Nov 4, 2019

Key takeaways from Russian agent Maria Butina's "60 Minutes" interview

Maria Butina at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport after being deported from the U.S. following her Oct. 25 release from prison. Photo: Mikhail Japaridze/TASS via Getty Images

Convicted Russian agent Maria Butina spoke with "60 Minutes" on accusations that she was trying to influence U.S. policies and the NRA for the Kremlin in an interview broadcast Sunday. And she outlined why she asked then-presidential candidate Donald Trump about Russian sanctions at a 2015 event.

Why it matters: Maria Butina is the first Russian national convicted for seeking to influence U.S. politics during the 2016 campaign. She pled guilty in 2018 to conspiracy charges alleging she worked with her American boyfriend, Republican operative Paul Erickson, to infiltrate conservative circles including in the NRA with the goal of influencing U.S. policy on behalf of the Kremlin.

Highlights from the "60 Minutes" interview

On her exchange with President Trump in 2015 at the Libertarian convention FreedomFest:

  • CBS played footage of Butina asking Trump if he wanted to "continue the politics of sanctions that are damaging on both economies," to which he replied, "I don't think you'd need the sanctions. I think that we would get along very, very well."
CBS journalist Lesley Stahl: "One of the goals of the Russian government at this point in time was to get rid of those sanctions. It was a major goal."
Butina: "It was also a major goal for every Russian citizen that suffers today from these sanctions, I believe that our countries shall not fight." 

On the NRA:

Butina: "We were trying to get the changes in Russian law that would allow guns for self-defense."
Stahl: "So you hear that, an American hears that, and they say, 'Come on, [Russian President] Putin is not going to allow people to run around owning guns.' Here's the case against you, that you started this organization as a way to infiltrate the NRA here to meet people as a way in to influence us." 
Butina: "That's nonsense."
Stahl: "But you did that. You used your organization to meet people in the NRA."
Butina: "The NRA, for us, has always been an example. Because there is no more powerful lobbyist gun group in the world than the NRA. Learning from them was an honor."

On Russian official Alexander Torshin, who gave her directions in the U.S., per court papers:

Stahl: "So you wrote him a message and you said, 'You are an influential member of [Putin's] team.' Your words."
Butina: "It doesn't suggest he's close to Putin in any way."
Stahl: "But was he an influential member of Putin's team?"
Butina: "I don't know."

Reality check: Stahl also spoke with John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security, whose office helped prosecute Butina. Demers viewed her CBS interview and called it "a masterpiece of disinformation."

Background: Butina was sentenced in April to 18 months in prison, with credit for nine months already served. She was released on Oct. 25 and deported to Russia.

  • Butina's case was handled separately from former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
  • The fallout from her case saw Patrick Byrne resign as CEO of online retailer in August after he admitted to having a relationship with Butina from 2015 to 2018. He said he helped law enforcement agents with their "Clinton Investigation" and "Russia Investigation," per the New York Times.

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