Russian social media giant offered pro-Trump effort during campaign
A Russian tech executive began pitching the Trump campaign in early 2016 about using social media to help gain “massive exposure” for his presidential bid, according to Senate interview transcripts released Wednesday.
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In an email to Donald Trump, Jr., that was copied to his father’s personal assistant, Rhona Graff, music publicist Rob Goldstone – who acted as an intermediary – shared the proposal to build candidate Trump a page on Russia’s popular Facebook equivalent VK. The plan was the brainchild of the Russian social media giant’s head of marketing, Konstantin Sidorkov, the Senate documents show, revealing exchanges between the executive and Goldstone with the former detailing to the later exactly what to pitch.
Goldstone described the plan in his email, saying the company “had an idea to create a campaign page on VK for Mr. Trump and market it to the almost 3 million influential Russian American voters living in the USA.”
“I can get massive exposure for Mr. Trump on the site for sure – and it will be covered in Russian media also – – where I noticed your campaign is covered positively almost daily – [with] extremely gracious comments from President Putin etc.,” he wrote.
Graff then forwarded the message to the campaign’s social media director, Dan Scavino, who replied, “This is great!”
The pitches, which began in January 2016, represent the first known instance of Russian nationals urging Trump to accept their help in promoting his White House bid through a more robust social media campaign – though in this case it is limited to Russian-based platforms.
Scavino told ABC News in an e-mailed statement, “I do not know Rob Goldstone – the ‘pitch’ came to me via an email on January 19, 2016 – that I was cc’d on, and the email chain regarding VK was below that. I kindly acknowledged the email on the same day, and did not pursue further. There are no other responses.”
Efforts by Russian-based companies to spread pro-Trump and anti-Hillary Clinton messages on American-based social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have become a focus of congressional and Special Counsel investigators. Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians and three Russian companies in February for an alleged complex online scheme to sow discord in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and help elect Donald Trump, activity covertly set up and organized by a Putin-connected oligarch.
By June 2016, a day before the infamous Trump Tower meeting – which Goldstone also set up – the publicist sent a fresh email pushing the idea of a social media campaign. This time he included a mock-up web page featuring Donald Trump’s picture, his campaign slogan, pictures from the trail, and a previous Trump tweet sure to be popular with the candidate, “The media is really on a witch-hunt against me.”
Sidorkov, through Goldstone, touted the site as the most popular in Russia, a statistic confirmed by Amazon’s Alexa analysis site, and extended this invitation, “Also we can set up the official meeting with our CEO and fly to USA anytime,” he wrote. It is unclear if the meeting ever occurred.
In late June, Goldstone tried again, emailing Scavino that he had mentioned the idea to then-Trump campaign head Paul Manafort, adding, “At the time, Paul had said he would welcome it and so I had the VK folks mock up a basic sample page – which I am re-sending for your approval now. It would merely require Mr. Trump to drop in a short message to Russian American voters – or a generic message depending on your choice – and the page can be up and running very quickly.”
Scavino told ABC News that he never pursued the project.