Alleged Russian Spy Maria Butina Romanced GOP Powerbroker, Feds Say
She had a handwritten note pondering whether to work for the Kremlin, according to a court filing, and was sleeping with a man believed to be a GOP powerbroker.
Maria Butina, whose years-long mission to build ties between Russia, the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party led to her arrest this week, has ties to Russian intelligence, federal prosecutors alleged on Wednesday.
Among documents uncovered in Butina’s apartment after her arrest on Sunday was a “hand-written” note asking, “How to respond to FSB offer of employment?” the Justice Department said in a court filing. The FSB is the successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
Butina’s mentor, the pro-Putin Russian politician Alexander Torshin, even guffawed over Butina’s emerging political notoriety last year by comparing her to Anna Chapman, another young Russian woman living in the United States who was arrested in a major 2010 spy-ring breakup.
“Are your admirers asking for your autographs yet? You have upstaged Anna Chapman. She poses with toy pistols, while you are being published with real ones,” a “Russian official” believed to be Torshin told her in March 2017, prosecutors claimed.
“Based on the Russian Official’s comments, the Court should conclude the defendant is considered to be on par with other covert Russian agents,” prosecutors contended.
FBI surveillance also captured Butina in March 2018 “sharing a private meal” with a person whom U.S. intelligence believes is “a Russian intelligence officer” under diplomatic cover. Her contact information, recovered by the FBI, includes “individuals identified as employees of the Russian FSB,” including an email account with an “FSB-associated domain.”
Prosecutors issued the filing to argue that Butina ought to be locked up ahead of her trial for allegedly being an “undeclared agent of the Russian Federation,” owing to what they contend is a substantial risk she will flee the country. Her Washington D.C. apartment’s lease expires at the end of the month, and her belongings are packed “in a manner consistent” with a move, they contended, and she had taken steps to acquire a visa permitting her travel outside the country.
Butina’s major U.S. political contact – and apparent lover – allegedly “visited a U-Haul truck rental facility” the day before her arrest, suggesting for the first time a rationale for the timing of her arrest the day before a high profile Donald Trump-Vladimir Putin summit in Helsinki.
The revelation of Butina’s arrest and charging this week opened another front in a multifaceted saga of Russian influence in American politics. While Butina and her alleged work on behalf of Russia touched the Trump campaign (she tried to set up a 2016 meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin and in 2015 prompted Trump to say he would “get along very nicely with Putin”), her activities in America went deeper. Through essentially infiltrating the NRA over her stated interest in Russian gun rights, Butina sought to use the supremely influential U.S. gun lobby to pivot U.S. right-wing politics in a pro-Russia direction, an FBI affidavit alleged Monday.
But Butina’s principal Russian liaison wasn’t known to be an intelligence official. Instead, it was a man identified in court documents only as a “Russian official” but who is widely understood to be Torshin, a former Russian elected official from Putin’s United Russia party. Torshin, The Daily Beast reported Tuesday, met in August 2015 with pro-Russia GOP congressman Dana Rohrabacher, someone to whom the affidavit alludes but did not name.
Only now, federal prosecutors allege that Butina has substantial ties to Russian intelligence as well, deepening the intrigue around the young Russian widely seen around D.C. – and the potential legal liability for her numerous American contacts in the NRA and GOP politics.
In an October 2016 exchange with the official believed to be Torshin, Butina assessed the downsides of public exposure over a “Russian-U.S. friendship society.” Butina said that “private clubs and quite [sic] influence on people making decisions is the trend,” according to prosecutors. The Russian official replied: “[Y]ou probably shouldn’t be going as an observer from Russia. The risk of provocation is too high and the ‘media hype’ which comes after it.”
Butina allegedly replied: “Only incognito! Right now everything has to be quiet and careful.”
Conspicuously for someone with alleged ties to the FSB, however, Butina communicated with the Russian official over highly interceptable forums, such as Twitter direct messages.
As well, prosecutors said Butina’s chats, Twitter messages and emails show her to be in contact with a “known Russian businessman with deep ties to the Russian Presidential Administration.”
The document describes him as worth $1.2 billion in 2018, according to Forbes magazine. Forbes’ 2018 billionaires list includes 11 male Russian nationals worth an estimated $1.2 billion: Gleb Fetisov, Sergei Kolesnikov, Ziyavudin Magomedov, Andrei Molchanov, Boris Rotenberg, Igor Rybakov, Airat Shaimiev, Radik Shaimiev, Mikhail Shelkov, Leonid Simanovsky, and Vadim Yakunin. Forbes has described Sergey Chemezov, the former boss of Mikhail Shelkov, previously the investment chief of the Russian state corporation Rostec, as “a member of Putin’s inner circle, befriending Russia’s president in Germany in the 1980s.” Another of the $1.2 billion Forbes members, Boris Rotenberg, is described as a close friend and old judo sparring partner of Vladimir Putin.
Perhaps most salaciously, prosecutors alleged for the first time that Butina and a man believed to be GOP political operative Paul Erickson – listed in court filings this week as “U.S. Person 1” – were intimately involved.
Through U.S. Person 1, Butina obtained what prosecutors call “an extensive network” of right-wing political figures. In Monday’s affidavit, the FBI claimed the person believed to be Erickson boasted: “NO one – certainly not the ‘official’ Russian Federation public relations representative in New York – could build a better list.”
But on Wednesday, prosecutors alleged what was in it for U.S. Person 1: “Butina, age 29, and U.S. Person 1, age 56, are believed to have cohabitated and been involved in a personal relationship during the course of Butina’s activities in the United States.”
Embarrassingly for that person, prosecutors charged that Butina viewed their relationship as “simply a necessary aspect of her activities.” On another occasion, Butina allegedly offered a different person “sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization.” And in papers prosecutors say they obtained, Butina allegedly “expressed disdain for continuing to cohabitate with U.S. Person 1.”
— Adam Rawnsley contributed reporting
PERSONA NON GRATA
U.S. Officials ‘at a Fucking Loss’ Over Latest Russia Sell Out
The White House’s refusal to rule out turning over former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul to the Russians has current and former State Department officials seeing red.
Current and former American diplomats are expressing disgust and horror over the White House’s willingness to entertain permitting Russian officials to question a prominent former U.S. ambassador.
One serving diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was “at a fucking loss” over comments that can be expected to chill American diplomacy in hostile or authoritarian countries – a comment echoed by former State Department officials as well.
During President Trump’s press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Putin pivoted a question about extraditing the 12 Russian intelligence officers whom Robert Mueller has indicted into a quid pro quo for going after longtime betes noire currently beyond his reach.
Putin singled out Bill Browder, whose exposure of widespread Russian tax fraud led to the passage of a U.S. human rights sanctions law Putin hates. Standing next to Trump, the Russian president accused Browder of masterminding an illegal campaign contribution to Hillary Clinton and alleging vaguely that he had “solid reason to believe that some intelligence officers guided these transactions.” Should Trump permit the Russians to question people around Browder, Putin hinted, he will let Mueller’s people be “present at questioning” of the intelligence officers.
On Wednesday, Russian prosecutors escalated the stakes. The prosecutor-general’s office said it wanted to interview Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, another Putin bete noire. McFaul—the Obama-era ambassador to Moscow—replied on Twitter that the Russians know well that he wasn’t even in Russia during the relevant time frame for any case against Browder.
At the White House, however, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to rule out permitting the Russians to question McFaul. Sanders said that there had been “some conversation” in Helsinki about the issue, though Trump made no “commitment.”
“The president is gonna meet with his team and we’ll let you know when we have an announcement on that,” Sanders said.
By contrast, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert called the Russian request for McFaul “absolutely absurd”—which was closer in line with how former U.S. diplomats viewed Putin’s gambit.
“If the U.S. would make a former diplomat avail for questioning by a foreign government without evidence of wrongdoing, then that would be quite horrifying,” said Ron Neumann, a former ambassador to Afghanistan and current president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.
Susan Rice, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Barack Obama’s national security adviser, tweeted that the lack of commitment to protecting McFaul was “beyond outrageous. Amb. McFaul served our country honorably and with full diplomatic immunity. If the White House cannot defend and protect our diplomats, like our service members, they are serving a hostile foreign power not the American people.”
McFaul did not respond to a request for comment.
David Wade, who was Secretary of State John Kerry’s chief of staff, said that the White House refusal to disavow Putin on McFaul crossed a line “from demoralizing to dangerous” for American diplomats.
“To even hint that there’s some element of credibility to Russian disruptions and distractions puts a bullseye on the back of any diplomat and invites authoritarian regimes to bully and threaten American public servants for the crime of doing their job. No administration should require a lesson or reminder in why this is reprehensible,” Wade said.
Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and spokesman for the Obama National Security Council, said Sanders’ comments made Trump look “even weaker” than during Trump’s Monday press conference with Putin. “Trump has always been all too eager to cave to Putin, but, as far as we know, it’d been largely in the abstract. He sells out our intelligence community, attacks NATO, shelves our commitment to human rights. But Putin now has specific demands in the form of human beings—one of them formerly our designated representative to Russia,” Price said.
“By failing to reject the idea out of hand – immediately and forcefully – Trump signaled that absolutely nothing is off limits when it comes to Putin. And just as shocking, he’s willing to play Putin’s brand of ball, in which the world is purely transactional and lives are expendable.”
The current U.S. diplomat said the openness to turning over McFaul capped off a shocking week for U.S. geopolitics.
“The president has first and foremost his interests at the top of his mind, as opposed to the government’s. That’s very clear over the past week and a half, between shitting on our NATO allies and kissing Putin’s ass,” the diplomat said. “He cares more about himself than the nation and any of us who serve it.”
The diplomat continued: “Either he’s compromised by Putin or he’s a pussy, in which case he should grab himself.”
—with additional reporting by Sam Stein
For all the indictments, arrests, and guilty pleas in the far-flung investigation into Russian influence, none has come close to alleging collusion. Until Maria Butina was nabbed.
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.”
Republicans placed an anti-patriot in the Oval Office—just as the Russians bet they would.
There is no shortage of bombshell angles to this Maria Butina matter, announced by the Justice Department on Monday just hours after Donald Trump helped make Russia great again in Helsinki.
There’s the allegation that she was trying to arrange a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin in 2016, which the Times chose to emphasize. There’s the bit about her relationship with the National Rifle Association, and how she allegedly sought to use or work with the NRA to expand her influence in American politics (The Daily Beast was the first to report on all this in detail, back in early 2017).
Why is this significant? Because Butina, being Russian and all, is normally thought of as being associated with Trump. But on March 24, 2015, Donald Trump was a private citizen. Nobody thought he was running for president (he announced his candidacy in mid-June).
In other words: Butina, working for a prominent Russian official with whom the affidavit says she conspired on all these moves, laid out this plan to her American contact to infiltrate “POLITICAL PARTY 1”—obviously, the Republican Party—before Trump was even in the picture.
This is worth dwelling on. So it didn’t take Trump being a candidate for the Russians to decide to work to influence American electoral politics. They decided before Trump. The pre-Trump Republican Party, that is to say, was already plenty corrupt for them.
Here’s more from the affidavit, which can be hard to read because of Butina’s poor written English. In that March 24 email, she proposed to this American contact of hers something she called “Project Diplomacy.” The GOP, she wrote, is “traditionally associated with negative and aggressive foreign policy, particularly with regards to Russia. However, now with the right to negotiate seems best to build konstruktivnyh relations.” The email mentioned her ties to the NRA and the prominent role the NRA plays in Republican politics. It concludes by requesting $125,000 so she could attend “all upcoming major conferences” of the Republican Party.
Butina then went on to place an article in The National Interest, the longtime neoconservative quarterly, called “The Bear and the Elephant,” waxing on about how much the Republicans and the Russians have in common. The article is dated June 12, 2015. That’s just four days before Trump announced his candidacy, but I edit a quarterly journal, too, and I understand these timelines, and my educated guess would be that she started writing this little essay well before the June 12 pub date.
We have decided in our minds that it was tied to Trump, because Trump is uniquely corrupt and because of Trump’s past ties to Russia and dependence on Russian banks. But this affidavit means it predated Trump. And that means, in turn, that the Kremlin saw not just Trump but the whole Republican Party as corrupt and corruptible.
And they were right! Now sure, if Trump hadn’t run, someone else would have been the nominee, and that someone else, Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or whomever, would have taken the more traditional Republican line on Russia.
But Trump did run, and he did win. The Republican Party, the party of three or four generations of hardliners from Allen Foster Dulles to Condoleezza Rice, became exactly the party Butina and her Kremlin handlers wanted it to become.
If this doesn’t inspire some soul-searching among Republicans, I don’t know what will. You can’t plead Trump on this one, Republicans. You can’t say the base drank the Trump Kool Aid, and you had no choice but to submit. Here we are staring at clear evidence that the Russians decided in or before March 2015, before Trump was remotely in the picture, that they were going to target your party, working through the NRA, and bank on your winning the 2016 election so that America would become more pro-Russian.
You need to ask yourselves why they might have thought this. Yes, yes; you opposed Putin on Crimea and Ukraine, and you attacked Barack Obama for not being tough enough with him. But even so, Republicans, the Kremlin felt it could play you. If I were you, I’d be asking myself: What was it they saw?
Maybe they saw what some of the rest of us here in America see. That you became, before the rise of Trump, a party devoid of any principle except the maintenance of power. Or that if they won over the NRA, they’d have you, because you’d never cross the NRA. Or maybe they saw that what really matters to you at the end of the day is that if Barack or Hillary was against it, you could be persuaded to be for it. And just maybe they peered a little deeper and saw the growth of the authoritarian turn of mind in your party’s base and liked what they saw.
That is what you became, even before Trump. And look what you’ve become now. Look what you’ve given us. Some of you howled in protest at what Trump did Monday in Helsinki (but it’s still worth noting that many did not). Well, it’s a little late now, isn’t it? You have placed an anti-patriot in the Oval Office. Exactly as the Russians bet you would. Never again browbeat us with your cheap shows of patriotism. You’re the un-Americans.