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Maria Butina, explained: the accused Russian spy who tried to sway US politics through the NRA

She met with Donald Trump Jr. and lived with a Republican consultant. Where will this investigation lead?

Maria Butina speaks at a Moscow press conference in 2013.
Maria Butina speaks at a Moscow press conference in 2013.
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Amid the sprawling scandal over Russian interference with the 2016 election, there’s long been an odd subplot over Russian ties to, of all groups, the National Rifle Association — ties that, according to McClatchy, have been investigated by the FBI.

Now the arrest of 29-year-old Russian national Maria Butina on charges of conspiracy and acting as an agent of a foreign government has put those questions about the famous gun rights group on center stage.

But despite the new indictment (which is not part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe), the full extent of what happened here remains mysterious.

It’s long been known that Butina and Russian central bank official Alexander Torshin have spent years cozying up to the NRA. For instance, they’ve hosted NRA bigwigs in Moscow, and Butina was a conspicuous fixture on the conservative conference circuit.

Now, the government alleges that Butina was carrying out a plan to influence American politics on behalf of a Russian government official (Torshin). The plan, they say, was to try to influence the Republican Party to be friendlier to Russia, by way of the NRA. But Butina didn’t inform the US government she was acting as a foreign agent on American soil, which would be illegal.

Much of Butina’s alleged conduct seems to have involved socializing and attending US political events, which may not seem all that dastardly. But we’ve gotten hints that there’s much more to come.

There are also Butina’s publicly known activities during the 2016 campaign, which aren’t mentioned in charging documents. She asked Donald Trump a question about Russian sanctions at a public event, met Donald Trump Jr. with Torshin at an NRA dinner, and reportedly bragged that she helped the Trump campaign communicate with Russia.

Meanwhile, her boss, Torshin, has reportedly been linked to money laundering by Spanish authorities. And separately from that, McClatchy has reported that the FBI is investigating whether Torshin “illegally funneled money” into the NRA that was then spent to help Trump win — something that would be a major scandal implicating the group if it did happen (the NRA denies it).

So ... there are a lot of questions here.

Maria Butina, Alexander Torshin — who are all these people?

Konstantin Zavrazhin/Getty Images
Alexander Torshin (center), between the then-speaker of Russia’s State Duma and Vladimir Putin, in 2011.
Konstantin Zavrazhin/Getty Images

Let’s start with Butina’s boss, Alexander Torshin. He’s a major player in Russian politics. For years, he served in the upper house of Russia’s parliament, and since 2015, he’s been a deputy governor at the Russian central bank. Torshin is also a longtime gun enthusiast and supporter of gun rights — but some have alleged that he has more unsavory connections, too.

A report by Spanish investigators reportedly links Torshin to a Russian organized crime syndicate, the Taganskaya, and claims he’s involved in money laundering. In fact, Spanish authorities planned to arrest him when he was scheduled to fly into the Mallorca airport in 2013, but he didn’t show up. In April of this year, the US Treasury Department put Torshin on a list of sanctioned Russian officials and oligarchs.

Then there’s Maria (sometimes spelled “Mariia”) Butina, who’s said she’s originally from Siberia. She says she moved to Moscow around 2010 in hopes of starting a furniture business, and then an advertising agency. The exact sequence of events is unclear, but at some point soon afterward, two things happened: She founded a Russian gun rights group called Right to Bear Arms, and she started working for Alexander Torshin as his special assistant. (It’s unclear whether the group was a front all along.)

Citing a shared interest in gun rights, Torshin and Butina were introduced to top NRA officials, began regularly attending the NRA’s conventions in the United States, and became “life members” of the group. They also began to reciprocate with their own invitations to NRA bigwigs to visit Moscow for Right to Bear Arms events — the first of which, it seems, took place in November 2013 and featured a “concealed carry fashion show.”

That’s where Republican operative and lobbyist Paul Erickson — who appears to be Butina’s most important American contact — enters the picture. (He is reportedly “US Person 1” in government charging documents.)

Paul Erickson speaks to CSPAN in 2003
Paul Erickson speaks to CSPAN in 2003

Erickson has a colorful history. He’s worked for legendary conservative activist Richard Viguerie, for Pat Buchanan’s 1992 presidential campaign, for Lorena Bobbitt’s husband/victim, and for dictatorial Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko. More recently, he’s been on the board of the American Conservative Union, and he has close ties to the NRA’s leadership, having helped fundraise for the gun rights group. A Forbes columnist has called him “a sort of ‘secret master of the political universe’ known almost exclusively to the cognoscenti.”

Erickson attended the 2013 trip to Russia, and reportedly met Butina there. At some point, the two became very close. Eventually, they dated and lived together, and by 2015, they were close enough for Butina to email Erickson her proposed plan to influence American politics.

What was Maria Butina’s plan to influence American politics?

The Justice Department claims that around March 24, 2015 — as the US presidential campaign was beginning to kick off — Butina emailed Erickson a proposal for a project called “Diplomacy,” apparently looking for his feedback.

The email itself had the subject line “The Second Pozner.” An FBI agent’s affidavit suggests that refers to “Vladimir Pozner, a propagandist who served in the disinformation department of the Soviet KGB and who often appeared on Western television.”

The project proposal makes several assertions:

  • Republicans will likely win control of the US government in the 2016 elections.
  • The GOP is “traditionally associated with negative and aggressive foreign policy” toward Russia. But now could be a good time to improve relations.
  • The NRA has a “central place and influence” in the Republican Party since it helps fund political candidates and sponsors events.
  • Butina and Torshin already have ties to the NRA’s leadership, and she’s visited the US.
  • Therefore, Butina requests a $125,000 budget so she can participate in “all upcoming major conferences” related to the Republican Party before the 2016 elections.

Erickson soon wrote back to her with advice on her “special project,” including a list of potential media, business, and political contacts whom she should meet with “off the record.”

“If you were to sit down with your special friends and make a list of ALL the most important contacts you could find in America for a time when the political situation between the U.S. and Russia will change, you could NOT do better than the list that I just emailed you,” Erickson wrote. “All that is needed is for your friends to provide you with the financial resources to spend the time in America to TAKE ALL OF THESE MEETINGS.”

So what we appear to have here is a plan to influence the Republican Party to be friendlier to Russia, based on the perceptive (and accurate) insight that the Republican Party is extremely beholden to the NRA. Keep in mind, too, that this was months before Donald Trump entered the race, and when most believed the GOP would choose a more traditional (and hawkish) nominee.

As for who was ultimately behind it? A more recent government filing also mentions that Butina refers to a particular “funder” who has “deep ties to the Russian Presidential Administration.” This is not Torshin but rather a Russian oligarch who has a net worth Forbes estimates to be about $1.2 billion. This person’s identity is not yet known.

Butina hit the campaign trail in 2015 — and got to ask Trump a question about Russian sanctions

Even before Butina wrote this plan, she had made some inroads in conservative activist circles. For instance, in 2013, she got Trump’s future National Security Adviser John Bolton to record a video message on gun rights for her group. In 2014, the conservative website TownHall ran an interview with her under the headline “Meet the woman working with the NRA and fighting for gun rights in Russia.”

But when Republican presidential candidates started to travel the country to campaign in 2015, Butina, too, increasingly started to pop up at events — posing for photographs with candidates like Scott Walker, Rick Santorum, and Bobby Jindal.

Alexander Torshin, Scott Walker, and Maria Butina in April 2015
Alexander Torshin, Scott Walker, and Maria Butina in April 2015.
Maria Butina’s Facebook

Soon after Trump entered the race and skyrocketed to the top of polls, Butina attended an event with him too — at the FreedomFest conference in Las Vegas in July 2015. Trump, in fact, called on her to ask a question.

Saying she was from Russia, Butina asked, “If you would be elected as the president, what would be your foreign politics, especially in the relationships with my country? And do you want to continue the policy of sanctions that are damaging to both economies, or do you have other ideas?”

Trump answered by talking about how “the whole world hates us” under Obama, and then said, “I know Putin, and I’ll tell you what, we get along with Putin.” He continued: “I don’t think you’d need the sanctions. I think that we would get along very, very well. I really believe that.”

In their book Russian Roulette, Michael Isikoff and David Corn reported that Trump’s own advisers would later look back on the exchange and find it strange.

Steve Bannon raised it with RNC chair Reince Priebus. How was it that this Russian woman happened to be in Las Vegas for that event? 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.

There was a whole lot of talk of a “back channel” from Putin to the GOP

Butina’s work continued in late 2015 and early 2016, as she went back and forth between the US and Russia.

  • She talked with Torshin about his plans to meet Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), the most pro-Russia member of Congress, in Russia that August.
  • In December 2015, her group helped pay for another trip from NRA bigwigs to Moscow — the delegation included Erickson, former NRA president David Keene, then-Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, and top NRA donors.
  • She and Torshin attended the National Prayer Breakfast in February 2016.
  • She and Erickson incorporated a company, Bridges LLC, in South Dakota in February 2016, for unclear reasons.
  • She and Erickson began planning a series of “friendship and dialogue dinners” with various American political players in Washington, DC, and New York.

It was around March 2016, though, that references about a communication channel between the Russian government and the GOP began to pop up. (The first round of primaries had already happened and Trump was the clear favorite to win the nomination at this point.)

That month, Butina emailed an American person that “Putin’s side” had given them a “yes.” She wrote that a “representative of the Russian Presidential administration” had given approval for “building this communication channel,” according to the FBI agent’s affidavit.

Then in May 2016, Erickson sent an email to Trump campaign (and Jeff Sessions) staffer Rick Dearborn, with the subject: “Kremlin connection”. He wrote: “Happenstance and the (sometimes) international reach of the NRA placed me in a position a couple of years ago to slowly begin cultivating a back-channel to President Putin’s Kremlin.”

“The Kremlin believes that the only possibility of a true reset in this relationship would be with a new Republican White House,” Erickson continued. He said that Putin is “deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” and wanted Trump to visit Moscow before the election.

So, he said, the NRA’s convention in Louisville, Kentucky, would be a good place for “first contact” — because “President Putin’s emissary on this front” would be there. (Another US conservative activist, Rick Clay, sent a similar email to Dearborn soon afterward, and specified that Torshin was the emissary. The email was reportedly forwarded to Jared Kushner, who wrote back that they shouldn’t accept.)

Getty Images

But later that month, the NRA held its convention in Louisville — and, as usual, Butina and Torshin attended. There, they met Donald Trump Jr. at a dinner.

Don Jr.’s lawyer has said that they only made “gun-related small talk.” Two weeks later, Don Jr. would get an emailed offer of information that would incriminate Hillary Clinton as part of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” (There’s no clear indication, however, that the two incidents are connected.)

Butina moved to the US in August 2016

In August, as the election drew nearer, Butina moved to the US on a student visa — to, she said, get a graduate degree at American University.

At some point, she began living with Erickson, the GOP consultant nearly twice her age. However, a government filing claims that she “appears to treat” this relationship “as simply a necessary aspect of her activities.”

In October 2016, Erickson emailed an acquaintance that he’d helped secure “a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [Republican] leaders through, of all conduits, the [NRA].”

But Trump’s prospects looked grim that month — he was down in the polls and Clinton was generally believed to be the favorite to win. Butina and Torshin exchanged the following direct messages on October 5, 2016, according to the FBI agent’s affidavit:

  • Butina: “Time will tell. We made our bet. I am following our game.” ...
  • Torshin: “This is hard to teach. Patience and cold blood + faith in yourself. And everything will definitely turn out” ...
  • Butina: “Yesterday’s dinner showed that American society is broken in relation to Russia. This is now the dividing line of opinions, the crucial one in the election race. [Republicans] are for us, [Democrats] against — 50/50. Our move here is very important.”

A week later, they exchanged more messages; “Important things are ahead of us,” Butina wrote. “Right now everything has to be quiet and careful.”

What Butina did after Trump won

Trump, of course, won the election. “I’m going to sleep. It’s 3 am here. I am ready for further orders,” Butina wrote to Torshin after the election was called.

Four days later, on November 12, Butina hosted a costume party for her birthday at a Washington restaurant. She dressed as the Russian empress Alexandra, and Erickson dressed as Rasputin. There, Butina “brazenly claimed that she had been part of the Trump campaign’s communications with Russia,” the Daily Beast’s Tim Mak later reported, citing two individuals who were present.

Erickson worked his GOP connections to try to influence Trump’s transition team and the new administration’s staffing. Butina and Torshin discussed who might be appointed secretary of state, with Butina asking how “our people” felt about one name, per the affidavit. She and Erickson would attend one of the inaugural balls together, and would host guests at the Dupont Circle restaurant Russia House, Mak reported.

Meanwhile, Butina planned another visit by Torshin and other Russians for the National Prayer Breakfast, to be held shortly after Trump was sworn in — “to establish a back channel communication,” Butina emailed Erickson. A meeting between President Trump and the Russian group was set up for the morning of the prayer breakfast, on February 2, 2017. But at the last minute, Michael Isikoff reported, an administration official flagged Torshin’s name on a list of attendees because of his suspected organized crime ties — so the meeting didn’t happen.

Butina dines with a Russian diplomat who the government says it suspects is an intelligence officer.
Court exhibit

After that, there’s been less in published reports and government filings about what Butina has been up to. She allegedly asked a DC civil rights group about its cyber vulnerabilities for a supposed school project, per the Washington Post. She dined with a Russian diplomat who the government suspects is an intelligence officer. The government obtained a note at some point mentioning “Maria’s ‘Russian Patriots In-Waiting’ Organization” and an “FSB offer of employment.” She testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee this April — and had her home raided by the FBI. She got her master’s degree in May.

Then this month, Butina and Erickson ended their lease in DC and began preparing for a trip — until the FBI swooped in and arrested Butina this Sunday. Reportedly, the bureau had had its eyes on her since she moved to the US nearly two years ago — but this arrest was rushed out of fear that she’d leave the area and slip away from them.

What does it all mean?

Butina has been charged with two counts: conspiracy, and acting as an agent of a foreign government without informing the attorney general. On Wednesday, she pleaded not guilty to both.

Now, this is not part of the Mueller investigation. The FBI’s Washington Field Office investigated Butina, and she’s being prosecuted by the DC US Attorney’s Office. For whatever reason, this probe was not put under Mueller’s purview.

But the exact nature, and breadth, of what is being investigated related to Butina remains vague — making it unclear exactly how much legal jeopardy the NRA or the Trump camp is now in.

If the NRA really was bamboozled by a Russian spy, the group could be a victim in all this. Yet there are a series of McClatchy reports, dating back to January, asserting the FBI is investigating the NRA’s finances — and specifically whether Torshin “illegally funneled money” to the group “to help Donald Trump win the presidency.”

The NRA is not legally obligated to publicly reveal its donors, and does not do so. It spent tens of millions of dollars on the 2016 elections to try to get Trump elected. An aide to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who’s been investigating the matter, told McClatchy that the NRA had dodged his questions about whether it accepted money from shell companies that could have been routed from Russians. (Butina and Erickson set up a shell company, Bridge LLC, together.)

As for Trump’s associates — the government filings about Butina are conspicuously light on references to her outreach to Trump’s team, even though this outreach has been widely reported in the media.

However, in May, a Spanish organized crime prosecutor said that his government had given wiretaps of some of Alexander Torshin’s conversations to the FBI “just a few months ago.” He added, “Mr. Trump’s son should be concerned.”

For now, though, only Butina has been charged. A DC judge ordered Wednesday that she be jailed without bond until her trial.

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