask that. We just live in the moment.’ And I thought, that’s good. Now I can’t do it, because I still ask why.”