Piecing Together The Story Of Russian Maria Butina
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders says discussions are underway about a meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the White House this fall. Now, meanwhile, in 2015, the magazine The National Interest published a column that began like this - it may take the election of a Republican to the White House to improve relations between the Russian Federation and the United States. The author of that column was Maria Butina. She's the 29-year-old Russian woman accused of being an unregistered foreign agent inside the U.S. Her attorney has denied the charges.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Journalist David Corn has written about Maria Butina in the book "Russian Roulette: The Inside Story Of Putin's War On America And The Election Of Donald Trump." I asked Corn, do you think of Butina as a spy or something else?
DAVID CORN: The legal filings suggest she's something of a quasi-spy.
CORN: She was sent here, they claim, by a Russian official, a high-ranking Russian official named Aleksandr Torshin who is the deputy director of the Central Bank and holds a high position in Putin's political party. And the goal was to penetrate, infiltrate Republican and conservative organizations - mainly the NRA but not just the NRA - in order to influence conservative Republican thought leaders to get them to have a better position towards Russia. Now, we've learned in the last couple of days that while she was doing this, prosecutors allege she was in touch with Russian intelligence. So that makes it seem like this might have been a bigger operation than just her working for one Putin crony.
SHAPIRO: I'm no expert, but that sounds like being a spy.
CORN: It sounds very close. But they have not charged her with being a spy.
CORN: They've charged her with being an agent and not registering as an agent. Now, a bunch of reporters have long covered for the last year or two her activities because she did it in the open. And it was very, very curious.
SHAPIRO: There are photos of her with all kinds of prominent Republicans from the head of the NRA to past presidential candidates, Rick Santorum and others. It's not as though she was being extremely covert about what she was doing.
CORN: No, she was a Zelig of the right-wing movement. So there was always a question. Who is this woman? And in the book I wrote, we quote people who were at the NRA, NRA activists who talked about her coming up to them and basically soliciting their friendship. Will you be my Facebook friend? Will you Snapchat with me?
SHAPIRO: That was her approach, be my Facebook friend, Snapchat with me?
CORN: Yeah, Instagram. And some of these folks were 60-year-old guys who said, we're not that used to having young, attractive Russian women approaching us and saying, be my friend.
CORN: But it wasn't just the social interactions that she had. She ended up having an impact. She attended a conservative event in 2015 in Las Vegas, a conference put on by evangelicals. And a lot of the Republican candidates attended that, including a man named Donald Trump.
SHAPIRO: She asked him a question at that event.
CORN: She asked him a key question. She asked him the most important question there is for the Kremlin.
SHAPIRO: We have tape of that. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Yes, ma'am.
MARIA BUTINA: I am visiting from Russia. So my question...
TRUMP: Oh, Putin - good friend of Obama, Putin.
BUTINA: My question...
TRUMP: He likes Obama a lot. Go ahead.
BUTINA: My question will be about foreign politics.
BUTINA: If you would be elected as the president, what will be your foreign politics, especially in the relationships with my country? And do you want to continue the politics of sanctions that are damaging of both economy, or you have any other ideas?
CORN: Now, of course Trump went on to say he didn't think they needed sanctions, that he'd have a beautiful relationship with Putin. So this is a big deal for the Kremlin. Now, he wasn't, you know, immediately a leader of the pack or someone who you expected to win the White House. But getting him on record saying he was against the sanctions is a bit of a coup for them.
And more importantly, months later when top Trump campaign advisers reviewed this tape, they were astounded. They could not believe this event had happened in the sense that it was a Russian who got the first question, who put it to Trump, who had a answer for this that seemed on point. And they wondered amongst themselves - I'm talking about people like Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon - if somehow this had been a setup.
SHAPIRO: Given how much more we know now than we did then, do you think it was a setup?
CORN: Well, it certainly was the aim of the operation.
SHAPIRO: To get candidate Trump to say on the record that he opposed sanctions against Russia.
CORN: And to get any prominent Republican to say that or any prominent conservative.
SHAPIRO: Do you think there are other Maria Butinas operating in the United States?
CORN: That's a good question. We do know that in all these indictments it's kind of boilerplate language, what they say - this is not everything we know. So I'm thinking there may be more in terms of Russian influence operations that have yet to be uncovered.
SHAPIRO: David Corn is Washington bureau chief of Mother Jones and co-author of the book "Russian Roulette: The Inside Story Of Putin's War On America And The Election Of Donald Trump." Thanks for joining us.
CORN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.