Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker downplayed his interaction with a woman accused of being a Russian operative who used sex and deception to forge connections, saying Wednesday that they only met one time in 2015 when she showed up at a National Rifle Association convention and had her picture taken with him.
Maria Butina was charged Monday with being a covert Russian agent who gathered intelligence on American officials and political organizations and worked to establish back-channel lines of communications for the Kremlin. A judge on Wednesday ordered Butina, 29, held in jail as the case moves forward.
Walker met her at the NRA convention in 2015 when she approached him to have her picture taken. She was with Alexander Torshin, deputy head of the Russian Central Bank and a target of U.S. sanctions since April.
U.S. prosecutors suggest Butina used her gun-lobbying efforts to infiltrate the NRA and the Republican Party, both during the 2016 presidential campaign and after Donald Trump’s election. Prosecutors detailed extensive private Twitter conversations and other discussions between Butina and a senior Russian official about her activities in the United States.
Walker said Wednesday that he didn’t remember meeting Butina until after the pictures resurfaced this week following her indictment. Butina also attended his presidential campaign launch in Wisconsin in July 2015, but Walker said he didn’t speak with her then or any other time.
Pictures have circulated of Butina with many prominent Republicans, including former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Wisconsin Democrats have called on Walker to make a full accounting of any interactions he had with Butina or any other foreign national.
Walker is not named in the indictment. He said that neither he nor anyone from his campaign has been contacted by the FBI about Butina and he stressed that their interaction was casual.
“We had no meeting, just so that it’s clear,” Walker told reporters. “What we did is what we do just about every day here in Wisconsin. As we go to events, we meet people, they introduce themselves, often they ask for a picture. That’s not a meeting. A meeting is where you sit down in a room and have a discussion.”
Walker also noted that it was his campaign’s PAC that posted the pictures publicly three years ago.
“If it was something covert, why would we post that picture on a website?” Walker said. “It just seems ridiculous to think that would be the case.”
Butina wrote in a blog that Walker did not show any aggression toward Russia in their conversation and even said “hello” and “thank you” to her in Russian.
Walker said Wednesday that he did not recall speaking Russian to her, but he did take one semester of Russian in college.