A Russian woman with close ties to the National Rifle Association was arrested Sunday and charged with “conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government,” according to a criminal complaint unsealed Monday.
Mariia Butina is accused of acting as an unregistered agent on Russia’s behalf between 2015 and 2017, in collaboration with “others known and unknown, including an official of the Russian Federation,” according to the complaint.
The case is being handled by the Justice Department’s National Security Division, not by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team probing Russia meddling in the 2016 election.
Butina is a former assistant of Alexander Torshin, a top official at the Russian Central Bank who has reportedly been under investigation by the FBI for allegedly channeling money to the NRA to benefit Trump’s 2016 campaign. The pair have been under scrutiny by journalists and investigators for months, thanks to a bombshell January report in McClatchy that first revealed the FBI’s financial probe.
Butina and Torshin have close ties to the NRA, which is not referred to by name in the criminal complaint or the supporting affidavit but as a “Gun Rights Organization.”
The NRA did not respond to TPM’s request for comment.
Per the affidavit, Butina’s work allegedly involved “advancing the agenda of the Russian Federation” by forging ties to “U.S. persons having influence in American politics,” including the NRA.
Butina and Torshin both ran The Right To Bear Arms, a group that fashioned itself as a Russian version of the NRA and supported handgun legalization in their home country. As TPM has documented and the new criminal filings lay out, they used that group to establish close ties with Republican officials in the U.S., inviting them to summits in Moscow. As previously reported, one December 2015 trip to Russia funded by the the Right to Bear Arms was attended by former NRA president David Keene, former Wisconsin sheriff and Fox News regular David Clarke, and NRA member and GOP operative Paul Erickson.
Erickson’s background aligns with the description of “U.S. Person 1” in the indictment—”a United States citizen and an American political operative” who helped connect Butina to other influential Republicans.
Emails obtained by the FBI allegedly show that Butina, Erickson, and Torshin—who is not named in the filing but matches the description of “the Russian official”—corresponded regularly about how to “plan and develop the contours of the influence operation.” The trio allegedly recognized the importance of the NRA in shaping conservative political opinion in the U.S. and how the organization could be used to soften the GOP’s view towards Russia, according to the affidavit.
In a March 2015 email to Erickson, Butina allegedly wrote that the Republicans would likely win the 2016 election, so it was an opportune moment “to build konstruktivnyh [sic] relations” and that [c]entral place and influence in the [POLITICAL Party 1] plays the [GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION]. The [GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION [is] the largest sponsor of the elections to the US congress, as well as a sponsor of The CPAC conference and other events,” according to the affidavit.
Erickson allegedly responded by sending Butina a long list of “potential media, business, and political contacts,” according to the affidavit.
In another remarkable exchange alleged in the affidavit, this one from October 2016, Erickson told an acquaintance he was working on “securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key POLITICAL PARTY 1 leaders through, of all conduits, the [GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION].”
In the months in between, as the filing alleged, she and Torshin made a number of trips to the U.S., including pilgrimages to the 2016 National Prayer Breakfast and 2016 NRA convention. At the latter, Torshin met with Donald Trump Jr., according to The New York Times.
Butina officially entered the U.S. on a student visa in August 2016 to enroll in graduate studies at American University, the affidavit alleged. Earlier that year, she and Erickson incorporated a company in South Dakota, called Bridges LLC, that Erickson claimed was used to pay for her tuition, according to previous reporting.
That is an “unusual way to use an LLC,” McClatchy noted in its initial story on what it said was a FBI investigation into Torshin allegedly illegally funneling money to the NRA’s lobbying arm. But the complaint and affidavit against Butina make no mention of any possible campaign finance violations or any criminal wrongdoing by Torshin, who was hit with sanctions and barred from traveling to the country by the U.S. Treasury Department this April.
Butina allegedly continued her political work on behalf of Russia through the fall of 2016, according to the FBI affidavit. In Twitter direct messages cited in court filings, she allegedly chatted with Torshin about whether she should serve as a U.S. election observer from Russia and, after Trump officially won the election in November, allegedly asked Torshin for “further orders.”
The Justice Department announced that Butina made her initial appearance at the U.S. District for the District of Columbia on Monday, and is being held pending her next hearing on Wednesday.
The influence operation that she allegedly helped carry out is one of the “low-cost, relatively low-risk, and deniable” ways Russia tries to influence U.S. politics, according to the affidavit.
Her arrest comes just days after special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for hacking Democratic targets during the 2016 election.
At a Monday press conference, President Trump and President Vladimir Putin heaped praise on each other and again denied that Russia improperly interfered in the U.S. campaign.
Read the full affidavit below.
This post has been updated.