WASHINGTON — A Russian gun-rights activist who developed close relations with leaders of the National Rifle Association as well as conservative activists working with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was arraigned Monday on charges she conspired to influence American politics on behalf of the Russian government.
Maria Butina, 29, who founded the Russian gun group “The Right to Bear Arms” and worked as the executive assistant to a top official of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation, was arrested Sunday by the FBI in Washington, D.C., where she had been living. The charges allege that she visited the United States in 2015 and 2016 for the purposes of acting “as an agent” of the Russia, according to a criminal complaint released by the U.S. Justice Department on Monday afternoon, a few hours after President Trump and Russian President Putin met in Helsinki. Butina conspired to “exploit personal connections” with U.S. political figures and to “infiltrate organizations active in U.S. politics” and establish “back channel lines of communication” in an effort to advance Russian government interests, the complaint charges.
Chief among the groups Butina and her boss, Russian central banker Alexander Torshin, sought to infiltrate was the NRA. Torshin became a lifetime member of the group, and he and Butina regularly attended the association’s annual meetings, held private dinners with the group’s leaders and joined them for target shooting.
A March 2015 email to an unnamed conservative activist that was discovered on a search of Butina’s laptop outlined a project to alter the Republican Party’s traditional hostility to Russia by exploiting ties to the NRA, which she described as “the largest sponsor of the elections to the U.S. Congress,” according to an FBI affidavit in support of her arrest. She also wrote that Republicans “would likely obtain control over the U.S. government after the 2016 elections.” (In the complaint, the Republicans are described only as “Political Party 1” and the NRA as a “Gun Rights Organization.” The NRA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)
In a statement Monday night, Butina’s lawyer, Robert Driscoll, said that his client “is not an agent of the Russian Federation” and “intends to defend her rights vigorously.” He said the charges against Butina, who recently graduated from American University in Washington, D.C., with a master’s degree in international relations, were “overblown,” adding that she was willing to cooperate with federal authorities and had already testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. “There is simply no indication of Butina seeking to influence or undermine any specific policy or law of the United States — only at most to promote a better relationship between the two nations,” he said. (Butina is not charged with espionage but with violating the Foreign Agent Registration Act by failing to register as a Russian agent with the Justice Department.)
Butina’s arrest is significant in light of her apparent efforts to penetrate the Trump campaign and to get the GOP candidate to commit to lifting sanctions on Russia at a time relations with Moscow were hardly a front-burner issue in the presidential race. In July 2015, just weeks after Trump announced his candidacy, Butina showed up at a conservative evangelical Christian event in Las Vegas, where she questioned the new candidate about his position on sanctions against Russia. “Do you want to continue the politics of sanctions that are damaging both economies?” Butina asked Trump after he called on her in a question and answer session. Trump replied in the course of a rambling five-minute answer: “I know Putin. … I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin, OK? I don’t think you’d need the sanctions.”
As revealed in the book Russian Roulette, co-authored by this reporter with David Corn, Trump adviser Steven Bannon and Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus shared concerns about Butina and her agenda after viewing video of her questioning Trump.
“How was it that this Russian woman happened to be in Las Vegas for that event?” Bannon and Priebus discussed among themselves, according to “Russian Roulette.” “And how was it that Trump happened to call on her? And Trump’s response? It was odd, Bannon thought, that Trump had a fully developed answer. Priebus agreed there was something strange about Butina. Whenever there were events held by conservative groups, she was always around, he told Bannon.”
The FBI affidavit makes no mention of Trump. But it does quote from a message Butina sent to Torshin — identified as a “Russian official” who later became a top official of the Russian Central Bank — in 2015 where she reported about “speaking to a political candidate on the night of the announcement” as well as her previous meeting with the candidate at a 2015 NRA convention. The affidavit does not identify the candidate, but Butina was also photographed attending an event with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker around this time.
Butina and Torshin’s efforts to forge relations with GOP candidates, including Trump, continued throughout the 2016 campaign. Paul Erickson, a GOP consultant based in South Dakota who helped Butina set up a limited liability company in that state, emailed a senior official in the Trump campaign – under the subject line “Kremlin connection” — offering to serve as a “backchannel” between the Trump campaign and Putin. He proposed setting up a meeting among Trump, Butina and Torshin at that year’s NRA convention in Louisville, Ky. The meeting never took place but Torshin did meet with Donald Trump Jr. at a private dinner at the convention.
After the election, Butina offered to work as a volunteer for Trump’s transition and attended Trump’s inauguration, according to a Republican fundraiser who was active in the inauguration. The FBI affidavit also documents Butina’s efforts to arrange “friendship and dialogue” dinners between Russian officials and members of Congress, as well as bring a delegation of Russians, including Torshin, to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington.
As first reported by Yahoo News last year, Trump was slated to meet with Torshin and the Russian delegation before the prayer breakfast at the Washington Hilton on Feb. 2, 2017. But the meeting was canceled at the last minute after a White House national security aide discovered Torshin had been named by Spanish police as a suspected “godfather” of an organized crime and money-laundering ring. More recently, Yahoo News reported that José Grinda, a Spanish prosecutor who was investigating Torshin, confirmed that the FBI recently acquired transcripts of Spanish police wiretaps of conversations between Torshin and a convicted Russian money launderer — a sign that the FBI’s investigation is continuing.
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