ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Maria Butina made her first appearance in federal court today. She was arrested on Sunday and accused of conspiring to act as a Russian agent inside the U.S. Prosecutors say her goal was to get American policymakers to act more favorably toward Russian interests.
NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson was in the courthouse and joins us now. Carrie, what happened in court today?
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: It was quite a dramatic two-hour hearing, Ari. Just before the hearing, lawyers for Maria Butina had sought to have her appear in court in civilian clothing and without any shackles or handcuffs. Well, Butina did enter the courtroom without any shackles or handcuffs, but she was wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, paid close attention throughout the proceedings. Ultimately, Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson concluded that the Justice Department had demonstrated by preponderance of evidence that no condition or combination of conditions could reasonably ensure that Maria Butina would appear for trial. And so she's been detained pending her trial on conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent charges.
SHAPIRO: The details of this case sound like something out of a Hollywood thriller or a spy novel. Tell us more about what prosecutors allege she did and what new details came out today.
JOHNSON: Yeah. Basically, authorities argue that she came to the U.S. on false pretenses, on a visa to work - to study as a graduate student at American University. But really, they say, it was part of a years-long influence campaign, covert influence campaign, to send this 29-year-old woman here into the U.S. to cultivate powerbrokers, to attend the National Prayer Breakfast, to attend conventions of the National Rifle Association and try to steer Russian - try to steer American policy toward the interest of Russia.
SHAPIRO: What are her lawyers presenting as her defense?
JOHNSON: Her lawyer basically says - her lawyer, Robert Driscoll, basically says that these charges are overblown. She's not a spy. He actually told the judge that Maria Butina is not a proxy for any of the serious and substantial issues that our country has with Russia right now.
But that stands in contrast, Ari, to new documents the Justice Department filed today saying that they have evidence that she was in contact with members of the FSB. That's the successor agency to the KGB. They found in her email contact list an email account listed with an FSB domain. They point out they had a picture of her taken at the U.S. Capitol on Inauguration Day January 2017. And they found direct messages between she and one of her handlers in Russia praising her and asking her to take specific steps here inside the U.S.
SHAPIRO: You've talked about this allegation that she was trying to influence U.S. policy. Of course there's the whole separate Mueller investigation about an attempt to influence a U.S. election. Are we aware of any overlap between the two?
JOHNSON: Well, this case involving Maria Butina is being handled by national security prosecutors here in Washington and the U.S. attorney's office in D.C., not the special counsel. But prosecutors did today in court argue that this shows the scope of the Russian influence campaign that goes back for years and years.
They said that an unnamed Russian oligarch had helped finance Butina's activities. They said they had photographic evidence of her having a meal this year in D.C. with a diplomat from Russia who was later expelled from the country as part of the sanctions the U.S. has imposed on Russia. And they also pointed out that she'd go to pretty great lengths. They claim that she offered an individual other than her American boyfriend sex in exchange for a job with a special interest organization.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson following this very salacious case for us. Thank you, Carrie.
JOHNSON: My pleasure.
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