Maria Butina Arrested on Charges of Being Russian Agent

A Russian woman is under arrest and charged with acting as a foreign agent, but not as part of the ongoing Mueller Probe. Among other activities, her association with NRA events and other conservative groups are alleged to be part of a plan to win “back channel” relationships with the politically powerful.

Washington Post

Maria Butina, 29, who recently received a graduate degree from American University, was arrested Sunday in the District and made her first appearance in U.S. District Court before Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson, where she was ordered held without bond.

Butina is accused of trying to cultivate relationships with American politicians to establish “back channel” lines of communication and seeking to infiltrate U.S. political groups, including an unnamed “gun rights organization,” to advance Russia’s agenda. Descriptions in court papers match published reports about Butina’s interactions with the NRA.

The case, which is not part of the special counsel investigation into Russian interference, lays out the strongest allegations to date of American involvement in Russia’s influence operations.

Butina was allegedly assisted in her efforts by a U.S. political operative who helped introduce her to influential political figures. That person was not charged and is not named in court papers, but the description matches that of Paul Erickson, a GOP consultant who sought to organize a meeting between then-candidate Donald Trump and Alexander Torshin, Butina’s Russian colleague and a former Russian senator, at a May 2016 NRA convention.

NRA officials and Erickson did not respond to requests for comment.

National Review:

There are a few key takeaways from today’s news:

First, Butina’s operation predates the Trump campaign. Back in March 2014, Butina emailed U.S. Person 1 and projected that the GOP would “likely obtain control over the U.S. government after the 2016 election.” Moreover, she said that party is “traditionally associated with negative and aggressive foreign policy, particularly with regards to Russia.” She identified the NRA’s significance in Republican politics and hoped to exploit that influence to gain relationships.

Second, the affidavit provides the clearest example yet of an American working knowingly and willingly with a Russian operative to advance Russian interests. U.S. Person 1 enthusiastically cooperated with a project that had nothing to do with advancing Russian gun rights and everything to do with facilitating her access to key Republican leaders.

Third, don’t jump to conclusions about the NRA’s role in Butina’s scheme. There are those who will read Twitter or skim headlines and immediately leap to the conclusion that “the NRA was facilitating a Russian intelligence operation” or that the “NRA helped a Russian agent” without considering that there’s a difference between exploitation and cooperation. So far it appears that she worked with U.S. Person 1 to exploit the NRA’s connections to the GOP. Any claim of cooperation is way ahead of the evidence.

Finally, it’s worth saying this after each new revelation in the ongoing series of Russia investigations (interestingly, this indictment didn’t come from the special counsel’s office but instead from DOJ national-security prosecutors), there is much we still don’t know about Russian efforts to influence American politics and about American participation in Russian plans.

While others are noticing a pattern in who and why she targets certain groups, are quite convinced they know exactly why, and to who, Russia was trying to influence in their plans.
Mother Jones:

In 2015, just a month after Trump announced his White House run, Butina directly asked him a question about US-Russia relations during a FreedomFest event in North Dakota, eliciting a response from Trump that he would likely soften the US stance against the Kremlin. “I don’t think you’d need the sanctions,” he said. “I think we would get along very, very well.”

In another apparent indication of her interest in infiltrating US politics, Butina also met Republican Gov. Scott Walker at the 2015 NRA convention. Two days after her FreedomFest exchange with Trump that July, Butina was in Wisconsin to attend the event where Walker announced his own candidacy for the presidency.

In an affidavit unsealed Monday, FBI Special Agent Kevin Helson wrote that Butina attempted to “exploit personal connections with U.S. persons having influence in American politics in an effort to advance the interests of the Russian Federation.” The filing alleged that Butina established contact with an unnamed American political operative in Moscow in 2013 and obtained the operative’s help meeting influential Americans.

That unnamed operative appears to be Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican activist from South Dakota who has been associated with Butina since at least 2013, according to our previous reporting. Late last year, the New York Times reported that Erickson sought to set up a “back channel” between Trump campaign officials and the Kremlin in May 2016. Erickson did not respond immediately to inquiries from Mother Jones, but he was identified Monday in an NPR report as the operative described in the affidavit.

What is clear is, as agents go, Butina was doing exactly what operatives have done for years unseen: infiltrate, build relationships, work contacts. Interesting to note here that this investigation pre-dates the Mueller probe, and has largely run parallel. How much, if any, overlap there might be remains to be seen.

The full affidavit is available to read here:

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25 thoughts on “Maria Butina Arrested on Charges of Being Russian Agent

  1. My thought about the Butina business is that she was able to do what she did by saying things GOP’ers wanted to hear, by finding one of their favorite songs and learning how to sing all the words. It’s a high-water illustration of “tribe over country.”

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    • I agree. People need to understand that the vast amount of intelligence work, especially clandestine HUMINT work like this is, is not cloak and daggar-type stuff but people getting their ears (or other things) tickled to the point they voluntarily give up the information the operative is after.

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    • I finally watched Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who Is America?” and he abuses the political affiliation game pretty well in the last act. The first couple of acts just seems like him being mean to normal people who really don’t deserve it, but the final bit is amazing. A gaggle of Republican politicians, current and retired, reciting the most insane stuff on camera in support of a weird Israel / gun lobby thing.

      They’re objecting that they were “tricked” (which they were), but that doesn’t mean it’s not revealing. Nobody is dumb enough to believe that the things they were saying weren’t ridiculous. They knew those things were completely nuts, but they said them anyway because they’re so used to debasing themselves to please the gun lobby that what seems completely out of bounds for normal people is just a tiny push on their normal boundaries.

      Sing the song and you’re in. Fail to sing the song and you’re doomed.

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      • Ted Koeppel managed to realize that something was afoot and ordered everyone to pack up. I’m honestly a bit surprised that SBC is still able to get people to respond to his schtick considering he was doing it for years. Ali G was around for years and he still got politicians to make fools of themselves. You would think their handlers would know better.

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        • I’m guessing that when an aide says, “Somebody from [insert the special interest group that owns you] wants to talk to you,” you jump instead of thinking. Even when it seems immoral, you jump. Even when it seems completely insane, you jump.

          This was just SBC exploiting a terrible security hole in these guys’ way of approaching their jobs.

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  2. That russia has been snuggling up with the NRA has been known for at least a couple years now. TPM talked a lot about before the election. Aside from Rohrbacher, ( R-Russia) many other high political R’s were going for visits to russia. And of course jill stein.

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  3. I’ve seen it bouncing around the twitters that the Russian Ministry of Defense is ready to implement the international security agreement that was agreed to yesterday. The basic response has been ” huh…wha….agreement????” So we got that going for us, whatever it is.

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  4. I know we’re supposed to be freaking out about all things with the scent of Salat Olivier right now but this sounds a lot more like the 2010 Anna Chapman thing, which IIRC was mostly determined to be ineffective and clownish.

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  5. What is alarming is that when put together, all the pieces show how determined Putin is to compromise Western democracies, and use the tools of confusion and dissension.

    It isn’t just Trump, or Rohrabacher, or the NRA or the white supremacists or the right wing trolls and bots and blogosphere; He is active in Europe and the UK using the same tools, of multi-pronged attacks at all levels.

    It isn’t just some coincidental alignment of interests; It is a planned and coordinated attack.

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  6. Maria Butina
    What a wonderful name
    Maria Butina
    Of gun and Kremlin fame
    She means dark money, funneled through NRA
    She’s our virtue-free new GOP
    Maria Butina

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    • What’s striking is how open and blatant it all was.

      She was very open about being a Russian national, and was obviously well connected to powerful people back home, and had very rapidly inculcated herself into circles of very powerful Americans in the NRA, GOP, and evangelical circles.

      And yet we are supposed to believe that no one ever considered that she might be working on behalf of the Russian government?

      They knew. They knew that the Russian government was attempting to manipulate American politics, but they didn’t care, and still don’t.

      It isn’t that the Trump presidential campaign colluded with Russia.
      The entire apparatus of the Republican Party and its affiliated groups have been eagerly coopted, and welcoming of the influence of the Russian government.

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  7. Regarding Russia and Trump or really what Putin is trying to do in general, I’m going to borrow an expression from tort law; res ipsa loquitur. This is legal Latin for “it speaks for itself.” You use it in negligence cases when your not sure why something happened but you know that somebody did something wrong because these things don’t happen unless somebody was negligent. Maria Butina, Trump’s surprisingly courteous and deferential behavior to Putin, and Russians showing up everywhere and anywhere is evidence that Putin is deeply trying to destroy the post-World War II Western alliance. Its just that Putin as discovered that doing this from the Right is a lot more effective than doing this from the Left. Thats Putin’s secret.

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    • Russia has been supremely focused on destroying the Western alliance since 1918 or so, with a very brief pause during the part of WW-II that came after Hitler betrayed their carve-up-Europe pact with him.

      And sometimes they’ve been asked to intervene in our elections, such as when Edward Kennedy said he’d help the Soviets handle Reagan if they’d help the Democrats in the 1984 election, offering to visit Moscow and get Andropov time on US networks, which would be rigged to look like regular journalism.

      2009 Forbes article about it.

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        • I think the government response was poorly thought out and badly executed. To check undo Russian influence in such situations, the administration should instead send a request to Britain’s MI6 to send over a hot Scottish red-head to counter the Russian red head by making it a threesome. They might even get in a dangerous nekkid secret agent cat fight. Meow.

          That’s my view as a US person and hopefully a potential target of such traps.

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