Meet the pro-Trump PR Guy at the Center of the Mueller Probe — And Everything Else

 In Politics

What do the Mueller probe, the Eric Trump Foundation, Sinclair Broadcasting, Girls Gone Wild, Israel, Turkey, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow all have in common?

Ronn Torossian.

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Earlier this month, the hard-charging New York PR man caught Washington’s notice first when he announced in an op-ed that he had testified about his abortive dealings with Paul Manafort to a Washington grand jury convened by special prosecutor Robert Mueller, and then again when he emerged as the face of Sinclair Broadcasting’s caustic PR counteroffensive to charges that it forces affiliates to air pro-Trump propaganda.

These were not Ronn Torossian’s first brushes with Trump-era politics, and they won’t be his last. Over the last decade and a half, the 43-year-old Torossian has made himself perhaps the most prominent practitioner of a brass-knuckled form of public relations, sought out for his relentless work ethic and his ruthlessness—especially when anyone gets in his way.

“Ronn is a guy who doesn’t like being crossed,” explains Jules Feiler, a former colleague. Torossian’s penchant for feuding is such that a few calls around the public relations industry leads to a 150-page book of opposition research on him with a timeline that begins at birth, the sort of document more commonly compiled by the opponents of a presidential candidate.

In addition to that rare distinction, he has also achieved — by dint of sheer hustle and willingness to take on colorful clients — a sort of ubiquity in the incestuous world of Trump’s friends, relatives and advisers. “He’s the hardest-working man in the PR business,” says Hank Sheinkopf, a wise man of New York’s politics and media who knows both Trump and Torossian. “And if you move quick, you wind up everyplace.”

Trump’s invasion of Washington has catapulted the folkways, feuds and notable figures of Midtown Manhattan into the center of the national political scene, bringing Torossian—the publicist the New York Times once dubbed “one of the New Yorkiest practitioners of this quintessentially New York profession”—along for the ride, just as his scorched-earth approach to the press is coming into vogue.

“In a business where people really aren’t gentlemen, he’s a knave. So what?” says Sheinkopf. “He’s the kind of guy you want in a fight and he’s the future of PR, which I don’t think will be about being nice.”

***

Few have ever accused Torossian — who declined to comment on the record —of being too nice. His reputation for courting controversy is such that, like “the Donald” before him, Torossian finds himself practically on a first name basis with the New York tabloids. “Ronn is being suedd,” declared the New York Daily News, on one of the several occasions on which the publicist has been the target of a lawsuit. In this case it was a former romantic partner of his late mother accusing him of libel. That was in 2013, by which point he had been honing his hard-ball techniques for a long time.

Israel was Torossian’s gateway to PR. Born in 1974 and raised Jewish by a single mother in the Bronx, as a boy Torossian came under the tutelage of Avi Weiss, a prominent “open Orthodox” rabbi and prolific organizer of protests related to Jewish causes. As an adolescent, he became involved with Betar, a Zionist youth movement with ties to Israel’s Likud party, and traveled the world to protest with Weiss. In 1994, the rabbi and Torossian descended on Norway to protest the awarding of a Nobel Peace Prize to Yasir Arafat. The pair was arrested and briefly detained in Oslo.

As a student at the State University of New York at Albany, Torossian gained his own notoriety as an energetic activist. In 1995, when Pat Buchanan — long accused of anti-Semitism — announced his second presidential bid at a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, Torossian rushed the stage. Later that year he showed up at the Million Man March to protest Louis Farrakhan, and was removed from federal land by the National Park Police.

In those years, Torossian became close to Zionist Organization of America President Mort Klein, an ally of Trump’s hawkish new national security adviser, John Bolton. Klein considers himself an admirer of Torossian’s no-holds-barred approach. “I want someone who’s strong and committed and doing everything he can to expose the truth of the Arab war against Israel,” he says. “Ronn Torossian understands the truth of the Arab-Islamic war against Israel and the West better than anyone.”

Not everyone shares that sentiment. In a 2008 article, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, a veteran of the Israeli Defense Force who is now the magazine’s editor-in-chief, recounted a conversation with Torossian about Palestinian terrorism in which the flack opined, “I think we should kill a hundred Arabs or a thousand Arabs for every one Jew they kill.” Goldberg described Torossian’s proposal as a “Nazi idea.”

When it came time to choose a career, Torossian was wary of the debt load of a law school degree and the paltry pay in journalism. Instead, he entered public relations, where he figured his willingness to constantly hustle would give him a competitive edge. In 2000, Torossian joined PR Firm MWW and in 2003 he struck out on his own, founding 5W Public relations. His early roster of clients was heavy on right-wing Israeli politicians and evangelical preachers.

Hip-hop stars were another staple of his early client roster and a good fit for his brash approach. Torossian had played in a recreational basketball league – his team was captained by future CNN host Chris Cuomo – that included a Bad Boy Records team. He got to know Sean “Diddy” Combs, who became an early client along with Lil’ Kim, who relied on Torossian’s services when she was tried and convicted of perjury related to a 2001 shooting.

Other clients over the years have included Maira Nazarbayeva, ex-sister-in-law to Kazakhstan’s autocratic leader (Sample headline: “I’m not wanted by Interpol”), Payday lender Cane Bay Partners, the “Shake Weight” exercise contraption, Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, the rapper Pitbull and the heavyweight boxer turned mayor of Kiev, Vitali Klitschko. For Klitschko, Torossian hosted a 2008 meeting at his office with Rudolph Giuliani, who went on to appear in Kiev with the boxer ahead of that year’s mayoral vote and, more recently, joined Trump’s legal team this month promising to end the Mueller probe.

From the start, Torossian took a liking to crisis communications, an area of PR that rewards a fast-paced, aggressive style and demands a willingness to take on controversial clients. When Girls Gone Wild founder Joe Francis pleaded no contest to filming underage girls in the nude a decade ago, he turned to Torossian for help rehabbing his image. When Chuck Grassley announced a Senate investigation of six televangelists for possible financial crimes in 2007, four of them were Torossian’s clients.

One of those clients was Israeli televangelist and faith healer Benny Hinn. Later, Hinn appeared on ABC’s “Nightline” to respond to accusations of fraud. During the segment, Torossian, sitting off camera, repeatedly interrupted the interview to berate ABC News reporter Dan Harris. Even Torossian’s client found the outbursts a bit much. “Ronn, Ronn that’s not important,” Hinn protested when Torossian castigated the reporter for not asking about Hinn’s book.

Harris, though, was impressed, telling AdWeek after the episode aired: “That frequency and aggression of interruption I have not seen personally before.”

***

Before long, Torossian was making a name for himself and cutting a familiar figure — head shaved, necktie optional, ears slightly protruding — on the New York social circuit. But more often than not he was drawing attention for stumbling into the sorts of conflicts and controversies he was supposed be helping his clients navigate — a crisis PR man who often found himself ensnared in PR crises of his own making.
That year, blogger Shmarya Rosenberg caught Torossian’s firm engaging in sock puppetry — posting online comments under assumed identities — in defense of Iowa-based Kosher meat magnate Sholom Rubashkin, who would soon be convicted in federal court on dozens of fraud and money laundering charges. A 5W PR executive told Rosenberg that an unnamed, “unpaid intern” left the comments. (In December, Trump commuted the remainder of Rabaskin’s sentence, the first time he has exercised that particular presidential power).

Such antics caught the notice of Gawker reporter Hamilton Nolan, who for a period beginning a decade ago regularly and derisively covered Torossian’s doings.

At one point, Nolan published an email from Torossian to his estranged former director of human resources with the subject line, “YOU STUPID CUNT.”

In response to all the coverage, Torossian bought the domain name HamiltonNolan.com. Torossian was reportedly also in the habit of buying the domain names for rival publicists and redirecting visitors to them to his firm’s own website. That tactic inspired another publicist to buy RonnTorossian.com and put a picture of a feminine hygiene product whose name is also used to describe an obnoxious person on it, which in turn prompted Torossian to sue the man for $20 million. The case settled without money changing hands.

Other legal imbroglios have been more serious. Before he was elected to Congress from Long Island, Michael Grimm and his close associate Ofer Biton, an Israeli entrepreneur, were also fixtures at the 5W offices, according to a person who saw them there.

In 2011, allegations emerged that Torossian and Biton were extorting a prominent Kabbalah rabbi, Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, threatening to expose Pinto’s financial malfeasance in the press until he put Torossian on retainer. Torossian has denied the existence of any such scheme and was never charged with a crime.

But allegations also emerged that Biton helped steer donations from the rabbi’s followers to Grimm. Eventually, Pinto, Grimm and Biton would all go to jail (Grimm has emerged to run for his old House seat with the endorsement of Steve Bannon).

The Pinto saga, and Torossian’s alleged role in it, was covered in detail in a 2014 New York magazine investigation. Torossian was furious with the story. But soon, he would even the score.

A few months after the Pinto story ran, New York ran a piece about a student at Stuyvesant High School — Torossian’s alma mater — who claimed to have made $72 million trading stocks in his free time, and quoted one of the student’s friends corroborating the tale.

But their story was a ruse. Torossian knew the family of the friend, and the day after the New York piece ran, he delivered both boys for to Jared Kushner’s Observer for an exclusive interview, bragging about how they had duped the magazine and trashing its editorial standards.

New York won’t comment on the matter. The author of the original New York magazine piece, Jessica Pressler, had been offered a job at BusinessWeek, but BusinessWeek rescinded its offer in response to the episode.

Evidently, Torossian did not feel the need to burn any bridges over the dust-up. “He still pitches me all the time,” says Pressler, forwarding a recent email release from Torossian plugging a company that bills itself as “co-working for grownups.”

The Pinto saga also led Torossian into a feud with the rabbi’s lawyer, Alan Dershowitz. In an op-ed in the Observer, Torossian highlighted statutory rape claims made against Dershowitz by an anonymous plaintiff in court proceedings. (Dershowitz denies the claim, and settled the dispute in 2016.) Dershowitz — now an unofficial legal adviser to Trump — responded at the time by calling Torossian a “despicable human being.” He declined to comment on the record about Torossian to POLITICO.

Meanwhile, Torossian has continued to keep the courts busy as both a plaintiff and defendant.

Several times a year, his firm files suits against clients that have allegedly skipped out on their bills.

In 2013, the long-term partner of his late mother sued Torossian for libel. Torossian and the man, Dror Zoreff, had been feuding over his mother’s possessions when anonymous false accusations that Zoreff was a “slimeball crook” and “under active investigation” began surfacing on the internet, according to the complaint. Zoreff traced some of the posts to an IP address associated with Torossian, according to the complaint. The case eventually settled.

That same year, a former employee with the maiden name of “Greenberg” sued Torossian, claiming he had hired her under the assumption she was Jewish and that when he learned that she was not, he “embarked upon a relentless campaign of hostile and abusive treatment” in order to drive her out of the company. The case settled in 2015.

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