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Journalist: Trump Seems 'Willfully Blind' To Putin's Real Goals


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The CIA, the director of the FBI and the director of National Intelligence now agree that Russia was behind the hacking of the DNC and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta. And that part of Rush's goal was to help Donald Trump get elected. Last week, Hillary Clinton said to a gathering of her donors that the Russian hacks were ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had a personal beef against her. She said the grudge related to when, as secretary of state, she criticized Russia's 2011 parliamentary elections as neither free, nor fair. The elections were met with mass protests. Clinton says Putin blamed her for the, quote, "outpouring of outrage by his own people," unquote.

My guest Michael Crowley wrote about why the relationship between Hillary Clinton and Vladimir Putin has been so contentious in an article in Politico titled "Putin's Revenge." Crowley is Politico's senior foreign affairs correspondent and has also been writing extensively about Donald Trump and Russia. A little later, we'll talk about the deals that led Trump to hold the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow and to partner with a Russian mixed martial arts heavyweight champion.

Michael Crowley, welcome to FRESH AIR.

MICHAEL CROWLEY: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: So Hillary Clinton has said that Putin doesn't like her because he blames the 2011 post-election protests in Russia on her. But you trace his animosity toward her to the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president of the U.S. and Boris Yeltsin was president of Russia. This was shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. Bill Clinton was trying to improve relations with Russia. He and Yeltsin seemed to be getting along. Why didn't Putin like that?

CROWLEY: Well, right. People called it the Bill and Boris show. And it was almost kind of slapstick. These two big burly guys who were bear hugging and back slapping and getting along great, although there were underlying tensions in their relationship. They were talking about a new future partnership in some ways between the U.S. and Russia. In fact, their conversations even included the possibility that Russia would one day join NATO which seems like a preposterous idea now. It was a far-off idea, but it was one that they explicitly discussed.

Vladimir Putin, as a former security establishment man, KGB man who had recently, in effect, lost his job with the KGB in Eastern Germany because of the fall of communism and the Soviet Union, resented what was happening in this relationship. It appeared to him that Russia, which had once been the other global superpower competing with the United States throughout the Cold War and he had been a combatant in that fight as a member of the KGB, was now subordinate, a junior partner, a kind of kid brother almost. And you can kind of see it if you go back. It's really interesting. There's videos online of Clinton and Yeltsin. And it's often not a serious exchange that they're having. They're sort of joking around.

And underlying that is the fact that Yeltsin really was a full-blown alcoholic by all indications and assessments of people in the Clinton administration at that time. I mean, he was an embarrassment to a lot of Russians. There's a story that Bill Clinton himself tells where Yeltsin is staying in Blair House on a state visit across the street from the White House and comes downstairs in the middle of the night, slips past his security guards and is intercepted by the Secret Service. Yeltsin, the president of Russia, is in his underpants demanding a pizza. And in one version of the story, he actually makes it out to Pennsylvania Avenue and tries to hail a taxi cab before he's sort of spirited back into Blair House.

And I think that's sort of metaphorical for Putin's belief that Russia was being on some level humiliated, that Yeltsin was not a strong enough and disciplined enough leader. Russia's economy also fell into a terrible state. And many Russians blame the sort of Harvard whiz kid economic advisers who came over to Moscow to try to help them introduce capitalism for some of those problems. So I think Putin harbors resentments about that period of time.

And what we're seeing is a long arc from that period, which for Putin now is culminating perhaps in a kind of redemption or even revenge. He has been wanting to get back Russia's seat at the table in global politics. No longer are - does the United States act first and tell Russia afterwards that we're going to do things. Russia now has a say in what's happening in Europe and in the Middle East in a way that it did not. And I think that that is very fundamental to understanding how Putin thinks about the United States and Russia right now.

GROSS: So - but let's talk policy a little bit about when Bill Clinton was president and Hillary was first lady. What were some of the policy things regarding Russia that Putin objected to?

CROWLEY: I mentioned the Russian economy. And Putin definitely has made it a project to try to strengthen Russia's economy, although that's a shaky project for him because Russia is so dependent on energy exports and oil exports. And Russia's economic fortunes have really risen and fallen with the fluctuations in the price of oil over the past 15 or so years since he took the presidency. But I think the bigger one is NATO. And when Bill Clinton came into office, he began a major drive to start expanding the NATO alliance into countries that had once been in the Iron Curtain, the Soviet sphere of influence. And the idea was that NATO would help to integrate and stabilize Europe, help spread democracy and Western American values throughout Europe, even into Eastern Europe.

And also it's important to note, many of these countries in Eastern Europe wanted to join NATO, but Putin saw that as very threatening to Russia. He does not like NATO encroaching on Russia's borders. And again, I think found it to be kind of a humiliation, felt that Yeltsin sort of rolled over and took this even when a lot of members of the security and military establishment in Russia were telling him not to.

GROSS: So let's jump ahead to when Hillary Clinton becomes secretary of state. President Obama had a policy toward Russia called reset, in an attempt to recalibrate our relationship with Russia. Why did it need recalibrating at that point?

CROWLEY: Well, several presidents now have come into office trying to have better relationships with Russia, only to see them go sour. So even at the end of the Bill and Boris show, things were tense between Bill Clinton and actually Vladimir Putin, who came in to power just at the end of Clinton's presidency. George W. Bush came into office wanting to do business with Putin. People will remember that he famously said that he looked into Putin's soul and thought that he understood the man. And I think it goes back in part to that question of American influence and NATO expansion in Eastern Europe.

Putin continued to see the U.S. or a U.S.-led NATO coalition building up. Expanding the Iraq war was an important signal to Putin that the U.S. was going to be acting militarily around the world without a lot of concern for what Russia thought. And he is particularly threatened by the idea of regime change operations as a sort of paranoid autocrat. The Bush administration also was very interested in promoting democracy civil society programs that were promoting Western values around the world in a way that Putin finds very threatening. And that sort of gets us toward what happened with Hillary Clinton. But so Barack Obama came in thinking he too could get things off on to a better foot, wanted to work with Russia on things like the Iran nuclear program and nuclear arms reductions, but that was a short-lived project.

GROSS: So what did Hillary Clinton do to implement the reset program with Russia?

CROWLEY: So Hillary Clinton was this sort of face of the reset. She very famously presented the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov with a big red reset button. They actually got the Russian word slightly wrong and it was perhaps an omen that it got off to a kind of an awkward start. But she was the one who was doing the most communication with the Russian government, traveling to Moscow, meeting her counterpart and meeting Putin in different locations. And she was hopeful, as I think many in the Obama administration were, that business could be done with Putin's successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev.

Putin was actually term-limited so he stepped out of power, I believe, in 2009 and took the job of prime minister and Medvedev became president. Medvedev was, you know, by all accounts much more interested in working with the West, less sort of paranoid and hostile towards the U.S. and its intentions. So Hillary dealt a lot with Medvedev, but then Putin announced that he would be coming back to power in 2011 and that's where things start to get complicated.

GROSS: How did they get complicated?

CROWLEY: (Laughter) Well, a lot of Russians are not happy about this idea that Putin's coming back. He had his two-term run. He's been hanging around. Now he says he wants to come back. It looks like there's a real autocrat in the making. And around this time, there are parliamentary elections in Russia that seem to have been rigged or have substantial, I guess, irregularities, as is the diplomatic term of art.

And Hillary Clinton - and so large protests form in the streets of Moscow. It's December of 2011. Moscow's frigidly cold. And thousands of people are out, protesting about these elections in numbers not seen since Putin had taken power. And the protests start out to be directed toward these elections but actually become largely about frustration toward Putin. And a lot of the signs say things like Putin out, Putin must go.

And Hillary Clinton sort of throws her support to the protesters. It's - she uses sort of gentle diplomatic language and says, you know, we're concerned about irregularities in these elections. And the Russian people should be free to determine their own political destiny. But Putin takes this as really kicking him when he's down, a grave threat to his power. And he's furious about it.

GROSS: And so this is the incident that Hillary Clinton is referring to when she describes Putin as having a personal grudge against her.

CROWLEY: That's right. And this is backed up by - for instance, the former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, says that he has heard Putin speak firsthand about this - that he was furious, again, that he felt that Hillary Clinton was undermining him at a moment of some weakness. And, you know, Putin has also suggested that the State Department was aiding the protesters in some potentially covert way - maybe financially.

I spoke to a Russia expert for a story recently, a man based in Moscow who said that, at that time, the State Department was seen with even more suspicion than the CIA was during the Cold War. Now, that might've been hyperbole. But the point was that not only did Hillary say this thing in public. But Putin felt that she may have been actually using the State Department to support these protesters and kind of try to promote a soft coup.

GROSS: Was there evidence that the U.S. was trying to support a soft coup?

CROWLEY: No. I'm glad you asked me that. It's important to note that that's not the case. The U.S. does, of course, spend some money on democracy and civil-society programs. And I think there were some in Russia at the time. That stuff has now all been shut down, as Putin has really cracked down and established a kind of authoritarian state that brooks very little political dissent.

But I want to briefly add that, more generally, you know, in a lot of these cases, I think that Putin has a kind of grain of truth to what he's saying and what he's resentful about but exaggerates it for political effect. Similarly, when it comes to these protests, I think, like so many foreign autocrats, he paints a picture of nefarious foreign influence to explain away genuine political dissent. So while Hillary did say what she said, I think the larger conspiracy is totally a fiction.

GROSS: We're going have to take a short break here. And then we'll talk more about Russia and Donald Trump's Russian connections. If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Crowley. He's the chief foreign affairs correspondent for Politico. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Crowley. He's the chief foreign affairs correspondent for Politico. So you describe Putin as really wanting to expand Russia's power again, become a major player again on the global stage. An example of that would be Russia's annexation of Crimea from the Ukraine, which further made for bad relations between the U.S. and Russia, since U.S. opposed that annexation.

And there have been sanctions on Russia as a result of that. Russia wants an end to those sanctions. So we're still in a period of great tension between the U.S. and Russia. And now Donald Trump is president-elect. Are there ways in which you see President-elect Donald Trump's positions as being in sync with Russia?

CROWLEY: Yes, absolutely. So you heard Trump say a lot of things as a candidate that were probably quite pleasing to Putin's ears. And I think that there is substantial overlap between what Trump has been saying and what Putin has been wanting the U.S. to do for a long time. One example would be for Trump to in effect recognize Putin's actions in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and his support for a pro-Russian insurgency in the East and lift U.S. sanctions on Russia that were imposed as punishment.

Although, some of those were done by Congress. So Trump cannot undo them with the snap of his hand. But some he can because they were executive orders. The other is that Trump has shown skepticism toward the NATO alliance, which Putin finds highly threatening. And it's not clear that Trump is going to be a gung-ho supporter of NATO the way his past several predecessors have been.

And that would go a long way toward making Vladimir Putin feel more comfortable with dealing with the U.S. and the West, for better or for worse. Trump has also said that the U.S. has no business trying to depose Bashar al-Assad, who is a client of Vladimir Putin. The Russians, of course, are now deeply militarily involved in Syria, trying to prop Assad up. The U.S. has been supporting, up to a limited point, Syrian rebels who are battling Assad.

And Trump has suggested that he might cut off that support. Putin would be very happy about that. And it could lead to the possibility of military cooperation between the U.S. and Russia against ISIS. And just in general, we might see a normalization of relations between Washington and Moscow that we've not seen in a long time. Under Barack Obama and since the annexation of Crimea, there's been very little contact between the two governments. And I think that Trump, particularly if he has Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state, will have a lot of contact with Moscow. And that could open up other possibilities.

GROSS: Well, I mean, Barack Obama wanted reset with Russia. He wanted to improve relations with Russia. So do you see any downside to Trump trying to improve relations with Russia?

CROWLEY: Yes, I do. You know, first of all, it's not clear that he'll be able to do it. There's strong opposition in the Congress. You're seeing members like John McCain and Lindsey Graham kind of coming out guns blazing, even threatening the nomination of Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state, saying that Putin is a butcher and a thug, and we can't do business with him. The concern is that Trump has this kind of personal admiration for Putin that may blind him to Russia's real goals and to what America's strategic stake is in doing business with Russia. So, you know, if Trump cuts a deal with Putin that undermines the NATO alliance, that not only undoes decades of American policy but could destabilize Europe.

It could lead Putin to think that he has more room to encroach on his neighbors, like the Baltics, than he does and could invite a conflict that would be very alarming. Some people also warn that Trump may think that Putin is a guy he can do business with. They are both similar men who are kind of macho. They don't brook dissent. They - they have a sort of strongman posture, and Trump seems to be attracted to these qualities in Putin. But what happens if they get into a room together, and it turns out they don't really hit it off, or Putin is asking for more than Trump is willing to give? Well, now you have two guys who, on the flip side, have big egos, who carry grudges, who get angry easily. And if there is a breakdown between them, it could get ugly very quickly with unpredictable consequences.

GROSS: Donald Trump has also suggested that if countries don't pay their dues or pay the right amount in NATO, that, you know, they shouldn't be members. And I think the Baltic states - Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia - feel very threatened by that. So how does Trump's statements about NATO affect the potential Trump-Putin relationship?

CROWLEY: Well, I think they make Putin very happy. And we talked earlier about how NATO was this great irritant for Putin and the Russian security state in the 1990s and the 2000s and even in the Obama years. And we're still seeing new members join NATO in sort of Russia's backyard. And yes, one of the most remarkable things Trump said in the campaign was that he might not honor the NATO Article 5 obligation of one member to defend another, the whole alliance to defend a member that comes under attack, if, Trump said, that member had not paid what he deemed to be its fair share of dues.

There's no language in the NATO treaty that says exactly how much you have to pay. And this is music to Putin's ears. Putin despises NATO. He sees it as a hostile force. He spent his career, again, in the KGB trying to subvert and undermine NATO and thinking about the day when the Warsaw Pact might go to war with NATO. And now he sees it creeping up onto Russia's borders. So he would love to cut a deal with Trump, in which Trump maybe reduces American support for NATO or finds some way to pull back NATO forces that have been building up on its eastern border in the second Obama term.

GROSS: Possibly opening up the door to Russian expansion.

CROWLEY: Possibly opening up the door to Russian expansion. So the - the Baltics, of course, are terrified of this. I mean, they live in fear of some kind of Russian aggression almost any day. They have been pleading for more support from NATO, and Trump has shown no sign of being interested in that. And, in fact, one of the most alarming moments for - for Baltic leaders came during the campaign, when Newt Gingrich - who, of course, is very close to Trump - referred to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, as basically a suburb of St. Petersburg, which did not go over well in that region. It was taken as a sense of, you know, Putin can have it if he wants it. It's his backyard. It's not our problem, which just abandons decades of American thinking about European security and its NATO commitments.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Crowley, chief foreign affairs correspondent for Politico. After a break, he'll tell us about the deals that led Donald Trump to hold his Miss Universe pageant in Moscow and to partner with a Russian mixed martial arts heavyweight champion. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Politico's chief foreign affairs correspondent, Michael Crowley. He recently wrote about Hillary Clinton's strained relationship with Vladimir Putin and has been writing extensively about Donald Trump and his team's connections to Russia. These stories have been the subject of intense interest ever since U.S. intelligence agencies announced that Russia was behind the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign chair, John Podesta. In August, that revelation helped lead to the resignation of Trump's campaign manager, Paul Manafort, because of his lobbying on behalf of leaders in Ukraine aligned with Russia. Is Paul Manafort, who had been Trump's campaign chair earlier in Trump's campaign - is he still connected to Trump?

CROWLEY: So according to Politico's reporting, Manafort is still influential in an unofficial capacity. He still has ties to the campaign. He's still - or the transition now. He still communicates with Trump officials. He does not have an official role in the Trump transition. We haven't heard that he'll be joining the administration.

GROSS: And he had ties to the former hardline president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych...


GROSS: ...Who was connected with the Kremlin.

CROWLEY: So Manafort is part of this story. He was essentially the political consultant to Yanukovych who was driven out by the uprising in Ukraine in early 2014 that set off this chain of events that really poisoned the U.S.-Russia relationship. After Yanukovych was driven out by popular protests, that's when Putin grabbed Crimea and began supporting the pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

And in Putin's narrative, this was essentially a U.S.-EU-backed coup, driving out an ally of his and trying to pull Ukraine into the West. And Putin is saying, no way. You know, Russia has a historic claim to Ukraine. And I'm not going to tolerate this.

And Manafort was Yanukovych's guy. So Manafort was intimately involved in the politics there. And there are other figures that he's connected to. He's done work for a Russian oligarch who is very, very close to Putin. We don't really know the full extent of his ties. But he's certainly part of this story.

GROSS: So when he was campaign manager in Donald Trump's presidential campaign, is there any evidence that he had any influence on Donald Trump's positions or views on Russia?

CROWLEY: It's hard to draw a direct, straight line. But, you know, it did seem that Trump was offering more opinions about Russia at that time. We also know that at the Republican convention this past summer, at which time Manafort was still running the campaign, there was an effort to put in tough language about Ukraine into the Republican Party platform. And Trump campaign officials blocked that effort. I believe that the language would have endorsed sending weapons to Ukraine to fight the Russian-backed insurgency.

And Trump campaign officials saw to it that that language was knocked out of the platform. And there was speculation that that's the kind of thing that would likely have come from Manafort's level - that Trump wouldn't have been intimately involved in drawing up the platform. So, you know, a data point like that was a cause for concern for many observers. But we can't know for sure precisely what influence Manafort had.

I would also just briefly add that there were other people in Trump's orbit, including Carter Page, who was a named campaign foreign-policy adviser, was on the board of Gazprom, which is a Russian energy company, traveled to Moscow during the campaign. The Trump team has since kind of disowned Carter Page. But Manafort was one of a handful of people with ties that really raised eyebrows.

GROSS: Are you concerned about the possibility that some Trump-administration people or Trump-administration decisions will be based in part on business deals that led to personal gains in the past and favors that should be paid or repaid as a result of lucrative business deals in the past? - as opposed to based solely on what's in America's best interests.

CROWLEY: Well, I think that absolutely has to be a concern. And so to the extent that Paul Manafort still wields influence, is he trying to do favors for his friends back in Ukraine and Moscow when he calls Trump officials and possibly even Trump himself? Terry, there's something bigger here which is not Rex Tillerson's oil deals or Paul Manafort's political consulting in Ukraine.

It's the way Trump talks about Putin and Russia. There's something mysterious about it. There's something that I think we don't completely understand. And I like to talk about it in terms of - you know, there's this concept in astrophysics, dark matter in the universe. And it's this stuff that holds the universe together. But we can't see it. We know it's out there. We know it has some kind of gravitational pull. But we can't define exactly what it is.

And with Trump and Putin, there is this very strange way in which Trump constantly forgives Putin for his bad actions. He dismisses accusations against Putin. He says - he finds alternate explanations. Just to give you a couple quick examples, we have all followed the story of the Russian hacking during this election. And Trump has been very reluctant to admit that this actually happened. You know, and he said, you never know. It could be a 400-pound guy sitting on his mother's bed.

But it goes back much farther. You know, when Trump was asked about whether Putin has political opponents and journalists killed, Trump said, well, you don't know that. People say that he does it. But I don't know if it's true. When the passenger jet MH17 was shot down over Ukraine a couple of years ago, and international investigation concluded, this was supported by all kinds of Western intelligence agencies - that the plane was shot down by pro-Russian separatists using a missile supplied by Moscow. Trump was asked about that. And he said, well, people say that. But you don't know.

And there's other theories out there. Even the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian who drank polonium from a tea cup in London and died after that - he was a big Putin critic. Trump has been asked about that - same thing. We don't know. We don't know. He seems almost, you know, willfully blind to this pattern of Putin's actions in a way that doesn't add up. It makes you think that there's something going on that we don't completely understand. And that's really frustrating and, I think, for a lot of people, very troubling.

GROSS: What kind of frustration does that pose for you as a journalist?

CROWLEY: (Laughter) Well, I mean, on the positive side, it's an incredible story. And it makes me and a lot of other journalists want to keep digging. And we feel like we're chasing this incredible mystery that would - that could be, you know, a Titanic story if it turns out, as some people theorize, that Trump has some financial obligations that he hasn't disclosed. Remember, we haven't seen his tax returns.

If he, in some way - if Putin has leverage on him that could be personal. Some people have raised the fact that Trump traveled to Moscow in 2013. And on that trip, he would have been, you know, surveilled by the Russians. They would've probably been trying to hack into all his communications. So some people say, do the Russians have something on him? This is all very speculative. The positive thing is it's an amazing and fascinating story.

But it's incredibly frustrating to know how to deal with this. How do you talk about it? I mean, even now I'm dealing - sort of pushing the boundaries of speculation. With other presidents, you can go back and analyze their speeches and policy papers from their senior aides and kind of put it into theories of geopolitics. But none of that applies here. So we sort of lack a traditional framework. And so I find myself trying to turn to new ways of understanding this guy, which is both intellectually interesting and gratifying but also, so long as we're unable to answer the question, really frustrating.

GROSS: Well, let's get to some of those new ways of trying to understand President-elect Trump. But first we have to take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Crowley. He's the chief foreign affairs correspondent for Politico. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Crowley. He's the chief foreign affairs correspondent for Politico, and he's been writing a lot about Donald Trump and Russia. As you've said, because Donald Trump has revealed so little about his finances and because we have no record of past political positions in the sense that he's never had elected office before, you have to find new ways of trying to understand who he is, what his positions are, what his positions might be in the future.

You've gone back and investigated some of his business deals. My understanding is that Donald Trump has been interested in having real estate deals in Russia, but hasn't had any real estate deals there. But he has had other things. One of the things we've heard him talk about with pride is the Miss Universe pageant, which was held in Russia in 2013. Does he still own the Miss Universe pageant?

CROWLEY: He sold the Miss Universe pageant, I think, in 2014. But at the time he took it to Moscow, he was the owner and seemed quite delighted to be bringing it to Russia.

GROSS: And I think he cited this as part of the foundation of how he knows so much about Russia.

CROWLEY: Yeah, he did. I think it was during the primary campaign. And he had started talking a fair amount about Putin and Russia and he was asked what his basis for understanding Russia was and he cited this trip he took to Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant in 2013. And, you know, I thought that was amazing and I wanted to know more about this trip so I wrote a story where I dove in and learned everything I could about it. And it's still a little murky. I mean, we know that he took business meetings there. He seems to have been exploring real estate deals when he was there, but hasn't fully disclosed everyone he talked to everything, he was trying to do.

My favorite part of this - and this goes back, Terry, to what I was saying a couple of minutes ago about the dark matter and the mysterious attraction to Putin - when he was headed over there, he started tweeting about Vladimir Putin and essentially inviting Putin to attend the pageant via Twitter. And in one kind of remarkable tweet that was almost written in the voice of, like, a teenage boy he said something to the effect of, you know, really excited for the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow tomorrow night or whenever it was. Do you think Vladimir Putin will come, and will he be my best friend?

GROSS: (Laughter).

CROWLEY: Which is just an incredible thing. And apparently - and I credit The Washington Post, which has done some good follow up reporting on this - apparently Trump thought Putin might actually attend. Putin did not attend, but he sent a gift, some kind of like an ornate jewelry box or something to that effect and a note. So Putin was aware that Trump was there and wanted him to come, but did not actually attend the pageant.

GROSS: Well, you looked into how Trump decided to hold the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow and it was with the help of a billionaire Russian real estate mogul with ties to Vladimir Putin. And with this mogul's son, Emin - am I pronouncing his name right?

CROWLEY: I think it's Emin.

GROSS: Emin, OK. You describe him as a dance-pop singer with ambitions to international stardom. So what's the connection between this Russian real estate mogul, his would-be pop star son and Trump bringing Miss Universe to Moscow?

CROWLEY: Well, this story was so much fun to explore. And I had no idea going in that this would be the case, but it seems that Trump wound up coming to Moscow because the son of this billionaire sort of real estate developer in Moscow had made a video for one of his pop songs featuring a former Miss Universe. And in the video he's chasing her through the streets at night and it's a kind of, you know, maudlin love song. And because of the Miss Universe connection, this pop singer is able to establish a line to Trump I think through the agent of the woman who had been in the video. And that starts a conversation that I guess revolves around Miss Universe and beautiful women and Moscow being a great place. And the path brings Trump to Moscow with his pageant.

GROSS: Well, and the mogul who's the father of the pop star, he persuaded Trump not only to bring it to Moscow but to hold it...


GROSS: ...In the concert hall that this billionaire Russian mogul owns (laughter). So there's definitely something in it for him...


GROSS: ...To have Trump bring the pageant to Moscow.

CROWLEY: Yes, absolutely. So they in effect do business together on the pageant. And I believe that they were discussing real estate projects in Moscow that went beyond the pageant, had nothing to do with the pageant, when Trump was there. And this is a guy who's, by the way, very powerful, has connections to the Kremlin, has gotten a lot of big contracts from the Kremlin. So he would be a good person to know. And kind of beautifully closing the loop on all this, Trump goes over there. They have the pageant. He hangs out with these guys.

And the son, Emin, makes another music video in which it starts with him sitting in some kind of dull boardroom meeting and he dozes off. And the scene cuts and he wakes up in his apartment and he's in some dream fantasy. And all these Miss Universe contestants are sort of tromping around his apartment in bikinis and high heels while he's, like, sipping his coffee in his sweatpants. And so this goes on for a few minutes and then at the end of the video, he wakes up from his dream. He's back in the boardroom and, of course, it's Donald Trump sitting at the head of the table. And he's seen Emin doze off and he says, Emin, you're fired. Which of course is his signature line from "The Apprentice." So everybody got something out of that trip, it seems.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Crowley. He's the chief foreign affairs correspondent for Politico. 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, my guest is Michael Crowley. He's the chief foreign affairs correspondent for Politico.

So there's a story I want you to tell that's also about Donald Trump's business connections to Russia. And this is actually a martial arts story because he teamed up with a business partner who was described as the king of mixed martial arts in Russia. And his name was - you say it. I'm - I think I'm going to get the pronunciation wrong on it.

CROWLEY: Fedor (laughter).

GROSS: OK. So who was Fedor, and how did he team up with Trump?

CROWLEY: So Fedor - Emelianenko, I think, is his last name - was a major mixed martial arts figure in Russia. And he was a tough fighter. He was kind of the Mike Tyson of mixed martial arts. You know, would, you know, knock people out, you know, within a minute of the fight. Trump once said about Fedor, quote, "his thing is inflicting death on people." And although I'm pretty sure Fedor never actually killed anyone, that was sort of his reputation. You know, if you fight Fedor, you're going to feel the pain. So Fedor also happened to be friends with Vladimir Putin, who frequently would sit in the front row at Fedor's fights and went on to appoint Fedor to a state sort of athletic body.

All of which was very interesting when I discovered that Donald Trump also had a relationship with Fedor. And this was when Trump was enlisted by some kind of entrepreneurial guys in the world of mixed martial arts to back an MMA league that they were starting up to compete with the - sort of the established league, Ultimate Fighting Championship. So his big star with whom he appeared at press conferences - this was in 2008, just so people have a sense of the timeline. Well before he ran for president. His big star is a guy who is buddies with Putin and a big hero in Russia.

And in addition to this, there is a plan which is described in a press release that was put out by this league, which I think was called Affliction Entertainment, which promises a reality show that will be based in St. Petersburg, Russia where up-and-comers get to compete for the chance to fight Fedor. Its going to be called "Fighting Fedor." And Trump, I believe, was going to be the executive producer, and in the press release said that he would even be going to St. Petersburg for the show.

So this league doesn't do very well. It's a fiasco. It seems never to have been very well organized or thought-out. They stage, I think, maybe three pay-per-view events and basically declare bankruptcy. And it ends in litigation, and everyone's mad at each other. But, Terry, it's just one more example of Trump having ties to business in a relationship with Russia that kind of makes you scratch your head. And I want to underscore again there's a lot that's great about Russia. And I think sometimes it is true that we get carried away in the U.S. with Russia phobia, which is not to say that Putin has not done a lot of really terrible things.

But it's not that there's anything wrong with doing business in Russia. It's just - it's not clear what ties all this together. Why is Trump so interested in Russia? Why does Trump have this disproportionate amount of activity and interest in and affinity toward Russia? And the story of Fedor is one more mysterious data point.

GROSS: So in both of the stories that you told, the one about the mixed martial arts and the other about the Miss Universe pageant, Donald Trump's main connections have been to billionaires in Russia.

CROWLEY: Right. And Trump has other relations to very wealthy Russians. And I think this is important to include in our conversation, you know. Again, we don't know what his precise financial ties, dealings, obligations are because we haven't seen his tax returns. But there is a body of evidence to suggest that, you know, Russian money has played an important role in his real estate projects.

So there are real estate deals he wanted to do in Russia that never got off the ground. But we've seen, for instance, his son saying that - a few years ago at a conference - that Russians make up a disproportionate or significant - I forget the precise word he used - amount of the money that they're making on their properties.

And we also know that Trump once sold a mansion in Palm Beach for $100 million, which at the time was the highest sale price on a real estate deal, to a Russian oligarch. But he seems to know quite a lot of oligarchs.

GROSS: So I want to change the subject here. One of the questions hanging over the election is the Russian hack of Democratic emails, of the DNC, of John Podesta. And the American intelligence agencies agree that those were Russian hacks. But one way or another, those documents that were published and written about in the press were the results of a criminal hack by a foreign country.

So as a journalist covering foreign affairs, writing extensively about Trump and Russia, did you think through a lot whether it was appropriate to publish those documents and whether publishing those documents were, in some way, helping Russia do its work in, you know, messing around with our democracy?

CROWLEY: I did think about this a lot, Terry. And I think that very serious and intelligent people can disagree. I did not write about the emails myself - I think with one exception relating to an email from the Obama-Bush transition in 2008 that had to do with the Bush administration's policy on Iraq, so kind of a long ago matter that didn't really have anything to do with the actors in the campaign. But people can make their own judgment about whether even that was appropriate to write about.

But it's very hard for a news organization. It's - I guess it's a kind of a form of game theory. You know, if everybody's doing it and you're the only one not doing it, what are you accomplishing? I mean, do you - does it look like you're kind of taking yourself out of a conversation? Are you cutting off your ability to help people understand what's happening? Or do you stand on principle? And I guess, again, different people reach different conclusions.

I myself wasn't enthusiastic about the coverage of the emails. And I think that it would be great - it's happening to some degree now - but I would love to see a more robust, deep, ongoing conversation about what to do when the next one of these things happens because it will. And I think that that conversation was not sufficiently had after the Sony email hack by the North Korean government. And, again, in that case, everyone just ran with the emails and, I think, didn't consider the implications of it. And you have to have that conversation before the next wave.

And I'll just add, Terry, that, you know, one of (laughter) the most interesting and somewhat unsettling questions in play right now is, what else do they have? I don't think we can assume that everything the Russians got is out. And I don't think we can assume that if more stuff comes it's only going to involve Democrats. It's quite possible that there is material on Republicans and possibly even Trump himself which the Russians could use strategically, particularly if the relationship starts to hit a bad patch again.

GROSS: You're talking about blackmail really, right?

CROWLEY: Potentially. I mean, I can't say that I know that there is specific information that would be used that way. I can say that there is - I mean, any sane person who's following this can understand how easy it is to get material that's compromising, that embarrasses people. And when you talk to security experts and foreign policy experts, they all seem to think that the odds are very high that the Russians have a lot more stuff and that we don't know what it is.

And that would fit a Russian pattern. They blackmail people all the time. They destroy opponents with embarrassing information or videotapes. They even plant false information. The word is kompromat. The New York Times did an excellent story a week or two ago about a - I believe he was, like, a Russian political dissident living outside of the country who had child pornography found on his computer by the authorities. And there seems to be compelling evidence that it was planted on him.

So we need to have smart conversations now about how the press will deal with that stuff when it happens again. But I fear that the media ecosystem now is so atomized and so decentralized that even that conversation may not really provide thoughtful guidance as opposed to just a frenzy in the moment.

GROSS: Well, Michael Crowley, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

CROWLEY: It's been a great pleasure. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Michael Crowley is Politico's chief foreign affairs correspondent. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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