Russian national Maria Butina arrested in Washington, charged as a covert foreign agent

A Russian national who maintained close ties with the National Rifle Association and other prominent conservatives was arrested Saturday by the FBI for trying to infiltrate U.S. political organizations on behalf of the Kremlin. Department of Justice court filings accuse 29-year-old Maria Butina of setting up “back channel” lines of communication with American political figures to “advance the agenda of the Russian Federation.”

Kremlin spy?

A criminal complaint filed in the District of Columbia on Monday charges Butina with “conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian Federation within the United States without prior notification to the Attorney General.” An affidavit supporting this complaint alleges that between 2015 and February 2017, Butina took her orders from a top Russian official who helped her with “developing relationships with U.S. persons and infiltrating organizations having influence in American politics, for the purpose of advancing the interests of the Russian Federation.”

The Justice Department’s description of Butina’s Russian handler matches that of former Russian Federation legislator and central bank executive Alexander Torshin, who was sanctioned by the Trump administration in April 2018 along with 17 other Russian oligarchs and has been accused of having ties to organized crime.

The FBI affidavit states that the pair worked in close concert to build relationships with powerful American allies on behalf of Moscow. “Butina and [Torshin] took steps to develop relationships with American politicians in order to establish private, or as she called them ‘back channel’ lines of communication.”

The document continues: “These lines could be used by the Russian Federation to penetrate U.S. national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation.”

In plain sight

DOJ officials claim that Butina worked to infiltrate a “gun rights organization,” and a senior government official confirmed to NBC News that this entity was the National Rifle Association. In November 2016, Torshin bragged that he and Butina were Russia’s only lifetime members of the NRA.

In May 2016, Torshin invited candidate Donald Trump to attend an NRA convention with him in Louisville Kentucky, although the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, rejected the idea without informing the nominee about the request. Donald Trump Jr., however, attended the event in his father’s stead, and photos show him seated beside Torshin at an NRA dinner party.

Butina also interfaced with Trump in public when, as a member of an audience Q&A session at FreedomFest 2015 in Las Vegas, she asked the presidential candidate what he thought about outstanding U.S. sanctions against Russia. “I know Putin, and I’ll tell you what, we get along with Putin,” Trump responded, adding, “I don’t think you’d need the sanctions.”

Rising political star

Although Butina and Torshin weren’t very successful at impressing the Trump administration, they were able to make contacts with several prominent Republicans. The Daily Beast reported in February 2017 that Butina and Republican activist Paul Erickson had established connections, and the American entered into a joint business venture with the Russian agent in South Dakota some time in 2016.

“Your political star has risen in the sky,” Torshin wrote to his pupil as she began making powerful friends in Washington. “Now it is important to rise to the zenith and not burn out prematurely.”

Butina’s lawyer, however, dismissed the charges against his client. Attorney Robert Driscoll called the red-headed Russian an A-student who was educated at American University and has been “cooperating with various government entities for months regarding public allegations related to her contacts with various American and Russian individuals.”

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Driscoll added that his client testified for hours in a closed-door Senate Intelligence Committee hearing and even offered to speak to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the former FBI director in charge of investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. Driscoll said that Mueller’s office declined.

For years, Russian operatives have sought to establish links with Americans politicians and special interest groups in an effort to influence domestic politics. While the Trump campaign appears to have resisted those efforts, other prominent Republicans have some explaining to do.

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