Chuck Ross, DCNF
The Department of Justice has arrested a Russian national on charges that she conspired to infiltrate American political groups in order to influence U.S. politics, the agency announced Monday.
The Russian national, Maria Butina, has close ties to Alexander Torshin, the deputy chief of Russia’s central bank. She also developed links to Republican political operatives as well as to the National Rifle Association. The 29-year-old Butina was arrested on Sunday in Washington, D.C., and charged with conspiring to act as a foreign agent of Russia.
The DOJ’s complaint against Butina alleges that she acted at the direction of Torshin in a conspiracy “to exploit personal connections with U.S. persons having influence in American politics” in order to advance Russia’s interests.
They also sought to “infiltrate organizations active in U.S. politics” in order to advance Russia’s interests.
Butina and Torshin’s targets are not identified in the complaint, although both have cozied up to the NRA in recent years. They formed a group called The Right to Bear Arms, which they billed as a Russian sister organization to the NRA.
Butina and Torshin appeared at the NRA’s annual conventions, and Torshin met Donald Trump Jr. on the sidelines of the 2016 annual gathering in Louisville, Kentucky.
Butina was able to ask President Donald Trump a question at the FreedomFest conference in Las Vegas in July 2015, shortly after the Republican began his presidential campaign. Butina asked Trump about sanctions.
The case against Butina is not being handled by the special counsel’s office, which is leading the collusion investigation. Instead, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., and the DOJ’s National Security Division are handling the case.
Butina will appear in court for her first hearing Wednesday.
The government’s complaint says Butina established contact with an American political operative in Moscow “who thereafter would work with BUTINA in the United Sates to jointly arrange introductions to U.S. persons having influence in American politics.”
As part of her efforts, Butina established “unofficial lines of communications with U.S. politicians and political organizations.” She also stayed in contact with Torshin and others in Russia “to send reports, seek direction, and receive orders in furtherance of the conspiracy.”
The complaint says on March 14, 2016, Butina emailed an American “in an effort to develop, maintain, and exploit a relationship in furtherance of the conspiracy.”
She entered the U.S. in August 2016 on a student visa for the purported purpose of attending an American University in Washington, D.C. But the government says it was a cover for her spy efforts. And on Sept. 26, 2016, Butina emailed an unidentified American to organize an event aimed at influencing U.S. officials’ views toward Russia.
“The FBI’s investigation has further revealed that Butina and the Russian official took steps to develop relationships with American politicians in order to establish private, or as she called them, ‘back channel’ lines of communication,” reads an affidavit filed by FBI Special Agent Kevin Helson.
Torshin directed Butina to arrange and attend meetings with U.S. politicians and political candidates, Helson wrote.
According to the affidavit, Butina contacted an unnamed American political operative on March 24, 2015 with a plan to make inroads in Republican political circles. She touted her relationship to NRA leadership and laid out a project proposal that she said would require a $125,000 budget in order to attend “all upcoming major conferences” of an unnamed political party.
The affidavit also appears to reference Butina’s contacts with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a former GOP presidential candidate. Butina provided Torshin with a “write-up” of her meetings with Walker at a political rally as well as at an annual NRA members’ meeting.
The affidavit does not accuse Butina’s Republican political contact of illegal activity, but it does cite an email showing that the operative discussed secret contacts between the Kremlin and a political party leaders.
The affidavit says that on Oct. 4, 2016, the political operative sent an email to an acquaintance in which he said that “I’ve been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key POLITICAL PARTY 1 leaders through, of all conduits, the [GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION].”
Helson, the FBI agent who wrote the affidavit, said that he believes that the email describe’s the political operative’s “involvement with BUTINA’s efforts to establish a ‘back channel’ communication for representatives of the Government of Russia.”
Butina’s political contacts are not named in the government’s court filings. But she worked closely with a longtime GOP operative name Paul Erickson. The pair formed a company called Bridges LLC in February 2016.
The National Rifle Association did not respond to a request for comment.
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