It’s the first time the Justice Department has explicitly claimed that a Russian spy working to influence the 2016 campaign had deliberate assistance with her efforts from a U.S. citizen. On Monday, the DOJ arrested and charged a Russian national who courted the NRA and the Republican Party with secretly working as a foreign agent.
The criminal complaint already has geopolitical implications, with the Russian Embassy calling for access to the alleged spy. And its implications for domestic politics also could be tectonic: The case is as close as it gets to collusion. According to the Justice Department, at least one American helped her with her influence operation.
In a sworn affidavit, FBI agent Kevin Helson said Maria Butina worked to set up “back channel” communications between Americans and the Kremlin. Her effort was underway by March 2015—months before Donald Trump entered the presidential campaign, according to the affidavit. And it kicked into high gear during the election season.
“These lines could be used by the Russian Federation to penetrate the U.S. national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation,” Agent Helson wrote.
Helson said he believed Butina moved to infiltrate an American gun rights organization as part of her pro-Kremlin operations. The affidavit does not name the gun rights organization but says it is a major donor to congressional campaigns. Butina has spent years aggressively courting the leadership of the NRA, which matches the description in the affidavit.
Butina’s apparent supervisor, former Russian senator Alexander Torshin, also spent years building relationships in the NRA. In 2015, he was pictured at a meeting in Moscow with a high-level delegation from the NRA and sanctioned Putin deputy Dmitry Rogozin. Rogozin, an ultra-nationalist hardliner, believes Russia should retake Alaska. Torshin faces money-laundering allegations from Spanish authorities.
Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, said Butina’s legal problems should come as a sobering moment for the NRA.
“The evidence set forth in the affidavit suggests the NRA was being used by the Russian government as a conduit to the Republican Party and political leaders in the U.S.,” he said. “So every person who was in contact with this woman is a potential witness.”
“She appeared to have access to NRA leadership,” he added, “so if I represented the NRA, this would be a very alarming development.”
Butina has long billed herself as a top advocate for gun rights in Russia. A lifetime NRA member, she attended the NRA’s 2014 yearly meeting as a special guest of the organization’s president. The 2015 NRA delegation to Moscow met with a Russian gun rights group Butina claims to have started, called the Right to Bear Arms.
Butina boasted about the meeting on her Facebook page. David Clarke, a right-wing Wisconsin firebrand and former sheriff who once claimed Black Lives Matter would team up with ISIS to destroy America, was part of the delegation. Butina’s group paid $6,000 for his travel and accommodations.
Butina’s influence operation was underway in March 2015, according to the affidavit, when she emailed an American with a proposal called “Project Discretion ‘Diplomacy.’” She predicted that an unnamed major political party—all but certainly the GOP—would ascend to power in 2016. The American responded with advice on how to cultivate relationships in that party, as well as a list of Americans she should get to know.
“YOU HAVE ALREADY MET ALL OF THE AMERICANS necessary to introduce you to EVERYONE on that list,” he wrote.
Butina, who moved to Washington in 2016, has claimed multiple times to have been a conduit between the Trump campaign and Russia, as The Daily Beast reported last year.
“She said so in my class. And she said so several times in the last semester,” American University professor Svetlana Savranskaya—who taught Butina—told The Daily Beast at the time.
A person who spoke with Butina told The Daily Beast she said she had several meetings with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican known for his friendliness to the Kremlin. Rohrabacher’s spokesperson also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Butina’s efforts to insinuate herself into the upper circles of the American conservative movement met with more than modest success. Pictures show her hobnobbing with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, NRA head Wayne LaPierre, and former NRA head David Keene.
She even made contact with then-candidate Trump. On July 11, 2015, she attended a Las Vegas rally for his campaign and asked him if he would look to thaw relations between Russia and the U.S. if elected.
“I know Putin, and I’ll tell you what, we’ll get along with Putin,” Trump replied. “I would get along very nicely with Putin, I mean, where we have the strength. I don’t think you’d need the sanctions. I think we would get along very, very well.”
The affidavit says Butina kept a Russian official updated on her activities in the U.S. The official, according to the affidavit, is a former member of the Russian parliament who went on to become “a top official at the Russian Central Bank.”
That likely describes Alexander Torshin, a former member of the Russian parliament who subsequently became deputy head of its Central Bank. Torshin has spent years building relationships with people in the upper echelons of the NRA, as NPR has reported. He and Butina are known to be close.
The affidavit also describes communications Butina had with an American, referred to only as U.S. Person 1, about an unnamed major American political party. That party is known for its historical hostility to Russia and closeness to gun rights groups—undoubtedly the GOP.
Butina had help from at least one American in her effort to build back channels between top Republican Party insiders and the Kremlin. On Oct. 4, 2016, according to the affidavit, U.S. Person 1 wrote an email copping to his role in Butina’s efforts.
“Unrelated to specific presidential campaigns, 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],” he wrote.
U.S. Person 1 appears to be Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican insider who claimed to advise the Trump transition team. Erickson sherpaed Butina through conservative circles, connecting her with operatives and advising her on outreach, as The Daily Beast has reported. The two even wore a couple’s costume to a birthday party she held: She as Russian Empress Alexandra and he as Rasputin.
U.S. Person 1 is the co-star of the affidavit, quoted at length giving her detailed instructions on how to leverage her already impressive network to connect with as many influential conservatives as possible. And he appeared to know that she had deep-pocketed supporters back in Russia.
“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,” he wrote in March 2015. “I and your friends in America can’t make it any easier for you than that.”
After reading the affidavit, Mariotti, the former federal prosecutor, said, “It appears to be evidence that an American was working with a Russian to help establish illicit communications in the U.S.”
“This strikes me like it would fit a definition of what collusion is,” he added.
Butina also targeted the National Prayer Breakfast as part of her effort to shore up relations between Russia and the U.S. She corresponded extensively with the event’s organizers and helped coordinate the attendance of the Russian official supervising her efforts (presumably Torshin).
Butina was arrested on July 15, according to a Justice Department press release. The Russian Embassy in the U.S. demanded access to Butina in a tweet. “Consular Section of the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC clarifies the circumstances of Maria Butina’s detention and her whereabouts,” it wrote. “We are in contact with the US authorities and demand from them consular access to the Russian citizen in order to protect her legitimate rights.”