Tales of Plea Deals: Part 4 – Maria Butina

On Thursday, December 13, 2018, 30-year-old Russian national and alleged spy Maria Butina admitted in federal court that she made contacts with the NRA and top Republican officials in an attempt to secretly influence US politics at Russia’s behest. A so-called “gun rights activist,” she pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to act as a foreign agent as part of a cooperation agreement with prosecutors. In addition, she admitted to acting under the direction of Alexander Torshin, another Russian fixture and gun rights supporter. She also worked with another individual to infiltrate conservative circles, who’s identified in documents as ”US Person 1” and is believed to be Paul Erickson, a longtime GOP operative with NRA connections. Also, he and Butina dated and lived together. The case against Maria Butina is separate from special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Yet, her activities fit into a broader Russian effort to influence US politics.

Allegedly from Siberia, Maria Butina claimed she moved to Moscow in 2010 in hopes of starting a furniture business and then an advertising agency once she realized the former venture was too expensive. Though the exact sequence of events is unclear, we know that 2 things happened soon afterward. First, Butina founded a Russian gun rights group called Right to Bear Arms though that may have been a front. Since Russia is known to have very strict gun laws, anyway. Second, she began working as Alexander Torshin’s special assistant. Citing a shared interest in gun rights, the two were introduced to top NRA officials, began regularly attending NRA conventions in the United States, and became NRA “life members.” They also began to reciprocate with their own invitations to NRA bigwigs to visit Moscow for Right to Bear Arms events. The first of which took place on November 2013 and featured “a concealed carry fashion show.” It is there she met GOP operative Paul Erickson whom she got very close to at some point. Eventually, they dated and lived together. By 2015, the were close enough for Butina to email Erickson her proposed plan to influence American politics.

So what was this plan to influence US politics? The Justice Department claims that around March 24, 2015, Maria Butina emailed Paul Erickson a proposal project called “Diplomacy” apparently looking for his input. The email itself had the subject line “The Second Pozner.” An FBI agent’s affidavit suggests this refers to “Vladimir Pozner, a propagandist who served in the disinformation department of the Soviet KGB and who often appeared on Western television.” The project proposal makes several assertions:

  • Republicans will likely win control of the US government in the 2016 elections.
  • The GOP is “traditionally associated with negative and aggressive foreign policy” toward Russia. But now can be a good time to improve relations.
  • The NRA has a “central place and influence” in the Republican Party since it helps fund political candidates and sponsors events.
  • Butina and Torshin already have NRA ties to the NRA’s leadership and she’s visited the US once.
  • Therefore, Butina requested a $125,000 budget so she could participate in “all upcoming major conferences” related to the Republican Party before the 2016 elections.

Now you’d think Paul Erickson would get suspicious here. But he soon wrote back to Maria Butina with advice on her “special project,” including a list of potential media, business, and political contacts she could meet with “off the record.” He wrote, “If you were to sit down with your special friends and make a list of ALL the most important contacts you could find in America for a time when the political situation between the U.S. and Russia will change, you could NOT do better than the list that I just emailed you. 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.”

So what we have here is a plan to influence the Republican Party to be friendlier with Russia, based on the perceptive and accurate insight that the GOP is extremely beholden to the NRA, which is why it’s almost impossible. Keep in mind this was months before Donald Trump entered the presidential race, and when most believed the Republican Party would choose a more hawkish and traditional nominee. As for who was ultimately behind it? A more recent government filing mentions that Maria Butina refers to a particular “funder” who has “deep ties to the Russian Presidential Administration.” This isn’t Alexander Torshin but an unidentified Russian oligarch with a $1.2 billion net worth.

But even before Maria Butina wrote this plan, she had made some inroads in conservative activist circles. In 2013, she got Trump future National Security Adviser John Bolton to record a video message on gun rights for her group. In 2014 the conservative TownHall website ran an interview with her under the headline, “Meet the woman working with the NRA and fighting for gun rights in Russia.”

Yet, when Republican presidential candidates began traveling the country to campaign in 2015, Maria Butina, too, started popping up at events and even posed for photos with candidates like Scott Walker, Rick Santorum, and Bobby Jindal. Soon after Donald Trump entered the race and skyrocketed to the top of the polls, Butina attended an event with him, too. This was the Freedom Fest at Las Vegas in July 2015. In fact, Trump called on her to answer a question. Saying she was from Russia, Butina asked, “If you would be elected as the president, what would be your foreign politics, especially in the relationships with my country? And do you want to continue the policy of sanctions that are damaging to both economies, or do you have other ideas?” Trump answered by talking about how “the whole world hates us” under Obama, and then said, “I know Putin, and I’ll tell you what, we get along with Putin. I don’t think you’d need the sanctions. I think that we would get along very, very well. I really believe that.”

In their book, Russian Roulette, Michael Isikoff and David Corn reported that Donald Trump’s own advisers would look back on the exchange and find it strange:

“Steve Bannon raised it with RNC chair Reince Priebus. How was it that this Russian woman happened to be in Las Vegas for that event? And how was it that Trump happened to call on her? And Trump’s response? It was odd, Bannon thought, that Trump had a fully developed answer.

“Priebus agreed there was something strange about Butina. Whenever there were events held by conservative groups, she was always around, he told Bannon.”

Maria Butina’s work continued in late 2015 and early 2016, as she went back and forth between the US and Russia:

  • She talked with Alexander Torshin about his plans to meet California Representative Dana Rohrbacher, the most pro-Russian member of Congress in Russia in August 2015.
  • In December 2015, Butina’s group helped pay for another NRA bigwig trip to Moscow. The delegation included Paul Erickson, former NRA president David Keene, then-Milwaukee sheriff David Clarke, and top NRA donors.
  • She and Torshin attended the National Prayer Breakfast in February 2016.
  • She and Erickson incorporated a shell company Bridges LLC, in South Dakota that same month, for unclear reasons.
  • She and Erickson also began planning a series of “friendship and dialogue dinners” with various American political players in Washington DC and New York.

However, around March 2016, references about a communications channel between the Russian government and the Republican Party began to pop up. By this point, the first round of primaries have already taken place and Donald Trump was the clear favorite to win the nomination. That month, Butina emailed an American that “Putin’s side” had given them a “yes.” She wrote that a “representative of the Russian Presidential administration” had given approval for “building this communication channel,” according to the FBI agent’s affidavit.

In May 2016, Paul Erickson sent an email to Trump campaign (and Jeff Sessions) staffer Rick Dearborn, with the subject “Kremlin connection.” He wrote: “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 Kremlin believes that the only possibility of a true reset in this relationship would be with a new Republican White House.” He said that Vladimir Putin is “deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” and wanted Trump to visit Moscow before the election. So, he said, the NRA’s convention in Louisville, Kentucky, would be a good place for “first contact” because “President Putin’s emissary on this front” would be there. Another conservative activist Richard Clay sent a similar email to Dearborn soon afterward, and specified that Alexander Torshin as the emissary. The email was reportedly forwarded to Jared Kushner who wrote back that they shouldn’t accept, which is ironic since he attended the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort.

Later that month when the NRA held its convention in Louisville, Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin attended yet met Donald Trump Jr. at the dinner. According to Trump Jr.’s lawyer, they only made “gun-related small talk.” Two weeks later, Trump Jr. received an email offer of information that would incriminate Hillary Clinton as part of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Though there’s no clear indication that the 2 incidents are connected.

As the 2016 election drew nearer, Maria Butina moved to the United States on a student visa in order to receive a graduate degree from American University. At some point, she began living with Paul Erickson who’s twice her age. Yet, a government filing claims that she “appears to treat” this relationship “as simply a necessary aspect of her activities.” In other words, Butina was simply just using Erickson for her work with the Russians. But given how Erickson is twice her age and resembles Dilbert’s boss, you probably knew already. In October 2016, Erickson emailed an acquaintance that he’d help secure “a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [Republican] leaders through, of all conduits, the [NRA].” But Donald Trump’s prospects looked grim that month since he was down and the polls while Hillary Clinton was generally believed to win. On October 5, Butina and Alexander Torshin exchanged the following direct messages, according to the FBI agent’s affidavit:

Butina: “Time will tell. We made our bet. I am following our game.” …

Torshin: “This is hard to teach. Patience and cold blood + faith in yourself. And everything will definitely turn out” …

Butina: “Yesterday’s dinner showed that American society is broken in relation to Russia. This is now the dividing line of opinions, the crucial one in the election race. [Republicans] are for us, [Democrats] against — 50/50. Our move here is very important.”

A week later, they exchanged more messages with Maria Butina writing, “Important things are ahead of us. Right now everything has to be quiet and careful.”

Unfortunately, we all know that Donald Trump won the 2016 election. After the race was called, Maria Butina wrote to Alexander Torshin, “I’m going to sleep. It’s 3 am here. I am ready for further orders.” 4 days later, Butina hosted a costume party for her birthday at a Washington restaurant. She dressed as the Russian empress Alexandra while Erickson came as Rasputin. There, Butina “brazenly claimed that she had been part of the Trump campaign’s communications with Russia,” according to 2 witnesses who talked to The Daily Beast.

Paul Erickson worked his GOP connections to influence Donald Trump’s transition team and the new administration’s staffing. Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin discussed who might be appointed secretary of state, with Butina asking about how “our people” felt about one name. She and Paul Erickson attended one of the inaugural balls together, and hosted guests at the Dupont Circle restaurant Russia House. Meanwhile, Butina planned another visit by Torshin and other Russians for the National Prayer Breakfast, set to be held shortly after Trump was sworn in “to establish a back channel communication,” as she emailed Erickson. She then set up a meeting between Trump and the Russians on the morning of the prayer breakfast, February 2, 2017. But at the last minute, the administration officially flagged Torshin’s name on the attendees list due to his suspected ties to organized crime. So the meeting didn’t happen.

After that, there’s been less published in reports and government filings about what Maria Butina has been up to. She allegedly asked a DC civil rights group about its cyber vulnerabilities for a supposed school project, according to the Washington Post. She dined with a Russian diplomat who the government suspects is an intelligence officer. At some point, the government obtained a note mentioning, “Maria’s ‘Russian Patriots In-Waiting’ Organization” and an “FSB offer of employment.” In April 2018, she testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee while she received her master’s degree in May. Then in July 2018, Butina and Paul Erickson ended their DC lease and began preparing for a trip. That is, until the FBI swooped in and arrested Butina. Since the bureau had its eyes on her since she moved to the US two years ago. But this arrest was rushed out of fear she’d leave the country and slip away from them.

Maria Butina initially pleaded not guilty to the charges against her, which at the time included as acting as an agent to a foreign government and conspiring to do so. However, that December, Butina pled guilty to the lesser charge of conspiring to act as a foreign agent. She still faces a maximum of 5 years in prison, though she’s unlikely to be sentenced to that amount given her deal with prosecutors. Nonetheless, by pleading guilty, Butina admitted that she tried to “establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence in US politics.” She sought those “unofficial lines” of communication for the “benefit of the Russian Federation,” acting through a Russian official.

Through it all, Maria Butina communicated regularly with the Russian official believed as Alexander Torshin, reporting to him about her efforts and observations. Though the two met Donald Trump Jr. at an NRA dinner. In Russia, Torshin is a major figure in its politics, serving in its parliament’s upper house for years. Since 2015, he’s been a deputy director at the central Russian bank. Torshin is also a gun enthusiast and longtime supporter of gun rights. Nonetheless, Spanish authorities have linked Torshin to money laundering and a Russian organized crime syndicate called the Taganskaya. In fact, they planned to arrest him when he was scheduled to fly into the Mallorca airport in 2013, but he didn’t show up. While the FBI is investigating whether he “illegally funneled money” into the NRA that was then spent to help Trump win. If true, this would be a major scandal implicating the NRA. But the group denies it. And this year, the US Treasury Department put Torshin on a list of sanctioned Russian officials and oligarchs.

Maria Butina also sought advice and helped plan events with the person believed as Paul Erickson, whose role in this and potential legal exposure, is still unclear. Erickson has a colorful history. He’s worked for conservative activist Richard Viguerie, for Pat Buchanan’s 1992 campaign, for Lorena Bobbit’s husband/victim, and for Zairean dictator Mobuto Sese Seko. More recently, he’s been on the American Conservative Union’s board and has close ties to NRA leadership since he fundraised for them. A Forbes columnist called him, “a sort of ‘secret master of the political universe’ known almost exclusively to the cognoscenti.”

Nonetheless, the exact nature and breadth on what’s being investigated on Maria Butina remains vague, making it unclear on how much legal jeopardy Donald Trump’s camp and the NRA is in. If the NRA really was tricked by a Russian spy, the whole group can be victim in all of this. Yet, a series of McClatchy reports dating from January, asserting that the FBI is investigating the NRA’s finances and specifically when Alexander Torshin “illegally funneled money” to the group “to help Donald Trump win the presidency.” Anyway, the NRA isn’t legally obligated to publicly reveal its donors and doesn’t do so. But we know it spent tens of millions of dollars in the 2016 to get Trump elected. Oregon US Senator Ron Wyden’s aide told McClatchy that the NRA had dodged questions on whether it accepted money from shell companies that could’ve been routed to the Russians.

As for Donald Trump’s associates, well, the government filings on Maria Butina are conspicuously light on references to her outreach to Trump’s team despite it being widely reported in the media. However, in May 2018, a Spanish organized crime prosecutor said that his government had given wiretaps on Alexander Torshin’s conversations to the FBI “just a few months ago” before adding, “Mr. Trump’s son should be concerned.”

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