Chuck Ross, DCNF
Maria Butina, the Russian woman accused of spying for the Russian government, has been arrested on “fabricated charges” and should be released from jail, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov argued in a phone conversation on Saturday with his American counterpart, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Lavrov stressed “the unacceptability of the actions of the US authorities, who have arrested Russian citizen Maria Butina in the United States on the basis of fabricated charges, and the need for her early release,” according to a statement from the Russian foreign ministry.
Butina, 29, was indicted on Tuesday on charges of conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent of Russia. The Justice Department accuses her of working at the direction of Alexander Torshin, the deputy chief of Russia’s central bank, to infiltrate American political groups. Butina and Torshin were known to have made close contacts with leaders of the National Rifle Association.
A federal judge decided Wednesday that Butina will remain in jail while she awaits trial. The Justice Department argued that she posed a flight risk because of her contacts with Russian government officials.
The DOJ said in a memo that the government has evidence that Butina maintained contacts with members of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the FSB. She also referred in messages with Torshin to a Russian billionaire as a “funder” of her activities.
The government argued that Butina could either flee the U.S. or enter the Russian embassy, where she would have safe harbor.
Butina was also in a romantic relationship with a Republican political operative named Paul Erickson. Erickson closely matches the description of “U.S. Person 1” in the Justice Department’s filings in the Butina case. The person is described as being “instrumental in aiding her covert influence operation.”
Erickson has not been accused of wrongdoing, and it is unclear if he knew what Butina was up to or helped her unwittingly.
In May 2016, Erickson sent an email to Trump campaign official Rick Dearborn offering to set up a meeting between Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the email, entitled “Kremlin Connection,” Erickson said that Torshin would act as Putin’s intermediary.
The meeting did not occur, though Torshin did briefly meet Donald Trump Jr. on the sidelines of an event at the NRA convention in May 2016.
The Justice Department suggested in its court filings that Butina was not entirely open with Erickson about her motives.
In its memo, U.S. attorney Jessie Lieu wrote that “Butina offered an individual other than U.S. Person 1 sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization.” Butina also complained to Torshin about having to live with Erickson.
The State Department could not be reached for comment about the Lavrov-Pompeo phone call.
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