DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who is giving the keynote address at the Podcast Movement conference, which is being held this week in Philadelphia.
It's a little hard to keep up with all the news about Russia these days. Last week, three days after the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers and the same day as President Trump's remarkable news conference with Vladimir Putin, the Justice Department announced the arrest of Maria Butina, a 29-year-old former graduate student accused of acting as an unregistered agent of Russia in the United States. There's plenty in the story to generate media interest - an engaging redhead who's accused, among other things, of offering sex for access to influential political operatives.
But Butina's story may point to a Russian effort, years in the making, to give the Kremlin influence in the U.S. by connecting with American gun enthusiasts and religious conservatives, an effort that's had a surprising degree of success. Our guest today is Rosalind Helderman, an investigative reporter for The Washington Post, who's been reporting on the Russian interference in U.S. elections and first wrote about Maria Butina in April of last year. Helderman was part of a team at the post who won a Pulitzer Prize this year for reporting on possible links between the Trump campaign and Kremlin agents.
Well, Rosalind Helderman, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's begin with a very basic question. What is Maria Butina charged with exactly? It's not espionage. What is she alleged to have done?
ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Yeah, that's right. She's charged with acting as the agent of a foreign government without properly registering with the Department of Justice. This is not an espionage charge. Espionage, which has been used for people like Robert Hanssen and others, is a charge that's applied to people who release classified or defense information that could be harmful to the United States. And that is not what Ms. Butina is alleged to have done. Instead, what she is alleged to have done is, essentially, act as a lobbyist for a foreign government, to have worked to advance their interests without letting the U.S. government know.
I would note that a number of people we would more traditionally think of as Russian spies have been charged under the same statute in recent years. It's the same statute, for instance, that was used to charge Anna Chapman. Who people may remember - the other redhead charged a few years ago with living undercover for years and working for Russian intelligence.
DAVIES: So Maria Butina is alleged to have contacted people, tried to influence our political system without registering it in ways that we're going to get into in some detail. But let's start, kind of, back in her story.
She grew up in Siberia and then around - I don't know - what? - 2012 or so, establishes a gun rights organization in Russia, which is pretty unusual. And she connects with Alexander Torshin, who is a senator in Russia's party who - he happens to be a member of the National Rifle Association, right? How is a Russian senator associated with the NRA?
HELDERMAN: Yes. So our understanding is that Torshin - Senator Torshin, now, central banker Torshin became affiliated with the NRA before he became affiliated with Ms. Butina. That's our best understanding. We've reported that he knew a lawyer who lives in Tennessee named Kline Preston. Mr. Preston had done a lot of work in Russia and at some point introduced Alexander Torshin to the president of the NRA at that time, Dave Keene, who's an important figure or has been in Republican politics - conservative thought, really. He had worked as an opinion editor at The Washington Times. And so Torshin had his own connection to the NRA. He had become a lifetime member. And he had actually written a little booklet in Russia featuring cartoons advocating for the expansion of gun rights which borrowed heavily from statistics and even sort of mottoes of the NRA, but all written in Russian. He and Ms. Butina got connected, our best understanding, is through the organization that she founded in Russia, The Right To Bear Arms. He went to one of their rallies and then quickly became a sort of patron and supporter of hers.
DAVIES: And the gun laws in Russia - what? - permitted hunting weapons but not handguns?
HELDERMAN: Yeah. They're very restrictive. And that's exactly right. They - you're allowed to own a hunting rifle. And apparently, you know, in Siberia, where she grew up, that's fairly common. Hunting is a pastime there, as it is here. But you're not allowed to own a handgun. And so there was a lot of room if you wanted to say you wanted to expand gun rights to try to do so. And, in fact, her organization did do some actual lobbying of the Duma to try to expand gun rights over there.
DAVIES: Maria Butina establishes gun rights organization in Russia, which is kind of a curiosity and she does it in association with Alexander Torshin. That leads to relationships with gun enthusiasts and conservatives from the United States which eventually leads to these political connections for Maria Butina in the United States in what the FBI alleges is an effort to influence American politics. And it raises the question of was this gun rights organization in Russia a real thing? I mean, you can look back and say maybe it was part of a Russian sponsored initiative to connect with conservatives and find a way into Republican politics. Is that a stretch?
HELDERMAN: Experts I've spoken to say, no, it's really not a stretch. We don't know for certain that that's why it, in fact, happened. But they do say it's very odd to think of an organic gun rights group in Russia. Vladimir Putin is an autocratic leader. There have been street protests over the years in Moscow and elsewhere that he has not appreciated and has done real crackdowns against. And so, the notion that he would allow a group to push to arm the citizenry is very unlikely. What we've been told is that this group would have been done at least with the approval and knowledge of the government, if not its sort of direction. And so you do have this kind of question, was this all an attempt to make ties with American conservatives?
DAVIES: Right. And that kind of assumes a real long game mentality within the Russian government. You've got to plant this thing and hope that it leads to something. And I guess a critical question would be Alexander Torshin, Maria Butina's ally, and his relationship with Putin and the Kremlin. Are they close?
HELDERMAN: We do believe that they're close. He was a senator from President Putin's party. You don't get to be a central banker, which is a role that in Russia the way it operates is going to allow for some opportunities for personal enrichment, without government support. He was, in fact, sanctioned by the U.S. government this year because of his closeness to the Russian president. So, yes, we do believe that he has important ties to Putin and to the presidential administration there.
DAVIES: In 2013, Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin invite David Keene, who was then the president of the National Rifle Association - right? - to Russia with some other American gun enthusiasts. Why would members of the NRA be interested in Russia? What was this about?
HELDERMAN: Well, I think that one thing that happens in this time period is people are intrigued by the idea of gun rights in Russia. You know, a lot of people at the NRA sort of came out of the anti-Soviet movement. And the notion that freedoms were opening up, particularly the freedoms that they valued like the right to own a gun, were opening up, was quite interesting. I also understand that the trip was quite fun. This was a trip to attend the annual meeting of Maria Butina's group, The Right To Bear Arms. And so there were dinners and there were events. We're told one event was a fashion show featuring women wearing clothing with - designed for concealed carry.
One person who was at that event told us that he went to dinner with Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin, he and his wife, and they presented him with very carefully chosen gifts that showed that they had researched he and his wife's interests. Special fabric for his wife who was a needlepointer and stamps for him. He was a stamp collector. And so it was a fun trip. There was also a lot of hunting, big-game hunting in the wilds of Russia that a lot of NRA folks were quite interested in.
DAVIES: Maria Butina, she wasn't exactly a typical figure that you'd see at these NRA functions. What was she like? How did they react to her?
HELDERMAN: Yeah. You know, it's interesting. You can kind of see what her appeal would have been at an NRA convention to the leadership there to - you know, the men. And it's not entirely men, but it is largely older men who are running that organization. She had a sort of frontiers woman quality that I think a lot of people found appealing.
She had grown up in Siberia, which is quite exotic. She talked about how she had lived in the forests of Siberia, where she had learned to hunt bears and wolves. She had, at a very early age, started a chain of furniture stores that had been, apparently, somewhat successful and then sold the chain and moved to Moscow with the proceeds to kind of make her way in the world. So she was kind of a capitalist. She was, obviously, attractive. She was a real networker. She would urge people to become friends with her on Facebook. She would hand out her card. She was very friendly, wanted to make friends with people.
And the other thing that we've heard was that some people assumed that because she ran this gun rights group, she was actually sort of anti-Putin. I don't think she would make comments against the government. But there was a sort of assumption that Russia was a restrictive society. And so she was doing something sort of feisty and rebellious by organizing this group. And it doesn't seem as though people gave a lot of thought to the fact that that was probably a sign that the government was actually supporting her. And of course Alexander Torshin was part of the Putin government.
DAVIES: All right, so we have Maria Butina and this senator, Alexander Torshin, hosting these American gun enthusiasts. And as this story unfolds, some of these relationships lead to important contacts for her in the United States with Republicans, which lead to some of this influence efforts that are at issue in these charges. But another interesting aspect of this, and you wrote about this, is a renewed interest among American conservatives, particularly Christian conservatives in Russia. What was going on here?
HELDERMAN: Yeah. This is really interesting. You know, when Donald Trump came onto the scene in 2015 and started kind of talking warmly about Putin and how it would be great to get along better with Putin, for a lot of people, that kind of came out of nowhere. You know, the Republicans have traditionally been sort of the anti-Russia party. And so that was really confusing. And it's true that that did part ways with the Republican foreign policy establishment.
But there was this kind of more subtle movement that had been happening in conservative politics for the last couple of years that it fit much more in line with. You know, you had Mitt Romney in 2012 saying that Russia was our No. 1 geopolitical foe. But conservatives had started to become intrigued with Putin's Russia around a few issues. And one of them, as you noted, is conservative Christians. Russia was a much more traditional society than ours. There's a valuing of traditional gender roles that many conservative Christians find appealing.
The Russian government has also been very famously anti-gay rights, which Christian conservatives also appreciated. There's also been a renewal of the Orthodox Church, which is something that Vladimir Putin has really advanced for his own goals in many cases. And so there's been this kind of intrigue for American conservatives in what's been going on in Russia.
DAVIES: So how do we see that expressed? Were there articles written? Were there trips by conservatives to talk to Russians?
HELDERMAN: Yeah. There's all of that. There are articles that are written. Pat Buchanan wrote an opinion column in 2013 urging Americans to take another look at Putin. You see American conservatives who actually go to Russia and testify in front of the Duma in favor of anti-gay laws. There are various kinds of conferences that are held. Torshin actually hosted or helped host in Moscow his own prayer breakfast, kind of similar to the National Prayer Breakfast that you see here in Washington each year. It brought together Russian Orthodox leaders. But some American Christians started to go to Russia to attend that event. And so that was a way for Torshin to meet Americans as well.
DAVIES: Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigative reporter for The Washington Post. We will continue this conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT'S "SPY MEETING")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Rosalind Helderman. She's a political enterprise and investigative reporter for The Washington Post. She's covered a number of stories involving Russian interference in the U.S. election and has written recently about Maria Butina, who was arrested and charged with working as an unregistered agent of the Russian Federation in the U.S.
So Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin developed relationships with leading NRA officials through these meetings in Russia. And then in 2014 and 2015, Maria Butina makes several trips to the United States. Give us a sense of her activities.
HELDERMAN: Sure. Yeah. So she starts coming to the U.S. essentially to act as an aide and translator to Torshin. Torshin, apparently, speaks no English, really just not even a word, so he needs assistance getting around. And Maria speaks excellent English. So they would come to National Rifle Association annual meetings. They also, I think, went to at least one meeting of CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, which is an important gathering of conservatives each year in Washington.
We now know that Mr. Torshin, in his role as a banker, had some meetings with U.S. government officials in 2015 at the Federal Reserve that Ms. Butina also attended. And so they would go back and forth from Russia to the United States meeting people. And Maria Butina's social media is sort of full of photos of her meeting high-profile people - Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal.
She, in fact, attended the kick-off of Scott Walker's presidential campaign in Wisconsin. That was at a time when Scott Walker was considered the likely frontrunner in the field, so she seemed to show some particular interest in the man who was thought to be the leading candidate. And we do know that she had some interaction with both Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. In 2015 and 2016.
DAVIES: Yeah. Let's talk about that. She gets to ask Donald Trump a question at - was it a forum in Vegas? Where was it?
HELDERMAN: Yes. It was an event called FreedomFest, which was a gathering of libertarians in Las Vegas in July of 2015. So this was just really a few weeks after Donald Trump had announced that he was running for president. And Marco Rubio spoke at this event. Donald Trump spoke at this event. And she made her way to a microphone in a big crowd and asked then-candidate Trump, essentially, what's your position on Russia? And what do you think of sanctions?
And as far as we can tell, it looks like this might have been the first time he was asked about those issues on the presidential campaign trail. And he, for the first time, offered what became kind of his standard response on those questions, which was that, you know, I know Putin. I get along with Putin. Of course, he didn't actually know Putin. He had never met him. But that was something he said frequently on the campaign trail. So he said he knew Putin. He got along with him. And he thought it was a good thing if the United States could get along with Russia. And specifically, about sanctions, he said he didn't think that sanctions would be necessary if he were elected president because he would get along so well with Russia.
DAVIES: You know, there's a lot of activity that Maria Butina was engaged in. She was a graduate student. She was allegedly having a relationship with this conservative lobbyist, Paul Erickson. And then, she's meeting presidential candidates and getting her picture taken and attending all kinds of events. What is the evidence that the government offers that this was not simply, you know, a smart, curious Russian interested in policy issues in the United States and is - was instead a directed effort by Russians associated with the Kremlin? Is there evidence that she was getting orders, that she was, in effect, an operative?
HELDERMAN: The government says that there is evidence of that. They have started to introduce some of it in court. I imagine we'll see more over time. Largely, it comes in the form of messages sent back and forth between her and Alexander Torshin. Apparently, they exchanged thousands of messages through the direct message function of Twitter. And in some of those messages, they have quite explicit conversations about how she can advance the interests of the Kremlin to build better ties between the U.S. and Russia through her work here. There is even a message on the night of the election where she writes to him. You know, they have sort of a long conversation celebrating Donald Trump's election. And then, she writes to him, I await your orders.
Now, I should say her lawyer is very insistent, a zealous advocate for his client, very insistent that she is exactly what you just described - an interested student who wanted to learn about American politics, was not employed by the Russian government and that the messages we've seen so far from the U.S. government are cherry-picked notes amongst thousands between two people who had a close personal relationship. And so, you know, we'll see how that plays out in court. You know, it is true that this is not exactly advanced tradecraft that you might...
HELDERMAN: ...Imagine from intelligence operatives. You know, they weren't really hiding their activities. They were pictured together all the time. She accompanied him to events. And, you know, you don't generally imagine spies exchanging messages through Twitter.
DAVIES: You know, when you look at this in a broader context, the NRA was a very generous contributor to the Trump campaign. Was it - was 30 million - was that the number that they might have contributed?
HELDERMAN: I think that's the number that's been cited, yeah.
DAVIES: Yeah. And if you wanted to be really conspiratorial about it, you might wonder, could all of these relationships have resulted in some Russian money making its way through the NRA to the Trump campaign? Is there any evidence of this? Has the question been asked?
HELDERMAN: So the question has definitely been asked. There have been complaints filed with the FEC over that question. There are members of Congress who have been pressing that question. Part of the interest is that not only did the NRA spend tremendously to support Donald Trump's campaign, it was also a lot more than they had spent to support even previous Republican candidates. It was an outsized amount. So the question has been raised.
The NRA, I should say, has been completely silent about its relationship with Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin. They have answered some questions to Congress in writing, so we've seen those letters. And what they have said is they did not receive financial support. Alexander Torshin and Maria Butina were both members, so they had paid membership dues. But beyond that, they say that they did not receive any financial contributions that would've been used in political campaigns. You know, that's a particularly important point for them. It's not legal to accept foreign contributions to political campaigns in this country.
DAVIES: Rosalind Helderman is an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. She'll tell us more about the Maria Butina case after a break. And John Powers views the Mr. Rogers documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" and the hit Netflix standup special "Nanette." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AARON GOLDBERG'S "YOYO")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Washington Post investigative reporter Rosalind Helderman, who's been reporting on the case of Maria Butina, the 29-year-old who's charged with acting as an unregistered agent of Russia in the United States. Government documents allege that Butina tried to connect with influential Republicans and move them towards more pro-Russian policy views at the direction of the Russian government.
You were describing how Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin, this prominent Russian, were active in developing relationships in the United States with Republicans, with conservatives, with people in the National Rifle Association. Maria Butina also developed a close relationship with a guy who is described in the government filings, I believe, as U.S. person number one. We believe this is Paul Erickson, right? Tell us about him.
HELDERMAN: Paul Erickson is a figure who's been sort of at the edges of Republican politics going way, way back. He went to Yale as an undergraduate, where he was a classmate of Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who went to jail a few years ago. He was active supporting Reagan in the '80s. And he served as a key campaign official in the presidential campaign of Pat Buchanan. And he was a frequent attender of things like NRA meetings and CPAC meetings, knows a lot of people in the movement in the party.
Our understanding is that he was in the group who went to Moscow in 2013, and that that's where he and Maria Butina met. And that shortly after that, they began a romantic relationship of some kind. And he would then help her on her trips, introduce her to people, take her around, take her to parties. Their relationship then, I think, became closer when Maria Butina arrived in the United States to attend graduate school in August of 2016.
DAVIES: Right. So he was sort of an important part of her developing network of political relationships.
HELDERMAN: Yeah, that's right. He was an important part of introducing her to important people. And one of the things that's quite interesting about Paul Erickson is the question of what he thought Maria's relationship was with the government of Russia. There are some emails that have been submitted in court that suggest he was very aware of the fact that her goal was to advance the interests of the government. Now, I should say he has not been charged with anything. He's been accused of no wrongdoing. But it does seem as though he had quite a lot of awareness of her activities.
There was even a document seized from his apartment, a sort of bullet point list where he is describing things having to do with Maria Butina's Russian patriots in waiting. And one of the bullet points actually says, how to respond to FSB job offer. It says something very similar to that. And FSB, of course, is the Russian intelligence service. It's the successor agency to the KGB. So he seemed to be aware of some kind of job offer from the FSB. We haven't heard a lot more about that yet, but I imagine we'll be hearing more from the government or potentially from Mr. Erickson as the court case against Maria Butina proceeds.
DAVIES: So then at the time that FBI agents execute search warrants on Maria Butina, they also search the residence of Paul Erickson. And they find this note which refers to a job offer by Russian intelligence. We don't know whether that would mean a job offer for him or her, do we?
HELDERMAN: No, we don't. Or for someone else. It's quite a vague note, but it was one of the things that was cited by the government when they argued that she has some connections to Russian intelligence, and therefore, should be held in jail without bond while she awaits her trial.
DAVIES: Right. And I assume you have reached out to Paul Erickson. Has he said anything about any of this to anybody?
HELDERMAN: He has not. He has not been responding to questions.
DAVIES: She had this relationship with Paul Erickson. What do we read in the government filings about what she says about that relationship?
HELDERMAN: So the government has alleged that this relationship was duplicitous, essentially suggesting it was just part of her cover story. It was a way to be able to live in the United States. They've said that they've seized documents in which she complains about Paul Erickson and specifically expresses disdain that she has to live with him. And, of course, they've alleged that she was offering sex to other people, and particularly, offering sex in exchange for some kind of position or job with a special interest organization.
DAVIES: Right. She was 29. He was 56, right?
HELDERMAN: That's right. There was a dramatic age difference between them. And, you know, we've talked to some of her classmates at American University who talked about how they were a sort of known couple on campus. She would bring him to social events. And that caused a lot of kind of murmuring and chattering. Her classmates were typically in their 20s, many of them actually younger than she was at 29. And so she was bringing this man who was decades her senior to, you know, college parties.
DAVIES: Yeah. These kind of lurid details come in the government's memorandum in support of their motion that she be held without bail awaiting trial. And, you know, you could see that as a gratuitous, you know, arguably sexist assault on her character to inflame the public. Has her attorney made that case?
HELDERMAN: Yes, her attorney has made exactly that case, you know, noting that there are no details. And so it's hard to allow him or, in this case, the public who is following this case an opportunity to evaluate the legitimacy of that allegation.
DAVIES: Is there also an allegation that she contacted a group on the left in a way that aroused suspicions of cyber penetration or something?
HELDERMAN: Yeah. This is something that we at The Washington Post have reported. So the program that she was in at American University, her particular concentration was cybersecurity, which perhaps one might think that is suspicious or at least ironic, but that was her area of interest. And we know that in the summer of 2017, she reached out to a progressive civil rights organization in the Washington area and said that she was a graduate student at American University. And that as part of a school project, she was interested in meeting with them and interviewing them about their cyber vulnerabilities.
At the time that the group received this email, there had already been some press coverage about her, long stories about her work with Torshin and her work with the NRA. The group sent this to their IT security consulting company. It's the person who runs that company is who told us about this. He got that email and was immediately suspicious and right away picked up the phone and called the FBI.
DAVIES: Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigative reporter for The Washington Post. We will continue our conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DANILO PEREZ AND CLAUS OGERMAN'S "RAYS AND SHADOWS")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Rosalind Helderman. She's a political enterprise and investigative reporter for The Washington Post. She's covered a number of stories involving Russian interference in the U.S. election, has written recently about Maria Butina, who is arrested and charged with working as an unregistered agent of Russia in the United States.
You know, Washington is crawling with lobbyists and operatives and lawyers and all kinds of people with agendas. And I wonder - I mean, I don't know how you could begin to answer this - but if she were doing these activities on behalf of, you know - pick a country - Argentina, would it have attracted this kind of attention?
HELDERMAN: Potentially not. Of course there is this kind of spy-versus-spy dance that we have done for many, many years, specifically with Russia, that causes there to be a particularized concern around what Russia is doing in Washington. So I don't think it's terribly surprising that the FBI, our government is watching potential Russian operatives with a closer eye than maybe people who are working on behalf of other countries.
DAVIES: The acts that are alleged here, you know, are mostly dinners and meetings and building personal relationships. You know, if she had done everything alleged in the government filings but had simply registered as a foreign agent, would she be in no jeopardy?
HELDERMAN: It is easy to look at these things and say, what's wrong with this? She went to public events. She went to dinners. On the other hand, I think it's worth remembering that counterintelligence folks will tell you that this is the stuff of influence operations, that, you know, it is not usually riding around in cars - in trunks of cars and dead drops necessarily. It's going to academic conferences. It's cozying up to business leaders. It's collecting all kinds of intelligence on kind of American power centers.
And one of the things that's really interesting here is, if indeed this was a Russian influence operation, it shows a real sophisticated understanding of the U.S. political system to understand that the way to potentially shape conservative and Republican politics is not necessarily to only target it or try to influence elected leaders but to work through these very powerful special interest groups, particularly the NRA. That just shows real understanding of how the U.S. works.
DAVIES: Right. And I suppose in terms of the legality of it, it's a big difference whether you're pursuing all these activities on your own or whether there's evidence that you're actually getting direction from a foreign government, as the FBI alleges here.
HELDERMAN: That's exactly right. That's the key difference. Are you working for yourself, or are you working on behalf of your government?
DAVIES: Right. You know, we talked earlier about this. You've written about an effort by some conservatives, in some cases, Christian conservatives who see an affinity with some of the cultural trends in Russia and some Republicans, you know, apart from the president to build support for Russia in the United States. I mean, a prominent example is Dana Rohrabacher, the congressman from California who seems to energetically campaign for repeal of the Magnitsky Act, which permits the broader imposition of sanctions on Russia. I'm wondering what you make of his efforts.
HELDERMAN: Yeah. It's interesting. Congressman Rohrabacher is an example of a number of people you see who were very active in the anti-Soviet movement in the '80s and now have become what appears outwardly pro-Russian. It seems to be part of what they have found intriguing about Putin's Russia is that they believe it kind of represents a full 180 shift from Soviet times. Under the Soviet Union, religion, of course, was persecuted. Now, the Putin government very strongly promotes the Orthodox Church.
DAVIES: How much of a trend is this among Republicans? Is Dana Rohrabacher an outlier, or is there a growing body of Republican officials, operatives, consultants, voters, who are warming to Russia?
HELDERMAN: I think it's a special interest category for the moment. Certainly, the foreign policy establishment remains very concerned about Putin's Russia. That's kind of the world that Mitt Romney's comments in 2012 grew out of. And I think that at least prior to the conversations about Russian interference in the 2016 election, I'm not sure this is an issue that ordinary Republican voters had given a great deal of thought to. But there is this sort of slice of the conservative movement around the evangelical Christian groups, and as we've seen the last few years, in the NRA, where people had been thinking about this and re-evaluating.
And there's an important dynamic to it that we haven't talked about that we should which has to do with terrorism. The overriding sort of common ideological point that unites American conservatives and Russia is that there's this feeling that Russia and Putin are our natural allies in combating Islamic terrorism, that Russia has really had to grapple with terrorism even in ways the U.S. has not had to. And that even if we don't love everything about the way that Putin is running that country, that those are sort of petty differences that we should put aside because a lot of these folks feel as though Islamic terrorism is really an existential threat to both of our societies. And so we should be forming partnerships there.
DAVIES: There's one other piece of the Maria Butina story that's interesting. It's emerged - I think in your reporting - that she got financial help from a Russian billionaire named Konstantin Nikolaev, right? Who's he?
HELDERMAN: Konstantin Nikolaev is a transport magnate. He owns ports and railways in Russia. He has $1.2 billion according to Forbes. And apparently, he at some point became interested in Maria Butina and her gun rights group and funded some of her activities. She told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he had provided funding for her. We first learned that there might be some Russian oligarch support for her efforts from a court filing last week. The government cited these ties that she had to wealthy businessmen to say, you know, she could easily flee if she wants. She has some supporters with money who could help spirit her out of the country. And so we went looking for who this person was.
And what we found is that Mr. Nikolaev is a guy with some pretty deep ties to the United States. He sits on the board of a company in Houston, an ethane company. It was a company that was one of 15 companies to sign trade deals at a ceremony presided over by Donald Trump during his visit to China in November of 2017. We know that Mr. Nikolaev also was at the Trump Hotel in Washington during Donald Trump's inauguration and that his son, who is a college student studying in the United States, volunteered in some way for Trump's campaign.
DAVIES: And Mr. Nikolaev's spokesperson, I believe, says this is all overblown, not much here.
HELDERMAN: Yeah. He did acknowledge that Mr. Nikolaev knows Maria Butina, that they had contact. The one point that they strongly wanted to make is that they have not had contact since 2014. So, apparently, at least if that is accurate, that's a financial relationship that has ended. But 2014 is when she first came to the United States. And there's some reference in court documents to the notion that she had some kind of budget set up for her activities here. And, apparently, that support was coming from Nikolaev. You know, it's interesting, the relationship of the oligarchs and the Russian government.
One person, who knows a lot about these issues, a former CIA official who had worked on Russia issues, said that when he looked at this Butina situation, he didn't necessarily see a Russian intelligence operation. He thought it was possible this was kind of a scheme cooked up by the oligarchs, maybe with some government kind of nodding approval. But, you know, we'll spend a little bit of our money to try to help Mother Russia and see how it turns out, see if we can't make a little something happen here to help the government.
DAVIES: And this would be helping Mother Russia in what way? What would they have been trying to accomplish with this initiative?
HELDERMAN: To steer thought leaders, to steer people who had power in American politics to view the world the way Russia does and to push the government to build better ties with Russia and to kind of cede the U.S. with important people who were friendly to their interests. I think one thing that's important to understand is that, you know, there's a continuum in Russia that we, as Americans, maybe would find unfamiliar. I think we sort of view people as either spies or not spies.
And in Russia, the state touches far more aspects of life than what we are used to here. So you have all kinds of people who aren't necessarily working for the government but are sometimes asked by government officials, by intelligence officials to kind of sit down for a little chat and provide information about the trip they just took to America or the business meeting they just had. And that's just the way life works in Russia. The government requires much more of you as a citizen. And so many more people can be seen as acting on behalf of the government than I think we are accustomed to.
DAVIES: Rosalind Helderman, thanks so much for speaking with us.
HELDERMAN: Thank you so much for having me.
DAVIES: Rosalind Helderman is an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. She shared a Pulitzer Prize for The Post's reporting on possible links between the Trump campaign and Kremlin agents.
Coming up, John Powers reviews the Mr. Rogers documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" and the hit Netflix standup special "Nanette." This is FRESH AIR.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Summer's considered a time for light entertainment. But, sometimes, something more serious slips through the cracks and gets everybody talking. This year, that's happened with Morgan Neville's documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" and Hannah Gadsby's "Nanette," a standup show on Netflix. Our critic at large John Powers says these shows have something in common that helps explain why they've become touchstones.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: I don't know about you, but I find American life these days positively exhausting. Everything is always trying to wind you up, from political tweets and cable news to sports debate shows, thrill-ride movies and Internet headlines that will say anything to make you click on a link. Small wonder that many people are looking for things that don't do that, but that offer what we might call counterprogramming to our whole troll-infested culture.
Audiences have found that in what may be the summer's most surprising and beloved hits - "Won't You Be My Neighbor," Morgan Neville's moving documentary about Fred Rogers, the creator and star of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," and "Nanette," starring the Australian comic Hannah Gadsby, which has been called transformative by viewers, critics and her fellow comedians.
Of the two, the more simply enjoyable is "Won't You Be My Neighbor," which is neither an exercise in nostalgia - though it will make you nostalgic - nor a deep dive into Mr. Rogers' personal life, though we do see an interviewer ask him if he's gay. He was not. But in both his fey manner and passionate beliefs, he was nobody's idea of a conventional manly man either.
Born into money, ordained as a Christian minister, registered as a lifelong Republican, Rogers turned out to be a gentle radical whose mission was to embody and promote humane values. As Neville shows, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was inspired by Rogers' dismay at the existing television shows for children, which he thought degrading, fatuous, thoughtlessly violent and designed to transform kids into consumers.
And so in the '60s, he created a kinder and wiser space, a neighborhood that embraced joy. Let's make the most of this beautiful day. It also helped kids grapple with such difficult realities as divorce, death, even assassination. Tacitly championing tolerance every single day, Rogers used his authority to make everyone feel appreciated for being who they actually are. Here, he explains why.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
FRED ROGERS: Love is at the root of everything - all learning, all parenting, all relationships, love or the lack of it. And what we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.
POWERS: If anyone would second Rogers' words, it would be Gadsby, who hails from a conservative Christian area of Tasmania, where 70 percent of the people believe homosexuality should be a crime. As a butch-looking lesbian, she spent her life being thought outside the norm. And in her show, she finds a striking new form for expressing what that means. "Nanette" starts off like your usual comedy act as Gadsby, whose patter comes accompanied by a nervous giggle, makes jokes about gender and lesbianism, telling us seemingly irrelevant things about her life that later prove very relevant.
Then, she shifts gears, and we discover a value she shares with Fred Rogers, a refusal to play along with the rules of the medium of which they are a part. Just as he thought ordinary TV demeaned children, Gadsby explains why she can no longer do stand-up. She argues that stand-up works by ratcheting up tension with psychologically fraught material then releasing it with a punchline. And the demands of this process, tension and release, keep you from saying anything that doesn't fit into that pattern. In Gadsby's case, that means she spent years turning her psychic wounds into self-deprecating jokes. The need to be funny has kept her from telling the truth, especially about pain and trauma. But no longer.
For the rest of the special, she shares her truth, from her changing relationship with her mother to her feminist loathing of Picasso to her impatience with straight, white men who act offended at being labeled straight, white men when they're quite happy labeling her a lesbian. With her nervous giggle gone, she's not being funny anymore. She tells about the self-hatred instilled in her for being gay and about being beaten and sexually assaulted. Righteously angry, she shows us the real woman behind the amused persona we first met.
Now, it's worth pointing out that neither Gadsby nor Rogers are scolds who hate art, which is, after all, a way of expressing feelings and truths that can't be fully expressed any other way. In fact, both are consciously artful in what they do. But they also suggest that too much commercial entertainment is dehumanizing because it's all about prompting an instantly pleasurable reaction. "Won't You Be My Neighbor" and "Nanette" do precisely the opposite. They're humanizing. And that, I think, is why audiences love them so much. In Rogers and Gadsby, we find something rare, performers who are trying to address us in the most soulful way they possibly can. They're not trying to troll us or to make us react but to make us think about how we live and how we might do it better.
DAVIES: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and vogue.com.
If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed, like our interview with Michael Arceneaux about growing up black, Catholic and gay in Houston or our interview with novelist Emily Danforth and director Desiree Akhavan about the film "The Miseducation Of Cameron Post," based on Danforth's novel, check out our podcast where you'll find those and other interviews.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUDDY DEFRANCO AND TERRY GIBBS' "SLEEPY OLD MOON")
DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUDDY DEFRANCO AND TERRY GIBBS' "SLEEPY OLD MOON")
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.