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Michael Isikoff On Maria Butina And Russia

NOEL KING, HOST:

So the big question this week - who is Maria Butina? We're learning more about the Russian woman who's charged with being a covert agent in the U.S. The Justice Department says Butina has been in regular contact with Russian intelligence. Yesterday, she was deemed a flight risk by a judge, and so now she's being held before trial.

Last spring, Michael Isikoff published a book. And in it, he wrote about her. It's called "Russian Roulette: The Inside Story Of Putin's War On America And The Election Of Donald Trump." Michael Isikoff is with me now. Good morning.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Hey. Good to be with you.

KING: So I cannot get over this detail. You wrote a book last spring. Maria Butina was in your book. How is it that she was on your radar so long ago, but we're all just learning about her now?

ISIKOFF: Well, first of all, the book was out this spring - in March of this year. But she had been on my radar and other journalists' for quite some time, starting in the 2016 campaign, where people noticed that she had been sort of popping up at political events - conservative political events. Actually, she'd been doing so for some time - Conservative Political Action Conferences, NRA conventions, National Prayer Breakfasts.

And she said - she described to people how she was - had founded a Russian gun rights group.

KING: OK.

ISIKOFF: There wasn't much of a gun rights movement in Russia, so that seemed odd. But she seemed totally focused on forging these relationships with conservative political activists.

KING: Were people actively suspicious of her? Did you find her suspicious at all?

ISIKOFF: Well, I - actually, as we reported in the book - David Corn and I - there's a Republican lobbyist who remembers being approached by her at a CPAC conference - Conservative Political Action Conference - and just being struck by how solicitous she was, how she wanted to stay in touch with him and become his Facebook friend. And this is a somewhat elderly gentleman, balding, wasn't used to this kind of attention from a young, attractive Russian woman. And he, you know, began asking, like, why - what's going on here? And this kept happening time and again.

And, you know, by the time of the presidential campaign, which really begins when Donald Trump announces in June of 2015. Just a few weeks later, Trump goes to a conservative event in Las Vegas - FreedomFest. Maria Butina is there. There's a Q&A session. Trump calls on her. She asks about sanctions - what would he do about sanctions against Russia? Hardly a top-level issue at the time. And Trump gives a five-minute answer saying, you know, if I'm elected, you won't need sanctions. I know Putin. Putin knows me. We'll get along. And there, the Russians had Trump on record saying he'd ease sanctions if he was elected president.

KING: Why do you think it took so long for an indictment to come out against her?

ISIKOFF: Well, I think that the - this grows out of, in some ways, the Russia investigation. I think all of that put more attention on the FBI's counterintelligence mission. And they began, you know - there were press - there were press stories about her. But I should say, the most significant part of all this - I mean, there are a lot of salacious details about offering sex for, you know, to become part of some special interest organization. We're not clear what that was. She had, apparently, a relationship with a conservative activist who was helping her.

KING: These things reported today, yeah.

ISIKOFF: Yes. But the real significance here is her handler, as it were, this guy Aleksandr Torshin. And he is a suspected money launderer who had been nearly arrested by the Spanish National Police. He got tipped off. But he was also coming - entering the United States frequently for many of these events and was very tight with Putin. It's clear from the indictment here the feds suspect he is Russian intelligence, and this was all part of a Russian intelligence plot.

KING: All right. Maybe we'll do another segment on him. Michael Isikoff is chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News. Thank you.

ISIKOFF: Sure enough. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.