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Maria Butina To Appear In Court


The woman who is accused of conspiring to act as a Russian agent inside the U.S. will appear in court today. Her name is Maria Butina, and she has been detained since Sunday on a charge of conspiracy. Prosecutors say she was trying to influence American policymakers to favor Russian interests. NPR's national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following this story. Good morning, Carrie.


KING: All right. So a grand jury indicted Maria Butina on Tuesday afternoon. What is the indictment charge?

JOHNSON: So a couple of charges - one is conspiracy and the second is acting as an agent of Russia inside the U.S. Authorities say this 29-year-old woman, Maria Butina, came to the U.S. in 2016 on a student visa to study international relations. But in that paperwork, she falsely reported she had stopped working for a top Russian official named Aleksandr Torshin. In fact, the FBI says she continued to work at his direction here inside the U.S., attending events like the National Prayer Breakfast. The goal was to meet influential Republicans and influence American policy to steer it toward Russia, all without registering as an agent with the Justice Department as she was allegedly required to do.

KING: All right. Butina denies these charges through her American lawyer. But we have not actually heard anything from her yet. She's going to appear in court today. What are you expecting?

JOHNSON: Yeah. She's scheduled to appear at the federal courthouse here in Washington, D.C., this afternoon for a hearing. She's been locked up in the D.C. jail since Sunday when she was arrested by the FBI. And she would like to get out. Both sides today are going to fight about whether she should be able to leave jail. Prosecutors may suggest she poses some kind of threat to public safety or national security and a flight risk since, of course, she's a Russian citizen. Now, Maria Butina's lawyer, Robert Driscoll, says there is no such threat. He points out that she stayed in touch for months with authorities even though the FBI executed a search warrant on her apartment in D.C. as far back as April - several months ago.

KING: There's a really interesting detail in this case, which is that over the past couple days, a lot of pictures have emerged of this woman with very well-known political figures. How does that fit into the Justice Department case?

JOHNSON: Well, the Justice Department says while she was studying at American University, she was actually spending a lot of time cozying up to influential people, attending events like that, a National Rifle Association conference - actually several of them. She was a member of that group. She set up meals between Russians and Americans here in D.C. She wrote at least one op-ed piece arguing for an improvement of relations with Russia. And, Noel, of course, as you mentioned, she even turned up at events on the campaign trail. There, she met Donald Trump Jr. and took a photo with him, even though we're told it may have just been a brief encounter. Lots of those photos have been circulating online since her arrest.

KING: All right. How does all of this fit into the larger investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election?

JOHNSON: This case involving Maria Butina is being handled by prosecutors in the U.S. attorney's office here in D.C. and the National Security Division at the Justice Department, not the special counsel, Robert Mueller. But these charges do add some new details about how far Russia was willing to go to reach inside U.S. politics. In fact, the FBI affidavit in the Butina case talks about correspondence that she had with others about who might become Donald Trump's secretary of state and whether that would help or hurt Russia - so lots of new detail here about the Russian influence campaign.

KING: All right. NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson; thank you, Carrie.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.