When alleged Russian agent Mariia Butina and her alleged handler, Alexander Torshin, traveled to Washington, D.C. in April 2015 and reportedly attended meetings with Treasury and Federal Reserve officials arranged by the Center for the National Interest (CNI), Butina and Torshin also spoke at an off-the-record discussion attended by a career State Department official, CNI’s executive director Paul J. Saunders told TPM Tuesday.
Reuters was first to report on the 2015 meetings set up by CNI, a think tank that supports engagement with Russia. Top officials from the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department met separately with Butina and Torshin, and the two Russians also spoke at an event on the “Russian financial situation and its impact on Russian politics,” Reuters reported. Saunders told TPM in a phone call that a “career State Department official” was present at the off-the-record discussion, a detail that was previously unreported.
Saunders, who attended that discussion, said that he did not recall what was covered at the event because “it was a long time ago [and] not a remarkable discussion.”
“It was a very transparent meeting,” Saunders added. “He was giving a presentation.”
Butina was indicted last week for conspiracy against the U.S. and failing to register as a foreign agent. Prosecutors alleged in the indictment that Butina attempted to infiltrate the National Rifle Association and establish backchannel communications with American politicians. Butina’s lawyer has maintained she is innocent, and she is currently being held without bond pending her trial after prosecutors argued she was an extreme flight risk.
Stanley Fischer, the Federal Reserve vice chairman at the time of the meetings, confirmed to Reuters that he met with Torshin. The Treasury department official, Nathan Sheets, declined to comment to Reuters. A spokesperson for the Russian central bank told Reuters that Torshin declined to comment.
Saunders told TPM that when CNI learned Torshin would be coming to Washington in 2015, “we invited him to speak.”
“As someone whom we had invited to speak, he asked for help in facilitating a few meetings,” Saunders continued. “We reached to a few offices in a way that we would do for anyone else who we invited to speak. It was an entirely routine thing on our part that we do for visitors from a lot of different countries when they come here to speak.”
The Russian Central Bank, he said, “actually was pretty highly regarded.”
“[Torshin] wasn’t under sanctions,” Saunders said. “We certainly weren’t aware of any derogatory information about Mr. Torshin. So we helped to facilitate meetings. No one from our staff was present, and since no one from our staff was present, no, I really don’t know what happened.”
Butina, he said “wasn’t somebody who we invited” to the event with Torshin at CNI.
“He brought someone to interpret for him,” he said. “That was Mariia Butina. She wasn’t somebody who we invited. She wasn’t somebody who we knew. He brought her with him. He was the principal, and she was, like, an aide or something.”
“We had no way of knowing, really, who she was,” Saunders added.
CNI, along with Jared Kushner, organized then-candidate Trump’s first major foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in April 2016, a year after the events with Torshin and Butina arranged by CNI. On the sidelines of the Mayflower speech, Trump, Kushner, and then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) met with then-Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak.
This post has been updated.