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How Russian Maria Butina Figures Into The Trump Administration

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We'd like to turn now to that other big story this week. It's another chapter in the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections. A woman named Maria Butina admitted this week that she acted as an unregistered foreign agent who tried to infiltrate the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party to further Russian interests. We wanted to learn more about Maria Butina and her case and what it all means in the big picture, so we've called New York Times reporter Matthew Rosenberg. He's here with us in Washington, D.C.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

MATTHEW ROSENBERG: Thanks.

MARTIN: So, first of all, who is Maria Butina? And who did she portray herself to be?

ROSENBERG: So she is a Russian woman - she's 30 years old - who early in her life became this kind of pro-gun advocate in Russia, where their gun ownership laws are rather strict. And, through this kind of campaign she was on, she met a powerful Russian politician. And he was close with people in the NRA. He was this conservative Christian Russian. And so she then started coming to the United States, going to NRA conventions and getting to know people.

MARTIN: So what exactly did she do wrong?

ROSENBERG: That's the hard thing here. If she is working at the direction of a foreign government coming in to try and promote a pro-Russian view of the world, then you are working as a foreign agent. You're supposed to register. And I think that's the thing. Her defenders would say, look - this is a naive young woman who loved guns, loved the church.

You know, she found right-wing Americans she had a lot in common with, and she just wanted to kind of give this positive view of her homeland. But there's another way of looking at this. This Russian politician she was working with is part of - a leading member of Vladimir Putin's party. There was an oligarch who helped finance some of this. And she worked with Americans.

MARTIN: So she pleaded guilty, and she has - as part of this agreement, she's agreed to cooperate with prosecutors as part of her plea deal. What information might she have?

ROSENBERG: In the plea deal, it says that she agreed and conspired with two people - the Russian politician and an American who is not identified in the indictment but we know is her boyfriend. He is a man named Paul Erickson. He is a 50-something Republican operative who ran Pat Buchanan's campaign in '92, was a member of the board of the American Conservative Union until 2014. He is a very kind of well-connected Republican figure. If he was somehow part of some effort to kind of bring Russians in - maybe through money or other elements into the NRA or conservative elements - then this is a pretty significant case.

MARTIN: So, again, so that really does lead to the central question we've heard over and over again from President Trump that there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia. Does this case - does Maria Butina's case give us any clues one way or another about that central question?

ROSENBERG: It really doesn't. You know, Erickson was kind of loosely affiliated with the campaign, but that's because he was a Republican operative, not - he was not in Trump's inner circle. And this case is separate from the Mueller investigation. It's being done by a different team. But it does give us pretty good insight into the kind of broader campaign by a number of Russians to kind of get their hooks into American organizations and try and promote views of Russia as a friend, not a foe.

MARTIN: That's Matthew Rosenberg, national security reporter for The New York Times.

Matthew, thank you so much.

ROSENBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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