Imagine the excitement at the top of the Trump campaign: finally, the Russians were coming through! A ‘well-connected’ lawyer was on her way from the Kremlin with the dirt on Hillary. Donald Jr, Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort assembled to meet her in a conference room at Trump Tower. All three were there together, in the middle of the campaign, because of an email from a British music publicist called Rob Goldstone. He had written to Don Jr: ‘The Crown Prosecutor of Russia [has] offered to provide the Trump Campaign with some official documents 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.’
But the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, ‘droned on’ without producing anything – anything at all. Manafort looked at his phone the whole time. Kushner texted his secretary: ‘Get me out of this meeting as soon as possible.’ Don Jr later called the whole thing a ‘nothingburger’. Goldstone says now that the tantalising Russian offer set out in his email was, basically, made up by him. He writes as much in his memoir Pop Stars, Pageants & Presidents. ‘No one had actually mentioned any documents,’ he says, ‘official or otherwise, but I reasoned that since an attorney was the person making the presentation and requesting the meeting, they would undoubtedly have a document or two.’ The email was 137 words of ‘pure puffery’.
This explanation is rather convenient, I said to Goldstone: no Russia conspiracy to see here, just a PR man plying his trade. He replied: ‘If I’m guilty of anything, it really is the fact that I wrote this email in three minutes on a cellphone and didn’t pay maybe as much attention to it as I should.’ Goldstone got his walk-on part in the Trump-Russia drama because he managed a singer, Emin Agalarov, whose father, Aras, is close to Vladimir Putin. Pop Stars, Pageants & Presidents describes Goldstone’s journey to represent ‘unquestionably Azerbaijan’s biggest music star’ – and later how his life was nearly wrecked by the email he wrote at his behest.
Goldstone was brought up in a working class, Jewish home in Manchester. At 16, he joined a local weekly paper. He spent his twenties freelancing as a ‘hungry tabloid hack desperate to get a scoop at any cost’. He shouted questions about Prince Andrew through the intercom at Fergie’s flat; he followed Elton John around to prove he was secretly gay. He’s ‘flabbergasted’ to find out now what it’s like to be at the centre of a media feeding frenzy. Maureen Dowd describes him in the New York Times as a ‘rotund, vodka-swilling, chocolate-inhaling, British publicist who likes to party at the Russian Tea Room’. Goldstone is wounded: ‘I’m not exactly sure why Dowd felt the need to ridicule my weight…I don’t drink vodka…I certainly don’t “inhale” chocolate…I am diabetic. As for “partying” at the Russian Tea Room, I was the restaurant’s publicist.’
This may be poetic justice but, to be fair to Goldstone, it’s decades since he was doorstepping for the British red-tops. He prefers working in PR, where you are paid to say only nice things about your clients. When it came to ‘the Elvis of Azerbaijan’ and his billionaire father, did this involve a certain willful blindness? He faithfully documents – wide eyed – the oligarch luxury he sees on his visits to Moscow. But he does not question where the money for this might have come from. His does not wonder what the Agalarovs could have been doing to get their apartment in Moscow firebombed when Emin was a child. Or what services Aras might perform for Vladimir Putin to survive and prosper in today’s Russia. Goldstone is the music business equivalent of the lawyers, accountants, estate agents and PR executives who make it possible for Russia’s new rich to stash their wealth in London.
He has given evidence to the House and Senate intelligence committees, to Robert Mueller’s investigators, and to a grand jury. In Bob Woodward’s new book, President Trump’s lawyer, Jim Dowd, angrily tells Mueller he had better not be building a case for impeachment on what happened in Trump Tower. ‘That chickenshit meeting…That’s a nothing. There’s no collusion [there].’ Goldstone agrees: ‘If the basis of collusion was this meeting, the Mueller inquiry would be over by now…For someone who’s been interviewed by them, it didn’t appear to me to be one of the major anchors of their investigation.’ But he went on: ‘Collusion…is like a big jigsaw puzzle. There are multiple, interlocking pieces.’ If there was really a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, a ‘chickenshit meeting’ with a figure like Natalia Veselnitskaya would not have been necessary. But what if there were, instead, continual efforts by the Kremlin to help, or corrupt, people close to Donald Trump? ‘It’s not the meeting. It’s not the email,’ Goldstone told me: ‘It’s the willingness to accept what could have been an offer that has implications.’ In other words, there may be more to the Trump-Russia story than Rob Goldstone knows.
Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent.