Paul Erickson has worn many hats during his decades as a GOP political operative: national treasurer of the College Republicans; executive producer of Jack Abramoff’s anti-communist film “Red Scorpion”; lobbyist for Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko; political director of Pat Buchanan’s 1992 presidential campaign.
A federal grand jury indictment brought Tuesday added another title to that long, unorthodox list: the alleged conduit between what investigators call an “illegal agent of the Russian Federation” and top Republican officials in Washington, D.C.
Erickson is not identified by name in the indictment against Mariia Butina, the Russian national arrested for allegedly conducting “a Russian influence operation” against the United States. But his background and political activities align closely with those of the individual listed in an FBI agent’s detailed affidavit as “U.S. Person 1.”
That person is described as a “United States citizen and an American political operative.” Between 2013 and 2017, according to both court documents and reporting on Erickson, he allegedly helped broker contacts between U.S. conservatives involved with the National Rifle Association, Butina and Russian politician Alexander Torshin.
As Erickson put it in one May 2016 email to a Trump campaign adviser first reported by the New York Times: “Happenstance and the [sometimes] international reach of the NRA placed me in a position a couple of years ago to slowly begin cultivating a back-channel to President Putin’s Kremlin.”
The email offering to broker such a meeting between the likely GOP nominee and Putin had the subject line “Kremlin Connection.”
Erickson has not been charged with any crimes or spoken publicly about Butina’s arrest. He did not immediately respond to TPM’s Tuesday Facebook message seeking comment.
But the affidavit, which has the most information on Erickson’s activities, is a reminder that he is the alleged nexus of Butina’s web of GOP connections—and of just how much the FBI apparently knows about their communications.
As Erickson’s name popped up in news reports over the past two years, acquaintances said they weren’t particularly surprised to find him caught up in the Russia quagmire. Erickson has for decades positioned himself as a shadowy “’secret master of the political universe’” who feeds off of access to D.C.’s most powerful, as conservative commentator Ralph Benko put it.
Erickson’s ventures have varied between the legitimate and the bizarre, according to a stellar February profile of the Vermillion native in South Dakota’s Rapid City Journal.
Erickson, who graduated from Yale and University of Virginia Law School, first linked up with now-disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff during their time in the College Republicans. He spent the 1980s and 1990s alternating between working on GOP political campaigns, including Buchanan’s unsuccessful attempt to primary George H.W. Bush, and teaming up with Abramoff on ventures like 1989’s anti-communist action movie “Red Scorpion.”
One bizarre stint was serving as a media adviser for John Wayne Bobbitt, the Virginia man whose wife, Lorena, chopped his penis off with a carving knife. Per contemporaneous news reports, Erickson booked Bobbitt on an international “Love Hurts” tour to help him raise funds. The tour involved media hits on outlets like “The Howard Stern Show” and selling autographed steak knives.
Another curious interlude involved accepting a $30,000 contract with Abramoff in 1994 to try to convince the U.S. government to allow Mobutu Sese Seko, the brutal and corrupt dictator of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to enter the country.
This unusual resume and willingness to go to bat for controversial foreign figures may have made Erickson a great fit to connect Butina to Americans willing to hear a new tune about U.S.-Russia relations.
According to the affidavit, the duo first crossed paths in Moscow in 2013, and subsequently worked together “for the purpose of advancing the agenda of the Russian Federation.”
A March 2015 email from Butina to Erickson included in the charging document lays out her goal: “to build konstruktivnyh [sic] relations” between the U.S. and Russia, through the “[central place and influence” that the NRA plays in the Republican Party. She requested a budget of $125,000 to attend conservative conferences to make these connections, per the charging document.
Erickson allegedly replied with an email titled “Potential American Contacts” that included a list of media, political, and corporate contacts who could help Butina achieve these ends, according to the affidavit. In a subsequent email, subject line “Your Plan Forward,” he said Butina had already laid the “groundwork” needed to get meetings with people who could actually influence American attitudes about Russia going forward.
In March and September 2016, according to the charging document, Erickson allegedly emailed with Butina about which American individuals should attend the “friendship and dialogue dinners” on behalf of Russia that Butina hosted in Washington, D.C. and New York.
The affidavit also cites an October 2016 email in which Erickson himself seems surprised by his role in brokering these back-channel negotiations, allegedly telling 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].”
Whether Erickson has been interviewed by federal or congressional investigators is not yet known. An attorney for Butina has denied that she is a Russian agent and said she has offered cooperation to the FBI in addition to voluntarily sitting for an interview with the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In February, the Rapid City Journal asked Erickson about the Trump-Russia investigation and his 2016 “Kremlin Connection” email to the Trump campaign. All he said in response was: “Not all reports from the East are accurate.”