KNBA - KBC

Why NRA Infiltrator Maria Butina Decided To Help Government Investigations

Dec 15, 2018
Originally published on December 15, 2018 11:38 am
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And this week, Maria Butina admitted that she wasn't just a student and Russian gun rights activist. She pled guilty to one count of conspiring to act as a foreign agent for Russia to infiltrate conservative circles in the United States, including the National Rifle Association. Robert Driscoll, her attorney, joins us in our studios. Mr. Driscoll, I know a lot of people are after you. Thank you for joining us.

ROBERT DRISCOLL: You're welcome, Scott.

SIMON: When you joined us in July, you told us her actions were not, quote, "the activities of a spy." You still contend that?

DRISCOLL: Yes. I don't think the government contends that she was a spy. She pled guilty to one count of failing to register as a foreign agent. But still, in her statement of the offense, the activities she undertook weren't necessarily covert or spycraft. There's no allegation she's a member of Russian intelligence. And I think that's worn out, although she did pled guilty - plead guilty and is accepting responsibility for not registering as a foreign agent.

SIMON: Yeah. What was she trying to do then?

DRISCOLL: She was trying to build bridges between the two countries, and through civil society groups, which I think happens with a lot of foreign nationals and foreign students.

SIMON: Well, build bridges or - I'm going to mix metaphors here - or create a road in for Russian interests?

DRISCOLL: Well, I think that it - a little bit of both. I mean, I think she's a typical millennial who was looking for...

SIMON: Excuse me. Not a typical millennial, but go ahead. Yes?

DRISCOLL: But I think, in Washington terms, she was looking for contacts and ways to advance herself on both sides in both countries and was - her gun rights interest was legitimate in Russia. I think that was her first entree into U.S. politics. And I think she got involved in that and, in retrospect, should have registered as a foreign agent under the interpretation that the DOJ has.

SIMON: Her cooperation agreement requires her to tell the Department of Justice anything she knows about potential criminal conduct by both Russians and Americans. Can you tell us anything about what that is?

DRISCOLL: Only that she's been willing to tell her story from the beginning. She testified voluntarily to the Senate intelligence committee in April before all of this. And she's never been hesitant to tell her story. And she'll tell her story if the government asks her to in whatever form they ask her to.

SIMON: What about U.S. person No. 1, Paul Erickson, the Republican political operative? He appears throughout the plea agreement. He and your client, I gather, had a romantic relationship. He apparently helped her establish those back-channel relations. Should he be indicted? Do you think he will be?

DRISCOLL: I mean, that's going to be up to the Department of Justice. I mean, I think if one takes the view the department has - the broad view of the foreign agent statute - there might be some risk there. But I don't think there's going to be any news about that beyond what's been in the statement of the offense.

SIMON: Are you worried about what happens if your client is sent back to Russia?

DRISCOLL: I'm not. If anyone knows she's not a member of Russian intelligence, it's the Russians. So I do not think they're concerned about any - her having any particular information of value that she would give to the American government. And I think that...

SIMON: But she has agreed to cooperate with the American government. Might that alone...

DRISCOLL: I don't believe so. I think they understand her situation, you know, well. And I think that if she were - I mean, I'm her attorney, and I'm doing what I think is in her best interest consulting with her. And she didn't express an interest in staying here and reaching an arrangement that would result in her staying here. She wanted to go home to her grandmother, who's aged and need some care, and to her parents in Siberia.

SIMON: I - and I have to ask you in the - I'm afraid - half-minute we have left, do you have any idea, Mr. Driscoll, how much the NRA has been supported by Russia? Aren't they trying to use the NRA to influence or to promote gun violence or division?

DRISCOLL: I'm not aware of that thread of the story from where I sit. I know that's been a popular speculation in the media. But I have not seen any evidence of that. But, again, you know, I assume others will look into that and see if there's anything there. But I haven't seen it from where I sit.

SIMON: Robert Driscoll represents Maria Butina. Thanks so much.

DRISCOLL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.