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.
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.
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.
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: