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Mueller Report Shows How Witnesses, Messaging Apps Stymied Investigation


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to talk about the Mueller report with Rosalind Helderman. She is a Washington Post investigative reporter for the paper's national political staff. And she broke several key stories about Russia's interference in the election and connections between Russians and the Trump campaign and administration. She co-wrote the commentary and analysis accompanying The Washington Post's publication of the report, which has been published as a paperback and e-book.

Rosalind Helderman, welcome to FRESH AIR. Since most of your reporting has been about the Russian interference in the election and ties between the Trump campaign, the Trump administration and Russia. Let's look at a news story you learned from the Mueller investigation. The story that wasn't known before has to do with a Russian businessman named Petr Aven. Tell us that story.

ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Sure. This is really interesting. So this apparently happens after the election and, you know, one of the things the report points out - which is worth contemplating as we think about this whole subject of what happened during the campaign. You know, you had all these haphazard efforts to get to Trump people before the campaign, and they don't really seem to have connected. So then we get the election. And apparently, Vladimir Putin is concerned that he is not close enough to Donald Trump and his team, especially his team.

And so Petr Aven is a board member of a big Russian bank, Alfa Bank. And apparently, he agreed to sit for an interview with Mueller's team. And he told the investigators that, in December of 2016, President Putin started speaking to his oligarchs about his desire to get closer to team Trump. Aven described that, you know, the biggest business leaders in Russia are required to have a quarterly meeting with Putin - one-on-one meeting where they talk about the world. And he says that in his own meeting in that month, Putin sort of started talking about how bad sanctions were for Alfa Bank and how it was Aven's responsibility to try to do something about U.S. sanctions and, you know, this concern that he wasn't close enough to Trump.

And Aven told the investigators that he interpreted that as a directive from President Putin that it was his responsibility to find a way to get close to Trump people. And he said that he actually did try that and didn't have a lot of success. But he said that Putin would press him in future quarterly meetings. He would ask, you know, how's that going? And he had to sort of report back that it wasn't going very well.

GROSS: And didn't Putin also imply that there would be consequences if his oligarchs didn't make connections with the Trump team?

HELDERMAN: Yes, exactly. Aven indicated that, you know, that was part of his understanding that this was something he really had to try because Putin had indicated that there would be some kind of consequences for failure. Now, that particular episode with Petr Aven at least appears to end when he gets a subpoena from the Mueller investigation.

And he reports back to Putin's chief of staff that he's received the subpoena and, you know, they're going to want to be speaking with him. And that's kind of where that story trails off. But there's sort of this implication that, if this was happening with Aven, it was likely happening with a whole lot of other people as well.

GROSS: So what's the importance of this revelation from the Mueller report?

HELDERMAN: I would say it's twofold. First of all, I think it shows the ways in which Putin sort of understood that, having worked hard to help Donald Trump get elected, that he now believed there should be a way to ensure that the new Trump administration was friendly to his interests. And the Russians, we know - experts who have studied their behavior talk about how they really believe in the use of back channels, this sort of soft power, soft diplomacy.

So, you know, he was not just going to try to effectuate his policy aims through his own personal phone calls with President Trump or through his diplomats' interactions with the U.S. State Department. He believed that this was a task that should be also embarked upon in much more informal ways, using his class of businessmen who might have the ability to get to a Donald Trump Jr. or to get to a Jared Kushner to sort of tell them how we could have better relations between Russia and the United States.

So that's one thing. The other thing is what I sort of looked at before, which is that it does suggest that, at the end of the day, there had not been a connection during the campaign. And it helps us understand why Mueller's investigators ultimately determined that there was not a criminal conspiracy to be charged against the Trump campaign because if Putin is still looking in December 2016 to make these connections, it is a sign that he did not feel he had made the connection during the campaign.

GROSS: So in terms of the soft back channels that Putin wanted to create, we've seen a lot of examples of that in the Mueller report and, of course, in the reporting that a journalist like yourself have done.

HELDERMAN: Yeah, that's right. And, you know, right after the report tells us about Petr Aven, it goes on to explain this long and interesting episode that happens during the presidential transition involving the head of the Russian Sovereign Wealth Fund, Kirill Dmitriev, which is a incident that was first reported way back in 2017 by The Washington Post where this Russian banker meets in the Seychelles - the Indian Ocean resort island - with Erik Prince.

So you've got the sort of back channel to Putin, the head of the Russian Sovereign Wealth Fund, meeting with potentially a back channel to the Trump transition team, Erik Prince, the founder of the former company Blackwater, the brother to Betsy DeVos, the education secretary.

GROSS: That's a meeting that has been talked about a lot, and people have been wondering, what was that really about? What went on there? What did we learn from the Mueller report about what actually went on at that meeting in the Seychelles?

HELDERMAN: Yeah. We learned a lot new. I mean, this is a really good example of a moment in the report where they take on an issue that has been reported on a lot, and yet they found a lot of new information about it. So one of the things they found was that Erik Prince - frankly, despite what he had testified previously to Congress - he definitely believed that he was there as a back channel to the Trump transition team.

He told Congress that he didn't even know this Russian banker was going to be in the Seychelles, that it was a meeting that had been organized by representatives of the UAE. And he thought he was meeting with government officials from that country. And lo and behold, he showed up in the Seychelles, and there is Kirill Dmitriev. And they have this very informal chat. Well, what becomes clear from the report is basically that's not at all how it went down.

In fact, Dmitriev had been coordinating with this guy named George Nader, who was working with the UAE for quite a while, pressing Nader to try to get him to meet someone actually during the campaign from the Trump campaign and then subsequently from the Trump transition. And Nader coordinated with Prince. Prince received biographical information about Dmitriev before going to the Seychelles. He, in fact, received it while he was sitting at Trump Tower. And the Mueller team tells us that he opened that up. So it appears he was reading it, potentially showing it to someone else.

And then there's quite a lot of documentary evidence that shows that Prince and Dmitriev and George Nader - all of those people believe that Prince had been sent to the Seychelles by Steve Bannon to make this contact, to have this meeting with this Russian banker, wherein they were going to talk about how to have better relations between the U.S. and Russia. Steve Bannon apparently told investigators that he did not know the Seychelles meeting was going to happen and doesn't have any memory of talking to Erik Prince about it.

GROSS: So what Mueller is reporting is different from what Bannon and Prince testified.

HELDERMAN: Yeah, that's right. And what they say is that they sort of acknowledge that the accounts of this episode that come from Erik Prince and Steve Bannon are very different. But they say that they ultimately can't resolve the difference. And one of the reasons is because, they tell us, that neither Steve Bannon nor Erik Prince had retained their text messages from that time period, even though they can see metadata and they can see that the two men exchanged dozens of text messages.

Erik Prince actually texted Steve Bannon from the Seychelles. And yet, none of that material was retained. And it's actually one of a number of interesting moments in the report where Mueller's team alerts the public to the limits of their investigation, of places where they were potentially stymied and could not ultimately learn everything that they wanted to learn.

GROSS: So we know some people are saying - well, the report says there's nothing to see here in terms of, you know, conspiracy. But what - the Mueller report is saying, we had access to a limited amount of information. And then there's things we just can't see. They're too opaque because of encryption; they're too opaque because people were lying or not speaking. So you know, Mueller even concludes at the end that, as we find out more information, his conclusions might change.

HELDERMAN: Yeah, that's right. I mean - you know, he describes each of these episodes. And then there's sort of an analysis in which, for each of them, he describes that they concluded that the evidence did not establish a criminal conspiracy.

But the report also indicates that there were a lot of links and ties between people associated with the Russian government and people associated with Trump; that there were various kinds of offers of assistance and that in some cases those offers were welcomed and in some cases they were less welcome.

And you know, as you indicated, Mueller also tells us that there are things that they could not figure out. And additional information that emerges later could change our view of certain topics.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Rosalind Helderman of The Washington Post. She's an investigative reporter for the national political staff. And she's the co-author of the commentary and analysis that accompanies The Washington Post's publication of the Mueller report, which has already been published.

So we'll be right back after we take this short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about the Mueller report with Rosalind Helderman. And she is at The Washington Post, where she is an investigative reporter for the national political staff. The Washington Post published a copy of the Mueller report, and she co-wrote the commentary and analysis accompanying the report. And this edition of the report has already been published.

So President Trump dismissed the reporting that journalists were doing as fake news. Was your reporting affirmed by the Mueller report?

HELDERMAN: Yeah. I do feel like our reporting was affirmed by the Mueller report. You know, I think when you look across the span of the two to three years of reporting that have gone on on this subject, there have certainly been some errors made by the media writ large. I think there were some moments of overheated rhetoric, particularly on cable news.

But episode after episode that's described in the report came out first in accurate reporting - the Trump Tower meeting, which was first reported by The New York Times; the Seychelles meeting between this Russian banker and Erik Prince, first reported by The Washington Post; Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman, and his relationship with Konstantin Kilimnik, his Russian employee, first reported in various places, including The Washington Post. We were the first to report that Paul Manafort had offered private briefings to a Russian billionaire named Oleg Deripaska - 100% true and in the report.

You know, our reporting certainly never said that there was a criminal conspiracy. What we indicated was that there were links and ties that were interesting, odd, weird. The campaign did not reject them; the campaign did not report them. And that was certainly vividly illustrated in the report.

GROSS: There are many redactions - color-coded redactions in the Mueller report. What were the most frustrating redactions for you - where, you know, you're getting to something interesting. And all of a sudden, it's blacked out.

HELDERMAN: Yeah. I think the ones that are most frustrating are the ones that indicate that they've been redacted for possible harm to an ongoing matter - HOM is the abbreviation they use in the report; we've been having a lot of conversations around here about the HOM material, the harm to ongoing matter material - because we know that that's been redacted because there is some continued interest in it.

And so that's very enticing that there are things that they have a remaining interest in. And you know, some of those, I believe, have to do with Roger Stone, the president's longtime friend who has been charged with lying to Congress and attempting to obstruct justice. He's going to go on trial in November. And the judge has imposed a gag order in that case.

And - in fact, before the report was released, prosecutors filed something in his case to alert the judge that they would be redacting everything having to do with Roger Stone from the report.

And so you can sort of feel that just when they're getting into kind of good or interesting conversations about what Donald Trump's campaign was saying internally about WikiLeaks at the time of the releases of the hacked emails, suddenly, you have a big block of redacted text. And it feels like it's likely because it relates in some way to Roger Stone.

GROSS: Do the redactions offer clues about what you should be investigating?

HELDERMAN: Maybe. Maybe they do. You know, there's this appendix at the back where we learned that the - Mueller's team apparently referred 14 separate possible criminal matters to other U.S. attorney's offices around the country, matters they believed to be outside of the mandate or scope of their direct investigation. And of the 14, there's only two that appear in unredacted form.

One is Michael Cohen, which we all knew had been referred to the Southern District of New York, which prosecuted him for various matters, including campaign finance violations. The other one is Greg Craig, the former counsel to President Obama who was just recently charged just here in Washington, D.C., with lying to the Department of Justice about whether he needed to register as a foreign lobbyist for work he did in Ukraine.

So we know about those two matters, but apparently there's 12 others. And we don't know what they are. And they're arranged alphabetically, so you can kind of try to do a little bit of sort of mixing and matching and trying to figure out if you can figure out - for instance, there's two of them that come between the names Cohen and Craig. So you can try to do some guesswork to try to figure out what they might be. But I don't know that we have a good sense of that, and that's a lot of criminal investigations.

GROSS: Were there restrictions on Mueller that you hadn't known about until the release of the report?

HELDERMAN: Not necessarily that I can tell. We do learn a lot more, though, about his efforts to get an interview with the president of the United States, which certainly seems like a big hole in the report. There's a live discussion of the letters that go back and forth between the president's lawyers and Mueller's team over the issue of whether or not the president is going to agree to sit for an interview.

Of course, at one point, he had very publicly sort of boasted that he would be happy to do that and that he should do that. But his lawyers apparently prevailed on him and convinced him that that would be a bad idea. Ultimately, he submitted written answers to questions having to do only with the campaign, not to his conduct in office, and those answers are included in an appendix in the back of the report.

But the - Mueller's team writes in the report that they found those answers inadequate. They were imprecise. They weren't detailed enough. It's - they couldn't sort of ask the follow-up questions that you would ordinarily ask in an actual interview. And they write that they considered trying to subpoena the president and compel this testimony and ultimately decided not to do that because they understood that it would spark an extremely lengthy court fight that would have extended the investigation and delayed its conclusion in a way that they found unacceptable.

They also did indicate that the main thing they would've wanted to know from the president, particularly about his time in office, had to do with his mindset as they explored the issue of what was his intent as he did all these things. And they did note that they felt like they had a lot of information about what was on his mind from others and from Twitter. I mean, this is a president who tends to let people know what's on his mind in a very public way. And so they did feel like they had gathered quite a bit of that evidence even without that interview.

GROSS: Well, another thing with Trump's written answers to prosecutors - he wrote that he didn't recall or didn't remember or - to about 37 questions. And I should note he'd previously bragged about having the greatest memory.

HELDERMAN: Yeah, that's absolutely true. And, I mean, let's be clear when we say he wrote. He did not write. I would encourage people to - well, I would encourage people to read the whole report. I think it's a good thing for all citizens to do. But I would certainly encourage people to read his answers for themselves, and you can get some sense of whether those answers sound like the President Trump that you're used to hearing in public statements or on Twitter, or perhaps they sound maybe a little bit more like his lawyers.

But indeed, on question after a question where he's asked sort of rather specific things - what is he, you know - did Roger Stone ever tell him about WikiLeaks, you know - all kinds of things - the answer is, I do not recall that, where there's sort of a hedge, you know, essentially trying to say, no, I don't think that happened, but I don't really recall it.

GROSS: My guest is Rosalind Helderman, an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. She wrote the commentary and analysis for the Post's publication of the Mueller report, which is available as a paperback or e-book. We'll talk more after a break. And Justin Chang will review "Avengers: Endgame," the climactic 22nd film in this Marvel series. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview about the Mueller report with Rosalind Helderman, a Washington Post investigative reporter for the paper's national staff. She broke several key stories about Russia's interference in the election and the connections between Russians and the Trump campaign and administration. She co-wrote the commentary and analysis accompanying the Washington Post publication of the report, which has been published as a paperback and e-book.

So the House Intelligence Committee is continuing to investigate President Trump, the Trump campaign, Trump administration connections to Russia and related things. Adam Schiff, who chairs - he's a Democrat, and he chairs the House Intelligence Committee. And I should also mention here that they're asking for an unredacted copy of the Mueller report. So Schiff, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, published an op-ed in your paper, The Washington Post, this week. And I want to quote a few lines from it because I'd really be interested in your reaction.

He writes, as I read the report, I was struck by how much was missing - the enormous counterintelligence and national security risks and ramifications of the president's conduct and those around him. The special counsel's investigation began as a counterintelligence investigation by the FBI into an attack by a hostile foreign power, yet the report describes the counterintelligence component only in a single paragraph.

I'm wondering if that struck you, too?

HELDERMAN: Yeah. I was struck in general by what was and was not in the report. And I think it's important to remember that these were prosecutors. They had a very specific and, in some ways, narrow task. Their task was to discover whether anyone committed a crime that could be proven in a court of law beyond a reasonable doubt. And so the issue of what we should do about Russia moving forward, whether the president's campaign or the president's behavior is damaging to national security, whether some of these things were not illegal but immoral or wrong - none of those things were in the mandate of the special counsel.

And so nothing like that is addressed in the report. As Congressman Schiff said, there is one paragraph that tells us that there were FBI agents apparently embedded within the Mueller team to write reports about foreign intelligence matters and counterintelligence matters that they learned along the way and send those out to other parts of the FBI. So we do know that they were - as they were doing their investigation, they were gathering intelligence that could be used by the U.S. government for the protection of the country. But we don't know anything about what the content of those reports were, and if they were useful and what exactly was learned.

GROSS: So questions you just raise that were outside of the scope of the Mueller investigation were, was Trump and his administration's actions immoral, unethical? Did they present security risks? And we know whether or not the president conspired with Russia, or whether or not his team conspired with Russia, the president was very dismissive of any information showing that Russia interfered with the election. President Trump seemed to do, like, nothing to try to investigate that or stop that from happening again, bolster our security against that and similar cyberattacks from hostile foreign powers.

So this was outside of the scope of the Mueller investigation. So who gets to weigh in on these questions? Is it Congress? Is that a question for impeachment proceedings? Like, who decides the answers to those questions?

HELDERMAN: I mean, honestly, ultimately, it's the American public. It's the public that has to decide what they think of this. I mean, yes, there's obviously a role for Congress. There's particularly a sort of additional investigative and oversight role for Congress to bring out facts, to make sure the public knows about this and hears about this. But ultimately, it's going to be the American people and, you know, the American voter who needs to decide what to make of all of this.

GROSS: So one of the things you reported on before the Mueller report came out was the Trump Tower meeting in which - what led to the meeting was that Don Jr. was tipped off that if he met with this Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, that she would have dirt on Hillary Clinton. Don Jr. responded, if it's what you say, I love it.

So the way the Trump administration tried to present this meeting was that, well, this meeting was about the Russian adoption laws, which were controversial, and sanctions 'cause Putin wanted sanctions lifted. And everybody was trying to investigate, what was this meeting really about? So what did you learn from the Mueller report about what actually happened at this meeting?

HELDERMAN: Yeah. And this is an area where I think the report basically confirmed public reporting, and also Congress has actually dug into this quite a bit. And so there were no huge surprises about the Trump Tower meeting. What seems to have happened is that there was some puffery involved with the setting up of the meeting. Donald Trump Jr. believed he was going to be getting dirt about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government as part of a Russian government effort to help elect his father. But that turned out to not actually really be true. What this meeting was really about was the Magnitsky Act, this law that was imposed in the United States to punish Russia for human rights abuses. And it has been a real thorn in the side of Vladimir Putin. He is extremely distressed about this law. And in retaliation for it, he imposed a ban on the adoption of Russian children by American families, including halting adoptions that were in process at the time that he did this, which has been a real issue for American families.

And so that's what they were actually there to discuss. The meeting took about 20 minutes with this sort of motley crew. And it seems as though everyone came away pretty disappointed in it. On the Trump side, they thought they were getting dirt on Hillary Clinton, and they didn't get it. And they felt displeased with that, this meeting had been a waste of time. And on the Russian side, Veselnitskaya, who had been really working this Magnitsky Act issue, wanted to press her policy issue, and she didn't really feel like she had gotten, like, a real reception for that.

GROSS: So Don Jr.'s willingness to meet with Russians, an adversarial foreign power, to get dirt on his father's opponent in the presidential campaign - I mean, you're not supposed to do that with an adversarial foreign power or with any foreign power. So why did Mueller conclude that that wasn't a crime?

HELDERMAN: Yeah. I mean, they are never going to be able to erase from history that, if it's what you say, I love it, email. Right? I mean, the email he received was as clear as could be about what he was being told this meeting was. It was dirt on Hillary from the Russian government as part of a government effort to elect his father, and he said, bring it on. But ultimately, yeah, the Mueller team determined that they did not think that they could make a criminal case around this meeting. They said that they looked at it in terms of whether it was part of a larger conspiracy. And they did not feel as though they could establish that this meeting had sort of a nexus with the other Russian government efforts to elect Trump - you know, the hacking of the emails or the social media campaign. And so they did not think that there was a way to say that because Donald Trump Jr. took this meeting, he had engaged in a conspiracy to do those other things with the Russians.

Then they also analyzed this meeting for a possible campaign finance violation. In the United States, you're only allowed to accept campaign finance contributions from American citizens or U.S. permanent residents. And so could you see the offer of the dirt as an in-kind campaign contribution that was then accepted by the campaign from a foreign source? And they decided that would be a difficult case to make. It would be difficult to show that the dirt was sort of a thing of value under the rubric of campaign finance law. And those laws also require - for a violation to be criminal, it requires a knowing violation of the law. You have to know that you're taking an illegal contribution. And they said that it would be very difficult to show that the people at that meeting understood that taking it was against the law.

GROSS: So, in that respect, Don Jr.'s possible ignorance of the law helped prevent him from being charged with a crime.

HELDERMAN: Yeah, that's right. I mean, there are various areas of the code where ignorance of the law actually is a defense because a prosecutor has to be able to show that you're knowing and willful to prove a crime. And they assess that they would have difficulty showing that the people in that meeting - that it was a knowing and willful violation of the law.

GROSS: So Don Jr. did not testify. He declined to testify. So I guess he wasn't subpoenaed.

HELDERMAN: Well, I'm not so sure about that. The report does indicate that he declined a voluntary interview. And then there's another sentence that follows that sentence that's been redacted as grand jury material. So we don't know what's underneath that sentence. It may well indicate - I mean, given that it is grand jury material - that, in response to that, Mueller's team gave him a grand jury subpoena. And so, you know, did he testify before the grand jury after being compelled? Did he potentially assert his Fifth Amendment rights and, therefore, not testify? We don't know. That's one of those things that is indeed fully hidden from us by a redaction.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us my guest is Rosalind Helderman. She's at The Washington Post, where she's an investigative reporter for the national political staff. And she co-wrote the commentary and analysis that accompanies The Washington Post's publication of the Mueller report, which is available now. We're going to take a short break and be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about the Mueller report with Rosalind Helderman, a reporter for The Washington Post. She's an investigative reporter for the national political staff. And she co-wrote the commentary and analysis that accompanies The Washington Post's publication of the Mueller report.

Jared Kushner said, this week, that Russia's interference in our election was basically a couple of Facebook ads and that the Mueller investigation itself did more damage to the U.S. than what the Russians did to our election. As someone who has been reporting on this for so long, what was your reaction when you heard that?

HELDERMAN: Yeah. I found that incredibly striking. First of all, it ignores the fact that Mueller's prosecutors actually charged two separate crimes. It was not just a couple of Facebook ads. There was also the whole other part of the effort where they, very aggressively, hacked the emails of the Democratic Party and people associated with Hillary Clinton - and then weaponized those emails in a way that was welcomed and amplified by the Trump campaign, by publishing them through WikiLeaks. So it sort of ignored a big prong of what the Russians did. And just generally, it was so dismissive of, you know, something that, if you read the report and the previous indictments, was a really well-orchestrated, longstanding Russian government effort to interfere in our democracy. And, you know, to dismiss that as a few Facebook ads is quite something.

GROSS: But that's one of the really hard things to understand about this whole story. Why has President Trump and the people close to him denied the importance of Russia's interference in our democracy? I mean, well, an explanation is that President Trump thinks that that makes it seem like he didn't, like, legitimately win the election and that it undermines his presidency. But it's just so hard to understand why there's so much evidence of Russia's interference. And the president, people close to him, have been so dismissive of that evidence.

HELDERMAN: Yeah. And that's a question - not in exactly that way, but we do get some insight into it from the report itself because, you know, they spend quite a lot of time, as they're analyzing the questions of obstruction of justice, examining what they believe to be the president's mindset, his motivations, why he is doing the things that he is doing. And they do, over and over again, mention that point that you just raised, which is, his fear that acknowledging the Russian attack, that allowing an investigation into it that's going to bring forward additional facts - that that will delegitimize his victory or, in some way, take something away from it.

And we know this is a president who is very invested in his own victory - you know, two years later, still routinely at campaign rallies, tells the story of his great victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016; I believe still to this day likes to hand visitors to the White House a copy of the colored electoral map to show which states he won. And so, you know, we shouldn't discount this idea that he is fearful that any acknowledgement of what the Russians did in 2016 somehow takes something away from his personal victory.

GROSS: One of the stories you helped break for The Washington Post was the meeting at a New York cigar bar near Trump Tower during the campaign between Paul Manafort - this was in August of 2016, when Manafort was still the head of the Trump campaign. And so it was a meeting between Manafort, his business associate Rick Gates and Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian-Ukrainian political consultant who worked with Manafort when Manafort was working on the campaign of Viktor Yanukovych, who was elected Ukraine's president, became a very authoritarian president. Manafort worked with Yanukovych for several years. U.S. intelligence thought that Konstantin Kilimnik had ties to Russian intelligence. So tell us a bit about what you reported about this meeting when you helped break the story, and then we'll compare it to what the Mueller report has to say.

HELDERMAN: Well, this is one of those moments in the report where there's been so much public discussion about it that it's easy to sort of forget just how incredibly stunning it would have been for us to have learned this back in August of 2016. Here you've got the chairman of the president's campaign - the chairman of the campaign of the Republican nominee to be president of the United States. And throughout the months that he's working for Donald Trump, he is, on the side, communicating, emailing, phone calling and, in fact, meeting twice in person with a guy that the U.S. government believes has ties to Russian intelligence.

And what we have learned through previous court documents and through the report itself - not just communicating with Kilimnik - passing along to him messages that he wishes to be taken to Ukrainian politicians and also a businessman who's very close to Vladimir Putin - a Russian businessman - Oleg Deripaska - and, in fact, even passing along to him polling data - internal polling data from the Trump campaign.

So you mentioned this August 2 meeting. What we know about that meeting is Manafort is still in charge of the campaign. He's in charge until about the middle of August. And Kilimnik comes to the United States from Moscow, where he has been meeting with Viktor Yanukovych. People will remember that Yanukovych was ousted from office in Ukraine in 2014 as a result of the public protests there against his rule. And so he's been living in exile in Moscow.

Yanukovych and Kilimnik met, and then Kilimnik came to New York to tell Paul Manafort that he and Yanukovych have a plan for peace in Ukraine. But this is peace in Ukraine on Russia's terms. It would be a peace plan that would result in Russia retaining the portions of Ukraine that it has invaded and annexed. And the goal, essentially, is to get Paul Manafort on board with this idea. And Paul Manafort says that he - tells prosecutors that he understands that this plan was a backchannel effort to help Russia. And he understands, also, that to put it into place, it would require the approval of the next president. It would require the approval of the guy he's working for.

We also know that at this strange meeting at the cigar bar, Paul Manafort lays out to Kilimnik what's going on in the campaign and describes to him a plan that he has to win the campaign by contesting traditionally Democratic-leaning states in the Midwest - places like Michigan and Wisconsin - that Donald Trump did ultimately win. And that is, in fact, how he won the presidency. And so you have this image of the president's campaign chairman sharing all of these details with someone who, according to the FBI, has ties to Russian intelligence - though I would note that we at The Washington Post have had some contact with Mr. Kilimnik, including as recently as last week. And he has always denied that claim that he has intelligence. He absolutely says it's not true.

GROSS: What did you learn that you didn't already know about this meeting from the Mueller report?

HELDERMAN: Yeah, some details about the Ukraine peace plan - just exactly what it was and how Paul Manafort understood it to be. I think we also learned just how extensive the effort was by Manafort to provide internal campaign data. He apparently asked Rick Gates, his deputy, to draw up memos for three Ukrainian politicians and also Deripaska. As soon as he joined the campaign, he asked for these memos to be written, sort of describing his role with the campaign and essentially saying that they should want to work with him in the future. He clearly was viewing his role with the Trump campaign as a way to alleviate debts. He was in, actually, a legal dispute with Deripaska, who claimed that Manafort owed him money. And so he wanted to somehow find a way to use his Trump campaign role to make that dispute go away and to make money in the future. But interestingly, we also know from the report that the investigators were actually unable to crack every mystery involved with this interaction.

GROSS: Well, Rosalind Helderman, thank you so much for talking with us, and thank you for your reporting.

HELDERMAN: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Rosalind Helderman is an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. She wrote the commentary and analysis for the Post's publication of the Mueller report, which is available as a paperback or e-book. After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review "Avengers: Endgame." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLARK TERRY'S "IMPULSIVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.