Publicist wonders if he was 'patsy' in Trump Tower meeting

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent
From left: Natalia Veselnitskaya, Emin Agalarov, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Donald Trump, Paul Manafort, Aras Agalarov, Rob Goldstone. (Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: Yury Martyanov/AFP/Getty Images, Mark Lennihan/AP, AP, Ivan Sekretarev/AP, Ethan Miller/Getty Images, Maxim Shemetov/Reuters, Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — It was over dinner at a ritzy Las Vegas restaurant that Donald Trump first bonded with Azerbaijani pop singer Emin Agalarov — appropriately enough, with boasts about sleeping with beauty queens.

It was June 2013, and the two men were finalizing an agreement for Trump to bring his Miss Universe pageant that year to Moscow to be hosted — in exchange for a hefty licensing fee — by the singer’s billionaire oligarch father, Aras Agalarov.

“Out of nowhere,” Rob Goldstone, Agalarov’s longtime gadfly publicist, writes in a new book, Trump leaned over to the younger Agalarov during their Las Vegas dinner and loudly proclaimed, “I’ll reduce the fee for the pageant by a million dollars if you tell me right now if you’ve slept with any of the contestants.”

Not to be outdone, Agalarov shot back: “Mr. Trump, I will add $5 million to the fee if you tell me right now if you’ve slept with any contestants.” At that point, Goldstone informs us, Trump called off the bet.

“I knew right then and there this was a match made in frat boy heaven,” writes Goldstone in his self-published book, “Pop Stars, Pageants & Presidents: How an Email Trumped My Life.” (The book, an advance copy of which was provided to Yahoo News, is out next week.)

Goldstone was always an improbable figure in the story of Trump’s Russia ties — a party-loving ex-British tabloid reporter who was drawn to celebrities and pop singers, traversing the globe while writing occasional newspaper pieces such as one memorably titled, “The Tricks and Trials of Traveling While Fat.” By his own admission, he had little interest in politics or international diplomacy. But in his efforts to promote the career of Agalarov, his rich boy client, he had a keen sense of how to push Trump’s buttons and grab his attention — talents, he ultimately concludes, that may have turned him into an unwitting “patsy” for Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election.

Trump and Emin Agalarov seemed like “a match made in frat boy heaven,” writes Goldstone in his self-published book, “ Pop Stars, Pageants & Presidents: How an Email Trumped My Life.” (Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: Pavel Golovkin/AP, HO)

As has been reported before, it was Goldstone who first came up with the idea of pitching Trump’s Miss Universe executives with a plan to hold the 2013 pageant in Moscow with Aras Agalarov hosting it at his grand glittering showcase, Crocus City Hall — all as a way to boost Emin Agalarov’s music career by arranging for him to be the event’s star entertainment.

And Goldstone figured out early on how to encourage Trump’s enthusiasm for the project. “I told him how Russia loved him … not just for his business skills but for his praise and admiration for President Putin,” he writes.

The same PR skills came into play three years later when Goldstone would write the now notorious email that would pique the interest of special counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors and congressional investigators — and make him, for a brief moment, a world famous figure.

It was on the morning of June 3, 2016 — smack in the middle of the U.S. presidential election — when, Goldstone writes, he got a “very strange” phone call from Emin in Moscow asking him to set up a meeting with “the Trumps” for a “well-connected” Russian attorney with some damaging information about questionable funding for the Democrats and Hillary Clinton.

“Well-connected… Connected to what? The power grid?” Goldstone says he sarcastically replied.

Emin, Goldstone insists, provided him with few other details, raising the PR man’s suspicions. “You know, nothing good can come of this,” he warned him. Still, he took it from there and followed orders: In a matter of minutes, he banged out on his iPhone the now-infamous message to Donald Trump Jr., skillfully embroidering the sketchy information he had been given with provocative language intended to grab the attention of his target audience.

“Good morning. Emin just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting,” he wrote. “The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father. This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump — helped along by Aras and Emin.”

As Goldstone tells the story, he actually didn’t know what he was talking about. The idea that the “well-connected” Russian lawyer had documents was not anything Agalarov had told him. He just figured that a presumably “official” Russian lawyer who wanted to make a presentation to the Trumps must have documents since “documents and official went together like tea and scones.”

As for the Russian government’s support for Trump, “this was pure puffery and even a bit of flattery.” Nobody had told him the Russian government was backing Trump, he writes, and he had “no idea” if it was actually true. He just inferred that was the case given “Vladimir Putin’s praise for Donald Trump.” (On this point, the U.S. intelligence community later concluded, he turned out to be 100 percent correct.)

From left: Donald Trump, Aras Agalarov, Miss Universe 2012 Olivia Culpo and Russian singer Emin Agalarov arrive at the 2013 Miss USA pageant at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas on June 16, 2013. (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Even the reference to the “Crown prosecutor” was a bit of a mishmash, although one Goldstone is a bit sensitive about. Russia doesn’t have a Crown prosecutor — the country hasn’t had a “Crown” since Czar Nicholas II was overthrown in 1917. Goldstone insists he knew this. Most accounts until now have assumed he was referring to Russia’s prosecutor general, Yura Chaika, a very high-ranging and feared figure in the Kremlin. But this isn’t true either, Goldstone says. He knew nothing of Chaika or his actual title. He just used a British phrase — the United Kingdom does have Crown prosecutors — to dress up the importance of that “well-connected” lawyer in order to get the meeting he was told to set up. The lawyer was Natalia Veselnitskaya, a name that meant nothing to him then but would later make waves when the meeting became public.

“At that point, 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.

How credible is Goldstone’s account? It’s hard to say for sure, though it’s worth noting that Goldstone no longer works for Agalarov and doesn’t seem to have any strong ongoing allegiance to him, concluding in the end that the pop singer and his father threw him “under the bus.” And, as Goldstone notes, he has told essentially the same version of this story behind closed doors under oath to three congressional committees and before Mueller’s grand jury.

In any case, Goldstone’s email was not, in and of itself, the most scandalous part of his exchange with the GOP candidate’s son. It was Trump Jr.’s immediate response: “If it’s what you say, I love it especially later in the summer.” Told of a foreign power’s offer to help his father’s campaign, Trump Jr. didn’t call the FBI. He told Goldstone he wanted to hear more.

Goldstone’s argument, to the extent that he has one, is that it wasn’t his email (or at least his email alone) that finally led to the meeting between a delegation of Russians and Trump campaign officials. Even while expressing enthusiasm for the idea of getting Kremlin assistance for the Trump campaign, Trump Jr. mentioned in the very same response that “perhaps I just speak to Emin first.” So Goldstone immediately relayed this to his client, sending him Trump Jr.’s cellphone number. This resulted in a phone call a few days later between Emin Agalarov and the younger Trump. Whatever they talked about — a subject about which Goldstone is in the dark — their conversation that day led directly to the meeting on June 9, 2016.

There is clearly much here to be suspicious about. As congressional investigators have noted, in between two phone calls with Agalarov’s number in Moscow on June 6, Trump Jr. had a three- to four-minute call with a “blocked number”— raising questions about whether he was talking to his father. (As Corey Lewandowski has testified, Trump’s number at his residence in Trump Tower was blocked.) The next day, Tuesday, June 7, Trump vowed he was about to give a “major speech” about the “corrupt dealings” of the Clintons — a talk that he said would be “very, very interesting” and that he would give “probably Monday” of the following week, after the meeting with the Russians was to take place. The speech was never delivered.

Goldstone, shown here on Sept. 12, 2018, in New York City,  wrote in 2016 the now notorious email that would pique the interest of special counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors and congressional investigators. (Photo: Matt McClain/Washington Post via Getty Images)

Goldstone’s account of the meeting itself reinforces what others in the Trump orbit have testified: It was a dud. A troop of Russians — led by Veselnitskaya— was ushered into a Trump Tower conference room to present their supposedly damning material to Trump Jr., campaign manager Paul Manafort and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. But Veselnitskaya quickly lost her audience, talking in a “monotonous, droning voice” about a couple of people in investor Bill Browder’s hedge fund who had given to Democrats. Since this didn’t implicate Clinton in any wrongdoing, the Trump camp immediately lost interest. Manafort, according to Goldstone, spent the whole time staring at his iPhone reading emails. A fidgety Kushner grew “more irritated and agitated” and finally interrupted the Russian to say: He had “no idea” what point she was trying to make.

Soon enough, Veselnitskaya switched gears and started talking passionately about the injustice of the Magnitsky Act — the law imposing sanctions on Russian human rights abusers — and why that had led to the ban on American adoptions of Russian babies. Trump Jr. cut the meeting off. An embarrassed Goldstone apologized for wasting his time.

Toward the end of his book, Goldstone appears haunted by his role. “How could I be sure I hadn’t been duped into setting up the meeting?” he writes. “Had I been a patsy? A ‘useful idiot’?”

Legitimate questions — and there are others that still linger about the Trump Tower meeting: What did Trump himself know about it? What was said between Trump Jr. and Emin Agalarov? And why did Kushner and Manafort feel compelled to attend — and what understandings might there have been after it was over?

But if Goldstone can’t clear them up, Mueller may be closer to getting some more answers. As a result of Manafort’s recent guilty plea, he is now cooperating in the special counsel’s investigation and may soon be ready to fill in some of the gaps.

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