Fox News host Tucker Carlson defended alleged Russian spy Maria Butina as someone “trying to bring the U.S. and Russia closer together” and said she was facing a “BS charge” following her arrest by the FBI in July 2018.
Butina, who sought to infiltrate the National Rifle Association and other conservative political circles as part of Russia’s wide-ranging effort to influence U.S. politics, spent 15 months in a federal prison and was deported in October 2019. After returning to Russia, she worked for RT, that nation’s propaganda network, and was elected to the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament.
Butina has been in the news this week for telling the BBC that Ukrainian president President Vlodymyr Zelensky, a Jewish descendant of Holocaust survivors, is a “Nazi,” and falsely claiming that Ukraine, and not Russia, is bombing Ukrainian cities.
Carlson addressed Butina’s case days after her arrest, on the July 18, 2018, edition of his prime time show. Describing Butina as a “Russian citizen” and a “pro-gun activist,” Carlson said she was “in jail” with the government “trying to deny her bail” even though it was unclear what she had done wrong.
“I'm not defending her. I have no idea if she's a good person or not,” Carlson told Fox contributor Byron York as he wound up to defend her. “But from what I could tell, she didn't steal anything. I couldn't even understand what her agenda was.”
“From the news stories, The Washington Post made it sound like she was trying to bring the U.S. and Russia closer together and now she's in jail. What is her crime?” Carlson continued.
After York said that Butina was “charged with representing a foreign country without registering,” Carlson downplayed the charge.
“So, just a quick off the top of your head calculation having lived in Washington for decades, how many people in this city are lobbying for foreign governments not registered under [the Foreign Agents Registration Act]?” he asked.
“A huge number,” York replied.
“A huge number. Like not hundreds, like thousands,” Carlson said, adding that “this is a weird story.”
York agreed, saying, “I have had people say to me, look, if the FBI had evidence that she was in touch with her Russian handlers handling over the nuclear codes, she would not have been charged with this foreign registration.”
“With this BS charge, she would have a real charge,” Carlson interjected.
Butina pleaded guilty on a federal charge of conspiring to act as an unregistered Russian agent in December 2018. “Butina admitted to working with an American political operative under the direction of a former Russian senator – now the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank – to forge connections with officials at the National Rifle Association, conservative leaders and candidates in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, including Donald Trump, whose rise to the White House she presciently predicted to her Russian contact,” the Post reported.
The Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee also examined Butina’s case as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“The committee found that Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin engaged in a multiyear influence campaign and intelligence-gathering effort targeting the N.R.A., the Republican Party and conservative U.S. political organizations for the benefit of the Russian government,” according to the committee’s final report. “Their goal was to develop and use back-channel communications to influence U.S. policy outside of the formal diplomatic process to Russia’s advantage and to the detriment of the United States.”
Carlson has a long history of promoting pro-Kremlin talking points on his Fox program, as Media Matters has documented, including claiming in 2019 that he would “root” for Russia and that the United States “should probably take the side of Russia if we have to choose between Russia and Ukraine.”
He vigorously defended Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin in the lead-up to this year’s invasion of Ukraine, but has more recently sought to pin the blame for that incursion on President Joe Biden and his administration.