ON "60 MINUTES": IN HER FIRST U.S. TV INTERVIEW, MARIA BUTINA, THE RUSSIAN WOMAN CHARGED WITH ACTING AS A FOREIGN AGENT WITHOUT REGISTERING, SAYS SHE WAS ACTING IN GOOD FAITH
60 MINUTES Obtains Thousands of Butina's Twitter Messages
Fresh out of a U.S. federal prison, the Russian woman who made headlines last year when she was arrested for failing to register as a foreign agent tells Lesley Stahl she was acting in good faith. Maria Butina appears in her first U.S. television interview on the next edition of 60 MINUTES Sunday, Nov. 3 (7:30-8:30 PM, ET/7:00-8:00 PM, PT) on the CBS Television Network.
The 30-year-old Russian pled guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent after her arrest in July 2018. She was in the U.S. on a student visa and had been attending NRA events regularly. She posted pictures of herself at the events - including with Republican officials Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum - and organized meetings in Moscow between senior NRA members and top Russian officials. She communicated regularly with a Russian back home named Alexander Torshin, who was at the meetings with NRA members.
Butina says the appearances of her actions painted a distorted picture; she was here to foster good relations between Russia and the U.S. "I think it's an American, very old saying that suggests that wolves have teeth, but not all animals with teeth are wolves. You cannot judge a person based on appearance."
John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security, says Butina "was an influence agent. She was getting access to Americans whom she thought were close to power in America." She broke the law, he says, because she acted as an agent of the Russian government while she was here "and pretended that she wasn't."
She also attended other political events, including a libertarian convention in Las Vegas, where she posed a question from the audience to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. She began helping organize U.S.-Russian friendship dinners. In one of thousands of Twitter messages between them obtained by 60 MINUTES, she wrote to Torshin in Russia: "These dinners will make it possible to exert the speediest and most effective influence on the process of making decisions in the American establishment." Butina insists this message indicated her good intentions. "It's pretty explicit that I am seeking that our two countries establish friendship... I don't mean government, I mean people," she tells Stahl.
As the 2016 election drew closer, she claimed to have gotten close to Trump's Russia advisors, and wrote to Torshin: "We made our bet. I am following our game." To which Torshin replies, "This is the battle for the future. It cannot be lost... patience and cold blood." A week later, Butina writes to Torshin: "Only incognito. Right now everything has to be quiet and careful." When Stahl asks her what that was all about, Butina says, "Let me take you back to 2016... around the election time. Do you remember at that time how American media treated Russia? Everything was toxic. Tell me that there is no racism here against the Russians. Oh, please. It is." Pressed by Stahl that U.S. officials insist she was trying to influence U.S. policy, she says, "I never sought to influence your policies... I wanted to learn from the United States and make Russia better." She says her involvement with the NRA was a way to learn how to get gun ownership laws passed in Russia. Butina says she has been a firearms enthusiast since hunting with her father as a young girl in Siberia.
Butina makes a point to say the U.S. justice system is broken. She complained about the conditions in the jail she was initially kept in, saying there were cockroaches and no blankets or mattresses. She railed against the 117 days she spent in solitary confinement.
Demers says that Butina is trying to reach the Russian people and their president, Vladimir Putin, with this interview. "I have very little doubt the Russian government will leverage her as an instrument of propaganda... here was this poor, young, idealistic student... "
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