As a publicist, I have never believed the adage that all publicity is good publicity. I have always cautioned my clients about the perils of the public eye. I have diligently courted the media on their behalf, extolled their sometimes-lacking virtues and helped raise their profiles. I have mentally prepared for every potential public relations nightmare concerning my clients. I never imagined that my greatest professional challenge would be salvaging my own reputation. My ordeal has taught me a lot about my industry.
On June 3, 2016, I sent what may be the most famous e-mail in history, because my client asked me to. Singer and businessman Emin Agalarov had me request a meeting with the Trumps for a Russian lawyer (who I would later come to learn was Natalia Veselnitskaya), and after unsuccessfully trying to talk him out of it, I did my job: I used my PR training to puff up the missive to get someone’s attention.
In this case, that meant suggesting that Veselnitskaya — who Agalarov had told me was “well-connected” — could convey official Russian “documents and information” about potential illegal funding for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, which would help Donald Trump’s candidacy. Publicists are legendary for speaking in hyperbole, and I am no exception. Realistically, by the time I sent that e-mail, if I had thought it would have gotten the desired reaction from Donald Trump Jr., I would happily have stated that I was bringing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Trump Tower.
When the meeting that resulted was revealed to the public in July 2017, in the space of a few hours, I went from being a media hunter to being hunted. I spent the next 18 months at the center of the Russia investigation, as my e-mail became one of the main tangible pieces of alleged “evidence of collusion,” I found myself portrayed one day as a Russian spy, the next as an unwitting “useful idiot.” Some internet sleuths even suggested that I was a Democratic plant, put there to sabotage the Trump campaign.
There was no political agenda on my part, no underlying conspiratorial mystery. Throughout this ordeal, I have always held out hope that my role in this complex puzzle would ultimately be seen for what it was: that my e-mail and the subsequent meeting was not an act of collusion, but of naivete.
Despite my professional experience, I couldn’t get that message to break through. From day one, I made it very clear that I would be available to special counsel Robert Mueller’s team — even offering to fly halfway around the world to be interviewed voluntarily.
Yet I was still afraid that some random reporter or blogger who needed to fill a column that day would concoct a narrative to fit a particular agenda. It happened again and again.
On two occasions, I had my personal and business bank accounts closed, seemingly for my association with the ongoing investigation. Each time, the banks said only that they had decided they no longer welcomed my business. Meanwhile, an employee of the Treasury Department, now under indictment, allegedly leaked private banking information about people associated with the inquiry to an online media outlet, which published details of my personal finances and described them as suspicious. In my case, they were nothing of the sort.
All of this took an enormous toll on me. I have been verbally attacked by strangers on the street, and come close to being physically attacked outside my own apartment building. I have been publicly ridiculed in every conceivable way — including about my appearance, size and intelligence.
Night after night, I would awaken in a cold sweat and with a sense of dread. I relived the e-mail, the meeting, the testimony on Capitol Hill, and with every passing month, I prayed for a speedy end to the investigation. Never once, however, did my nightmares include a scenario in which Mueller and his team would find evidence that my e-mail or the Trump Tower meeting amounted to collusion. I knew the facts, and I trusted that they did, too. Rather, my fear was that nothing I did could make the people who vilified me accept what I knew to be true.
On Sunday night, just a few hours after the media reported that Mueller’s report had shown “no collusion,” I did something I hadn’t done for more than 500 nights. I slept without feeling afraid. But no amount of PR spin or puffery could earn me that relief. And I have to live with the knowledge that no pitch of mine can ever convince everyone of my innocence.
Rob Goldstone is a publicist in New York. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.