ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Just hours after the meeting between President Trump and Vladimir Putin, the Justice Department had a surprise. Authorities charged a Russian graduate student with carrying out an influence campaign here in the U.S. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is following that story and is here in the studio to discuss it. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Tell us about this graduate student. What do we know about her and what she was allegedly doing here in Washington?
JOHNSON: Her name is Maria Butina. She entered the U.S. in August 2016 on a student visa to study international relations at American University here in Washington. But the Justice Department says she was actually working for Russia, writing articles in conservative publications, setting up meetings between Russians and Americans, attending the National Prayer Breakfast, and our colleague Tim Mak has reported, cozying up to the National Rifle Association.
The goal here was to get close to Republican officials and influence American policy toward Russia. She's accused of one count of conspiracy to violate the law known as FARA, the Foreign Agent Registration Act.
SHAPIRO: So if she was acting on behalf of the Russian government, she should have registered. She didn't register. If this was a conspiracy, it involved more than one person. Who are the other people likely involved?
JOHNSON: No one else was named by their actual name in these court filings. But a U.S. person was described as sending an email that he had a very private line of communication between the Kremlin and others in the Republican Party right before the election. Sources tell me that's Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican operative who's been linked to Butina. And he is not charged in these court papers, but I'm told the investigation into him continues, not just on this front but also into his finances.
These documents also describe a Russian official - a member of the legislature, an official at the Central Bank who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2018. Those same sources tell me that's Aleksandr Torshin, who's made a lot of visits to the U.S., tweeted a lot about the NRA. The court papers say Butina often reported back to Torshin about her activities via email and Twitter.
SHAPIRO: And what does Maria Butina have to say about all this?
JOHNSON: Well, her lawyer Robert Driscoll says she looks forward to clearing her name. He says these charges are overblown. Butina was arrested on Sunday here in D.C., but FBI agents searched her apartment many months ago in April. This investigation's been going on for a while. She's being held right now without bond in the D.C. jail, and she's due back in court in D.C. Wednesday for a detention hearing.
SHAPIRO: Now these charges come just a few days after this bombshell Friday news conference where the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, announced charges against 12 Russians who were involved in the campaign to hack Democrats during the 2016 election. Is there any connection between these cases?
JOHNSON: Well, this case today against Maria Butina is being handled by federal prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's Office in D.C. and the Justice Department's National Security Division, not the special counsel Robert Mueller, who's investigating other forms of Russian election interference.
The Justice Department didn't address the timing of this new charge today. The documents only went out after the summit between President Trump and Putin had ended. People can draw their own conclusions, I guess, about the timing.
I did call the special counsel's office today to see if Robert Mueller had any reaction to the criticism from both Trump and Putin of his investigation. As expected, Ari, there was no comment from the Mueller camp...
SHAPIRO: As usual.
JOHNSON: ...I guess, as usual.
SHAPIRO: It sounds like Maria Butina was a rather public figure, going to the National Prayer Breakfast, meeting with officials from the NRA. Are Americans who interacted with her over those periods going to be nervous now about potentially having been involved in what they may or may not have known was a conspiracy?
JOHNSON: This investigation is ongoing by the U.S. Attorney's Office in D.C. and federal national security prosecutors based at the Justice Department in Washington. The fact that other people were identified in the documents as Person 1 or Person 2 means the investigation continues. We're going to have to see where it all leads.
SHAPIRO: NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks, Carrie.
JOHNSON: My pleasure.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.