Political News

Maria Butina Loved Guns, Trump and Russia. It Was a Cover, Prosecutors Say.

Posted July 17, 2018 9:15 p.m. EDT
Updated July 18, 2018 7:10 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — To her friends, Maria Butina was somebody who had nothing to hide.

A 29-year-old recent graduate of American University in Washington, Butina was upfront about her three great passions: gun rights, President Donald Trump and better relations between the United States and Russia. She posted photographs of her meetings with U.S. politicians, including Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a Republican, all over social media. She joked about buying a friend high in the Russian government his favorite American toothpaste.

But it was all a ruse, federal prosecutors say, a cover for Butina to advance Russia’s agenda within the Republican Party. For three years, they said, she was part of a low-cost, low-risk influence operation run by the senior Russian official, Alexander Torshin, and was assisted by an unnamed American operative with Republican ties. She is also said to have gotten help from the National Rifle Association, which repeatedly brought Butina from her native Russia to the United States for events until she obtained a student visa in August 2016.

Butina, who was indicted Tuesday on charges of conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent, did not register with the Justice Department as a foreign agent. That failure is central to the government’s charges that she violated the federal lobbying law and conspired with Torshin, the deputy head of Russia’s central bank, to influence U.S. politics on behalf of the Russian government.

In private messages sent via Twitter, Torshin urged Butina to play the long game, be coldblooded, and “not burn out prematurely.”

“Only incognito!” Butina wrote him in agreement one month before the 2016 presidential election. “Right now everything has to be quiet and careful.”

Butina’s lawyer, Robert N. Driscoll, described the charges as overblown. During a court hearing Monday, he argued that Butina had voluntarily testified before Congress and remained in the country after 15 FBI agents searched her house in April. Rather than allow her to cooperate, he said, prosecutors pursued an intrinsically weak case.

Prosecutors allege that the conspiracy began in early 2015, after Butina, whose name was also spelled Mariia in court papers, had gained minor attention in Russia as a redhead from Siberia fighting for gun rights. She had moved to Moscow from southern Russia’s mountainous Altai region at 21, hoping to develop a furniture business.

She later opened an advertising agency, then got involved in a movement to legalize private gun ownership, a cause Torshin, then the deputy head of the Russian parliament, also embraced. In 2011, he hired her as a special assistant.

Torshin knew NRA officials: He met David Keene, the organization’s president from 2011 to 2013, through an American lawyer who did business in Russia. He also appears to have connected at one point with John Bolton, now Trump’s national security adviser, who appeared by video at a 2013 round table on gun rights organized by Butina.

Torshin also was familiar with Trump, telling Bloomberg last year that he had known Trump for five years and had enjoyed a jovial exchange at an NRA convention in 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. Both Torshin and Butina are life members of the organization.

Despite being limited to short-term visas for her trips to the United States, Butina traveled widely, often going with Torshin to events sponsored by the NRA. They went to the organization’s annual convention in Indianapolis in 2014 and to the one the next year in Nashville, where Butina met Walker, the Wisconsin governor who would soon declare his candidacy for president.

She traveled to South Dakota to deliver a talk at a university. The Rapid City Journal, a newspaper in Rapid City, South Dakota, described Butina as an engaging speaker who “described Putin as a dictator and a tyrant.”

And in July 2015, she appeared at a question-and-answer session featuring Trump at the Freedom Fest in Las Vegas, asking him to describe his foreign policy and his views on “damaging” economic sanctions against Russia. “I know Putin and I’ll tell you what, we get along with Putin,” Trump said. “I don’t think you’d need the sanctions.”

The next month, she was back in Russia during a visit by a congressional delegation led by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., who is known for his pro-Russia views. A spokesman for Rohrabacher said Tuesday that the congressman recalls only that Butina arranged a breakfast meeting with Torshin that “was of no consequence.”

All the while, prosecutors charge, Butina was coordinating her actions with an American political operative whom she met in Moscow. Unnamed in the indictment, he is believed to be Paul Erickson, an NRA member, longtime Republican fixer and influence peddler who formed a South Dakota company with Butina in 2016. Erickson later said the company was formed to help Butina get financial assistance for her academic studies. His lawyer did not return repeated phone calls this week seeking comment on her indictment.

A second American was also said to have been involved; his identity remains a mystery. According to an FBI affidavit, Butina assured that person that the Kremlin had approved her efforts. “All that we needed was ‘yes’ from Putin’s side,” she wrote in an email in March 2016. Later she wrote to him: “My dearest president has received ‘the message’ about your group initiatives.”

Prosecutors allege Butina lied on her application for her August 2016 student visa, stating she had quit working for Torshin that May even though she was still his assistant. While pursuing a graduate degree in international relations at American University, where her lawyer says she maintained a perfect grade-point average, Butina is said to have stayed in close touch with Torshin. “I am just starting out in this field,” she wrote at one point. “I still have to learn and learn from you.” He praised her efforts, writing, “Your political star has risen in the sky.” Meanwhile, prosecutors allege, Torshin kept in contact with officials at Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He rejected Butina’s proposal to organize what would be billed as a “private” conference between Russian and American politicians, saying “they” would not go for it, according to the FBI affidavit.

A month before the 2016 presidential election, prosecutors stated, the two discussed whether Butina should volunteer to serve as an election observer, but they decided it was too risky. “I am ready for further orders,” she wrote Torshin after Trump’s victory.

In February 2017, she organized a delegation of a dozen Russian officials and academics to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington to hear Trump speak. It was the second year in a row that she and Torshin attended that event.

But other attempts to get close to Trump appear to have failed. A proposal to meet with Trump at the NRA annual convention in 2016 in Louisville was rejected by the campaign. And a visit by Torshin to the White House in 2017 was canceled after a national security aide noted Torshin was under investigation by Spanish authorities over allegations of money laundering.