The yawning gap between the world as it exists and the world as President Trump sees it was on vivid display Wednesday.
A few minutes after noon, reporters in the White House were being ushered out of a Cabinet meeting they had been allowed to witness. One called out a question: “Is Russia still targeting the U.S., Mr. President?”
Trump replied with a shake of the head: “Thank you very much. No.”
“No? You don’t believe that to be the case?”
“No,” Trump repeated (though his spokeswoman would try her best later to undo it).
Just over an hour later, a striking young woman, with orange hair and a matching prison jumpsuit, was led, scowling, into Courtroom Four of the U.S. District Courthouse at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. According to the Justice Department – Trump’s Justice Department – this woman, Maria Butina, is a Russian national who, until her arrest Sunday, “engaged in a years-long conspiracy to work covertly in the United States as an undeclared agent of the Russian Federation.” Her “covert influence campaign,” directed by a senior Russian government official to advance Russia’s interests, involved international coordination, planning and deceit.
How is it possible that Trump can assert that Russia is not targeting the United States – three days after he suggested it didn’t interfere with the 2016 election – while just a few blocks away, his own administration is prosecuting a Russian for targeting the United States?
Butina did not speak but ran her hands through her long hair as her lawyer said she would be pleading not guilty. She sat, conferring quietly with lawyers, as prosecutors expanded on a written court filing packed with allegations right out of “The Americans”: a duplicitous romantic relationship, an offer of sex for employment, a wire transfer to Russia and a possible plan to flee the country or be “exfiltrated” by Russian intelligence.
Butina isn’t part of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s portfolio (regular Justice Department prosecutors are handling the case), and her alleged activities – trying to gain access to American leaders through the National Rifle Association, Conservative Political Action Conference and National Prayer Breakfast – were relatively anodyne. But unlike the Russians indicted by Mueller for hacking the Democratic National Committee and for running a troll farm, Butina is in U.S. custody. Here is possible Russian political meddling – in the flesh.
In court, DOJ prosecutor Erik Kenerson claimed Butina has ties to the Russian intelligence services and oligarchs and was considered a covert Russian agent by a senior Russian official, believed based on descriptions in the complaint to be Alexander Torshin, deputy director of Russia’s central bank.
The 29-year-old Russian, attending classes at American University, was in a relationship with “U.S. Person 1” – a person who matches the description of Paul Erickson, a 56-year-old Republican political operative – but prosecutors said Butina, in documents seized by the FBI, complained about living with him. They said she offered another person “sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization.”
Kenerson described her as an extreme flight risk, painting a spy-novel scenario of a Russian diplomatic car driving her to the border. (Butina’s lawyer, Robert Driscoll, conceding this theoretical possibility, asked the judge if he could consult with Russian consular officials in the courtroom.)
Kenerson displayed an FBI surveillance photo of her at a D.C. restaurant with a “suspected Russian intelligence operative.” He also displayed a photo of Butina at the Capitol on Trump’s Inauguration Day, and described an exchange between the two: “You’re a daredevil girl,” Torshin said in response to the photo.
Replied Butina: “Good teachers!”
Whatever else Butina was, she was a savvy political actor. She believed in March 2015 that Republicans would win the White House, and that, to build “constructive relations” with Republicans, she would use the NRA, which she described as the “central place and influence” in the GOP and “the largest sponsor of the elections to the U.S. Congress.” She got to ask Trump about Russia during a 2015 town hall and meet Donald Trump Jr. at an NRA convention.
This is what makes Trump’s utterances about Russia impossible to stomach. On Wednesday, even before he claimed Russia isn’t targeting America, Trump tweeted that people who “HATE the fact that I got along well with President Putin” suffer from “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”
No, what they hate is seeing Russia – still – infiltrating and undermining the American political process, and an American president who is willfully blind to it as he cozies up to the man responsible.
Dana Milbank is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter, @Milbank.
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