AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The Justice Department is charging a Russian woman with conspiracy as part of the attack on the 2016 presidential election. Her name is Maria Butina, and she has a hearing in court on Wednesday. We're going to talk now about where she fits into the larger story about the campaign to influence the presidential election.
And with us now to have that talk is NPR's national security editor Philip Ewing. Hey, Phil.
PHILIP EWING, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: So who exactly is Maria Butina, and what are prosecutors accusing her of having done?
EWING: She's a young Russian woman. She's 29. And she's been a part of an effort by a handful of Russians and Americans to build political relationships in the United States via gun rights. And actually, her story is a little bit familiar to people who've been following the Russia investigation. Our colleague Tim Mak has actually done a lot of the reporting about this. Butina and a Russian government official named Aleksandr Torshin were gun rights activists inside of Russia. Now, Russians don't enjoy Second Amendment rights. They don't have the kind of access to guns that Americans do. But as they begin to advocate for that, they begin to build relationships with the American National Rifle Association.
And that road worked two ways. They were able to come from Russia to the United States, in some cases physically, and try and build connections via the NRA with American political leaders. Now, the FBI and the Justice Department say that Butina was basically acting as an agent of the foreign government - in this case Russia - by working with this other Russian, Aleksandr Torshin, and an American fundraiser named Paul Erickson. They say that she broke the law by not registering and that she also was conspiring with these other people to break the law, which is the substance of this criminal complaint.
CHANG: And why would Russians allegedly be so focused on currying favor with the NRA? Is that a reflection of their perception that the NRA is critically influential in politics here?
EWING: The Russians wanted Trump to win. The NRA is a very powerful organization in the United States. It seems like a very obvious way for them to gain entry into the world of Republican politics, which is what this criminal complaint describes. There's also a number of messages in the court documents from Butina to other people talking about these efforts, talking about the goals of influencing the presidential race in 2016. And there's evidence from elsewhere that supports this thesis. In fact, the House Intelligence Committee earlier this year released an email by one of the Americans who's involved, this Paul Erickson, to people who are working for the Trump campaign.
And I'm just going to read it to you now. Here's what he wrote. (Reading) I'm writing to you in your roles as Trump foreign policy experts, advisers. Happenstance and the sometimes international reach of the NRA placed me in a position a couple of years ago to slowly begin cultivating a back channel to President Putin's Kremlin. Russia is quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S. that isn't forthcoming under the current administration.
So the Russians wanted a new administration. They wanted it to be a Republican administration and to be an administration of President Donald Trump. In fact, we heard the Russian president Mr. Putin say on Monday in Helsinki with Trump that, yes, he did support Trump in 2016. What these court documents suggest is there were all kinds of other efforts taking place behind the scenes to bring that about.
CHANG: So this criminal complaint against Butina - this did not come out of special counsel Robert Mueller's office, right?
EWING: That's right. This is from the National Security Division of the Justice Department.
CHANG: So how is it connected to this wider investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election?
EWING: Well, one thing it tells us is that there were many paths or lanes for what intelligence types call these active measures that Russia has been waging against the United States. We know about the cyberattacks, the theft of emails that were later released to embarrass their targets. We know about the targeting of state election systems, secretary of state's offices and voter records and things of that nature. And we know about the contacts for human people working for the Trump campaign made by Russian intelligence officers. And what it also tells us is that according to the Justice Department, there were also these human agents working inside the United States, too.
CHANG: All right, that's NPR's Phil Ewing. Thank you, Phil.
EWING: Thank you.
CHANG: And a final note - Butina was indicted in Washington, D.C., this afternoon by a grand jury.
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