By Ronan Farrow
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Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography
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Catch and Kill is based on two years of reporting. It draws on interviews with more than two hundred sources, as well as hundreds of pages of contracts, emails, and texts, and dozens of hours of audio. It was subjected to the same standard of fact-checking as the New Yorker stories on which it is based.
All of the dialogue in the book is drawn directly from contemporaneous accounts and records. Because this is a story about surveillance, third parties often witnessed or surreptitiously recorded conversations, and I was sometimes able to obtain their testimonials and records. I adhered to legal and ethical standards when creating my own recordings.
Most of the sources you will meet in these pages have allowed me to use their full names. Some, however, remain unable to do so due to fear of legal reprisal or because of threats to their physical safety. In those instances, the code names used for the sources during the reporting process have been used here. I reached out to all of the key figures in Catch and Kill prior to publication, to offer them an opportunity to respond to any allegations being made about them. If they agreed to speak, the narrative reflects their responses. If they did not, a good faith effort was made to include existing public statements. For the written material quoted throughout the book, the original language, including spelling and copy errors, has been retained.
Catch and Kill takes place between late 2016 and early 2019. It contains descriptions of sexual violence that some readers may find upsetting or traumatic.
The two men sat in a corner at Nargis Cafe, an Uzbek and Russian restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. It was late 2016, and cold. The place was done up with tchotchkes from the steppes and ceramic depictions of peasant life: grandmas in babushkas, farmers with sheep.
One of the men was Russian, the other Ukrainian, but this was a distinction without a difference: both were children of the disintegrating Soviet Union. They looked to be in their mid-thirties. Roman Khaykin, the Russian, was short and thin and bald, with a quarrelsome snub nose and dark eyes. Everything else about him was pale: eyebrows barely there, face bloodless, bald scalp slick and shining. He was originally from Kislovodsk, which literally translates to “sour waters.” His eyes darted around the room, ever suspicious.
Igor Ostrovskiy, the Ukrainian, was taller and a little fat. He had curly hair that got unruly when he let it grow. He and his family had fled to the United States in the early nineties. Like Khaykin, he was always looking for an angle. He was also curious, meddlesome. During high school, he’d suspected that several classmates were selling stolen credit card numbers, probed until he proved it, then helped law enforcement disrupt the operation.
Khaykin and Ostrovskiy spoke in accented English enlivened with native idioms—“Krasavchik!” Khaykin would say, a word derived from “handsome” but in practice serving as praise for talent or a job well done. Both men were in the business of subterfuge and surveillance. When Ostrovskiy had found himself between private investigation jobs in 2011, he’d googled “Russian private investigators” and emailed Khaykin cold to ask for work. Khaykin had liked Ostrovskiy’s chutzpah and started hiring him for surveillance jobs. Then they’d argued about Khaykin’s methods and drifted apart.
As plates of kebab arrived, Khaykin explained how far he’d been pushing the envelope since they’d last worked together. A new and shadowy client had come into the picture, an enterprise he wouldn’t name that was utilizing him as a subcontractor. He was doing big business. “I’m into some cool shit,” he said. “Some dark stuff.” He’d adopted some new methods, too. He could get bank records and unauthorized credit reports. He had ways of obtaining a phone’s geolocation data to track unsuspecting targets. He described how much the phone hijinks cost: a few thousand dollars for the usual approach to the problem, with cheaper options for gullible marks and more expensive ones for those who proved elusive. Khaykin said he’d already used the tactic successfully, in a case where one family member had hired him to find another.
Ostrovskiy figured Khaykin was full of shit. But Ostrovskiy needed the work. And Khaykin, it turned out, needed more manpower to serve his mysterious new patron.
Before parting ways, Ostrovskiy asked about the phone tracking again. “Isn’t that illegal?” he wondered.
“Ehhhh,” said Khaykin.
On a tiled wall nearby, a blue-and-white evil eye hung on a string, watching.
“What do you mean it’s not airing tomorrow?” My words drifted over the emptying newsroom on the fourth floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, inside the Comcast building, which had once been the GE building, which had once been the RCA building. On the other end of the line, Rich McHugh, my producer at NBC News, was talking over what sounded like the bombing of Dresden but was in fact the natural soundscape of a household with two sets of young twins. “They just called, they’re—no, Izzy, you have to share—Jackie, please don’t bite her—Daddy’s on the phone—”
“But it’s the strongest story in the series,” I said. “Maybe not the best TV, but the best underlying story—”
“They say we’ve gotta move it. It’s fakakt,” he said, missing the last syllable. (McHugh had this habit of trying out Yiddish words. It never went well.)
Airing a series of back-to-back investigative spots like the one McHugh and I were about to launch required choreography. Each of the stories was long, consuming days in the network’s edit rooms. Rescheduling one was a big deal. “Move it to when?” I asked.
On the other end of the line, there was a muffled crash and several successive shrieks of laughter. “I gotta call you back,” he said.
McHugh was a TV veteran who had worked at Fox and MSNBC and, for the better part of a decade, Good Morning America. He was barrel-chested, with ginger hair and a ruddy complexion, and wore a lot of gingham work shirts. He had a plainspoken, laconic quality that cut through the passive-aggressive patter of corporate bureaucracy. “He looks like a farmer,” the investigative unit boss who had first put us together the previous year had said. “For that matter, he talks like a farmer. You two make no sense together.”
“Why the assignment, then?” I’d asked.
“You’ll be good for one another,” he’d replied, with a shrug.
McHugh had seemed skeptical. I didn’t love talking about my family background, but most people were familiar with it: my mother, Mia Farrow, was an actress; my father, Woody Allen, a director. My childhood had been plastered across the tabloids after he was accused of sexual assault by my seven-year-old sister, Dylan, and began a sexual relationship with another one of my sisters, Soon-Yi, eventually marrying her. There had been a few headlines again when I started college at an unusually young age and when I headed off to Afghanistan and Pakistan as a junior State Department official. In 2013, I’d started a four-year deal with NBCUniversal, anchoring a midday show on its cable news channel, MSNBC, for the first year of it. I’d dreamed of making the show serious and fact-driven, and by the end, was proud of how I’d used the inauspicious time slot for taped investigative stories. The show got some bad reviews at the start, good reviews at the end, and few viewers throughout. Its cancellation was little-noticed; for years after, chipper acquaintances would bound up at parties and tell me that they loved the show and still watched it every day. “That’s so nice of you to say,” I’d tell them.
I’d moved over to the network to work as an investigative correspondent. As far as Rich McHugh was concerned, I was a young lightweight with a famous name, looking for something to do because my contract lasted longer than my TV show. This is where I should say the skepticism was mutual, but I just want everyone to like me.
Working with a producer on the road meant a lot of time together on flights and in rental cars. On our first few shoots together, the silence would yawn between us as highway guardrails flashed by, or I’d fill it with too much talk about myself, eliciting the occasional grunt.
But the pairing was starting to yield strong stories for my Today show investigative series and for Nightly News, as well as a reluctant mutual respect. McHugh was as smart as anyone I’d met in the news business and a sharp editor of scripts. And we both loved a tough story.
After McHugh’s call, I looked at the cable headlines on one of the newsroom’s televisions, then texted him: “They’re scared of sexual assault?” The story we were being asked to reschedule was about colleges botching sexual assault investigations on campus. We’d talked to both victims and alleged perpetrators, who were sometimes in tears, and sometimes had their faces obscured in shadow. It was the sort of report that, in the 8:00 a.m. time slot for which it was destined, would require Matt Lauer to furrow his brow, express earnest concern, and then transition to a segment about celebrity skin care.
McHugh wrote back: “Yes. All Trump and then sex assault.”
It was a Sunday evening in early October 2016. The preceding Friday, the Washington Post had published an article demurely titled “Trump Recorded Having Extremely Lewd Conversation About Women in 2005.” There was a video accompanying the article, the kind you used to call “not safe for work.” In a soliloquy captured by the celebrity news program Access Hollywood, Donald Trump held forth about grabbing women “by the pussy.” “I did try and fuck her. She was married,” he had said. “She’s now got the big phony tits and everything.”
Trump’s interlocutor had been Billy Bush, the host of Access Hollywood. Bush was a small man with good hair. You could place him near any celebrity and he would produce a steady stream of forgettable but occasionally weird red-carpet banter. “How do you feel about your butt?” he once asked Jennifer Lopez. And when she, visibly uncomfortable, replied, “Are you kidding me? You did not just ask me that,” he said brightly, “I did!”
And so, as Trump described his exploits, Bush chirped and snickered in assent. “Yes! The Donald has scored!”
Access Hollywood was an NBCUniversal property. After the Washington Post broke the story that Friday, NBC platforms raced their own versions on air. When Access broadcast the tape, it excised some of Bush’s more piquant remarks. Some critics asked when NBC executives became aware of the tape and whether they deliberately sat on it. Leaked accounts presented differing timelines. On “background” calls to reporters, some NBC executives said the story just hadn’t been ready, that it had required further legal review. (Of one such call, a Washington Post writer observed tartly: “The executive was unaware of any specific legal issue raised by airing an eleven-year-old recording of a presidential candidate who was apparently aware at the time that he was being recorded by a TV program.”) Two NBCUniversal lawyers, Kim Harris and Susan Weiner, had reviewed the tape and signed off on its release, but NBC had hesitated, and lost one of the most important election stories in a generation.
There was another problem: the Today show had just brought Billy Bush into its cast of hosts. Not two months earlier, they’d aired a “Get to Know Billy” video, complete with footage of him getting his chest hair waxed on air.
McHugh and I had been editing and legally vetting our series for weeks. But the trouble was apparent the moment I began promoting the series on social media. “Come to watch the #BillyBush apology, stay to watch #RonanFarrow explain to him why an apology is necessary,” one viewer tweeted.
“Of course they moved sexual assault,” I texted McHugh an hour later. “Billy Bush must be apologizing for the pussy grab convo right within spitting distance of our airtime.”
Billy Bush did not apologize that day. As I waited in the wings at Studio 1A the next morning, looking over my script, Savannah Guthrie announced: “Pending further review of the matter, NBC News has suspended Billy Bush, the host of Today’s third hour, for his role in that conversation with Donald Trump.” And then it was onward and upward to cooking, and more caffeinated laughter—and my story on Adderall abuse on college campuses, which had been rushed in to replace the one about sexual assault.
The years before the release of the Access Hollywood tape had seen the reemergence of sexual assault allegations against the comedian Bill Cosby. In July of 2016, the former Fox News personality Gretchen Carlson had filed a sexual harassment suit against the head of that network, Roger Ailes. Soon after the tape was released, women in at least fifteen cities staged sit-ins and marches at Trump buildings, chanting about emancipation, carrying signs with reappropriated “pussy” imagery: cats, howling or arching, emblazoned with “PUSSY GRABS BACK.” Four women publicly claimed that Trump had groped or kissed them without consent in much the fashion he’d described as routine to Billy Bush. The Trump campaign denounced them as fabulists. A hashtag, popularized by the commentator Liz Plank, solicited explanations of why #WomenDontReport. “A (female) criminal attorney said because I’d done a sex scene in a film I would never win against the studio head,” the actress Rose McGowan tweeted. “Because it’s been an open secret in Hollywood/Media & they shamed me while adulating my rapist,” she added. “It is time for some goddamned honesty in this world.”
Since the establishment of the first studios, few movie executives had been as dominant, or as domineering, as the one to whom McGowan was referring. Harvey Weinstein cofounded the production-and-distribution companies Miramax and the Weinstein Company, helping to reinvent the model for independent films with movies like Sex, Lies, and Videotape; Pulp Fiction; and Shakespeare in Love. His movies had earned more than three hundred Oscar nominations, and at the annual awards ceremonies he had been thanked more than almost anyone else in movie history, ranking just below Steven Spielberg and several places above God. At times, even this seemed a fine distinction: Meryl Streep had once jokingly referred to Weinstein as God.
Weinstein was six feet tall and big. His face was lopsided, one small eye in a habitual squint. He often wore oversize tee shirts over drooping jeans that gave him a billowing profile. The son of a diamond cutter, Weinstein was raised in Queens. As a teenager he and his younger brother, Bob, had snuck off to see The 400 Blows at an arthouse theater, hoping it was a “sex movie.” Instead, they stumbled into François Truffaut and a burgeoning love of highbrow cinema. Weinstein enrolled at the State University of New York at Buffalo partly because the city had multiple movie theaters. When he was eighteen, he and a friend named Corky Burger produced a column for the student newspaper, the Spectrum, featuring a character they called “Denny the Hustler,” who menaced women into submission. “‘Denny the Hustler’ did not take no for an answer,” the column read. “His whole approach employs a psychology of command, or in layman’s terms—‘Look, baby, I’m probably the best-looking and most exciting person you’ll ever want to meet—and if you refuse to dance with me, I’ll probably crack this bottle of Schmidt’s over your skull.’”
Weinstein dropped out of college to start a business with his brother, Bob, and Burger, at first under the banner of Harvey and Corky Productions, which specialized in concert promotion. But at a Buffalo theater he acquired, Weinstein also screened the independent and foreign films he’d come to love. Eventually, he and Bob Weinstein started Miramax, named after their parents, Miriam and Max, and began acquiring small foreign films. Weinstein turned out to have a flair for making the movies into events. They received awards, like the surprise Palme d’Or win at Cannes for Sex, Lies, and Videotape. In the early nineties, Disney acquired Miramax. Weinstein spent a decade as the goose that laid egg after golden egg. And in the 2000s, when the relationship with Disney faltered and the brothers started a new enterprise, the Weinstein Company, they quickly raised hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. Weinstein hadn’t quite recaptured his glory days, but did win back-to-back Best Picture Oscars for The King’s Speech in 2010 and The Artist in 2011. Over the course of his ascent, he married his assistant, got a divorce, and later wed an aspiring actress he’d begun casting in small roles.
Weinstein was famous for his bullying, even threatening, style of doing business. He was deimatic, capable of expanding to frighten, like a blowfish inflating itself. He’d draw up to rivals or underlings, nose-to-nose, red-faced. “I was sitting at my desk one day and thought we were hit by an earthquake,” Donna Gigliotti, who shared an Oscar with Weinstein for producing Shakespeare in Love, once told a reporter. “The wall just shook. I stood up. I learned that he had flung a marble ashtray at the wall.” And then there were stories, mostly whispers, of a darker kind of violence against women, and of efforts to keep his victims quiet. Every few years, a reporter, alerted to the rumors, would sniff around, to see if the smoke might lead to fire.
For Weinstein, the months before the 2016 presidential election looked like business as usual. There he was, at a cocktail party for William J. Bratton, the former New York City police commissioner. There he was, laughing with Jay-Z, announcing a film and television deal with the rapper. And there he was, deepening his long-standing ties to the Democratic Party politicians for whom he had long been a major fund-raiser.
All year, he’d been part of the brain trust around Hillary Clinton. “I’m probably telling you what you know already, but that needs to be silenced,” he emailed Clinton’s staff, about messaging from Bernie Sanders’s competing campaign to Latino and African American voters. “This article gives you everything I discussed with you yesterday,” he said in another message, sending a column critical of Sanders and pressing for negative campaigning. “About to forward some creative. Took your idea and ran,” Clinton’s campaign manager responded. By the end of the year, Weinstein had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Clinton.
A few days after McGowan’s tweets that October, Weinstein was at the St. James Theatre in New York City for a lavish fund-raiser he’d co-produced for Clinton, which put a further $2 million in her campaign’s coffers. The musician Sara Bareilles sat bathed in purple light and sang: “your history of silence won’t do you any good / Did you think it would? / Let your words be anything but empty / Why don’t you tell them the truth?”—which seems too on the nose to be true, but that’s what happened.
Weinstein’s influence had dwindled somewhat in the preceding years, but it was still sufficient to sustain public embrace from the elites. As the latest awards season kicked off that fall, a Hollywood Reporter movie critic, Stephen Galloway, ran an article headlined “Harvey Weinstein, the Comeback Kid,” with the subhead, “There are a lot of reasons to root for him, especially now.”
Around the same time, Weinstein sent an email to his lawyers, including David Boies, the high-profile attorney who had represented Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election dispute and argued for marriage equality before the U.S. Supreme Court. Boies had represented Weinstein for years. He was in his late seventies by then, still trim, with a face that had creased, with age, into something kind and approachable. “The Black Cube Group from Israel contacted me through Ehud Barak,” Weinstein wrote. “They r strategists and say your firm have used them. Gmail me when u get a chance.”
Barak was the former prime minister of Israel and chief of the General Staff of the Israeli military. Black Cube, the enterprise he’d recommended to Weinstein, was run largely by former officers of Mossad and other Israeli intelligence agencies. It had branches in Tel Aviv, London, and Paris, and offered its clients the skills of operatives “highly experienced and trained in Israel’s elite military and governmental intelligence units,” according to its literature.
Later that month, Boies’s firm and Black Cube signed a confidential contract, and Boies’s colleagues wired 100,000 U.S. dollars for an initial period of work. In the documents around the assignment, Weinstein’s identity was often concealed. He was referred to as “the end client” or “Mr. X.” Naming Weinstein, an operative from Black Cube wrote, “will make him extremely angry.”
Weinstein seemed excited about the work. During a meeting in late November, he pressed Black Cube to keep going. More money was wired, and the agency put in motion aggressive operations referred to as “Phase 2A” and “Phase 2B.”
Soon after, a reporter named Ben Wallace got a call from a number he didn’t recognize, with a UK country code. Wallace was in his late forties, and wore narrow, professorial glasses. He had published, a few years earlier, The Billionaire’s Vinegar, a history of the world’s most expensive bottle of wine. More recently, he’d been writing for New York magazine, where he’d spent the preceding weeks talking to people about the rumors swirling around Weinstein.
“You can call me Anna,” said the voice on the other end of the line, in a refined European accent. After graduating from college, Wallace had lived in the Czech Republic and Hungary for a few years. He had a good ear for accents, but he couldn’t quite place this one. He guessed she might be German.
“I received your number through a friend,” the woman continued, explaining that she knew he was working on a story about the entertainment industry. Wallace tried to think of what friend could have made such an introduction. Not many people knew about his assignment.
“I might have something that might be of importance for you,” she continued. When Wallace pressed her for more information, she was coy. The information she had was sensitive, she said. She needed to see him. He hesitated for a moment. Then he thought, What’s the harm? He was looking for a break in the story. Maybe she’d be it.
The following Monday morning, Wallace sat in a coffee shop in SoHo and tried to get a read on the mystery woman. She looked to be in her mid-thirties, with long blond hair, dark eyes, high cheekbones, and a Roman nose. She wore Converse Chucks and gold jewelry. Anna said she wasn’t comfortable giving her real name yet. Frightened, she was grappling with whether to come forward. Wallace had been picking up on this theme in his exchanges with other sources. He told her she could take her time.
For their next meeting, not long after, she chose a hotel bar in the same neighborhood. When Wallace arrived, she smiled at him invitingly, even seductively. She had already ordered a glass of wine. “I won’t bite,” she said, patting the seat next to her. “Come sit next to me.” Wallace said he had a cold and ordered tea. If they were going to work together, he told her, he needed to know more. At this, Anna broke down, her face twisting in anguish. She seemed to hold back tears as she began to describe her experiences with Weinstein. That she’d gone through something intimate and upsetting was clear, but she was cagey about details. She wanted to learn more before she answered all of Wallace’s questions. She asked what had motivated him to take on the assignment and what kind of impact he sought. As he replied, Anna leaned in, conspicuously extending her wrist toward him.
For Wallace, working on the story was becoming a strange, charged experience. There was a level of noise, of keen outside interest, to which he was unaccustomed. He was hearing from other journalists, even: Seth Freedman, an Englishman who’d written for the Guardian, got in touch soon after, suggesting he’d heard the rumors about what Wallace was working on and wanted to help.
In the first week of November 2016, just before the election, Dylan Howard, editor in chief of the National Enquirer
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- On Sale
- Oct 15, 2019
- Page Count
- 464 pages
- Little, Brown and Company