Fellow White House correspondent Philip Crowther of France and I were most excited to learn Maria Butina, head of the Russian version of the National Rifle Association, would be joining us for lunch on October 27, 2016.
A bright, beautiful redhead with a slight but distinct accent, the Siberia-born Butina was increasingly becoming a presence at conservative functions—notably those related to the NRA.
This was someone, Philip and I agreed, that we wanted to get on the record and possibly on the air for our respective TV networks.
Memories of that lunch came back to us in a big way Monday night, as the Department of Justice announced Butina, 29, was arrested on July 15 on charges of conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian Federation within the United States without prior notification to the attorney general.
Specifically, the Justice Department said Butina operated as a Russian agent “by developing relationships with U.S. persons and infiltrating organizations having influence in U.S. politics, for the purpose of advancing the interests of the Russian Federation.”
The maximum penalty for conspiracy is five years in prison.
All of this didn’t even enter into our imaginations, as Crowther and I questioned Butina during our two hours at Washington’s venerable Joe’s Seafood Restaurant in 2016.
She recalled to us how her organization, “The Right to Bear Arms,” was born in 2010 at the request of Lt. Gen. Mikhail Kalashnikov. Famed as the inventor of the AK-47, Kalashnikov, who died in 2013 at age 94, was no friend of Vladimir Putin and reportedly urged Butina to “give Putin hell” as head of her Russian-style NRA.
But Butina preferred to talk more about Donald Trump than Putin. She had met him in April 2015 at the NRA national convention in Nashville. At the Freedom Fest rally in Las Vegas two months later, she asked the Republican presidential hopeful if he would improve relations with her country. Trump replied, “[W]e’ll get along with Putin…I don’t think you need the sanctions.”
“Some people say that Russians have this 6th sense and sometimes can predict great things ahead,” she wrote Crowther and me to thank us for lunch. “[T]his is what I feel after our meeting. I feel that we will be having some interesting and important deals together.”
This was inarguably “red meat” for an on-camera interview with Philip or me. For more than a year, through emails and two subsequent visits, I urged Butina to sit down and talk about the same things she did at lunch.
“I love you,” she invariably replied, using the term of endearment, “but I am now studying to complete my master’s degree at American University. When I’m finished, I’ll contact you.”
She never did. As surprised as I am that she may very well be a spy for the Kremlin, I am not sorry I met with her. As Philip Crowther later wrote, “I was never going to turn down lunch with Maria Butina. As sources go, she was among the most promising.”
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