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Mariia Butina, Who Sought ‘Back Channel’ Meeting for Trump and Putin, Is Charged as Russian Agent
Mariia Butina in 2013 in Moscow. She was charged Monday with carrying out a secret Russian effort to influence American politics.CreditItar-Tass/Zuma Press
By Matt Apuzzo, Katie Benner and Sharon LaFraniere
July 16, 2018
WASHINGTON — A Russian woman who tried to broker a secret meeting between Donald J. Trump and the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, during the 2016 presidential campaign was charged Monday and accused of working with Americans to carry out a secret Russian effort to influence American politics.
At the behest of a senior Russian government official, the woman, Mariia Butina, made connections through the National Rifle Association, religious organizations and the National Prayer Breakfast to try to steer the Republican Party toward more pro-Russia policies, court records show. Privately comparing herself to a Soviet Cold War propagandist, she worked to infiltrate American organizations and establish “back channel” lines of communication with American politicians.
“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,” an F.B.I. agent wrote in court documents.
The charges were filed under seal on Saturday, the day after 12 Russian intelligence officers were indicted on a charge of hacking Democratic computers during the 2016 campaign. Ms. Butina, 29, was arrested Sunday and appeared Monday in court. The records were unsealed hours after Mr. Trump stood beside Mr. Putin in Helsinki and said that he saw no reason the Russian leader would try to influence the presidential election.
Mr. Trump’s own intelligence chiefs have concluded otherwise, and the two sets of charges served as jarring bookends to Mr. Trump’s summit meeting with Mr. Putin. As Mr. Trump disparaged the investigation, the Justice Department painted a picture of a multifaceted Russian effort to sway the election through computer espionage, personal overtures and the assistance of American intermediaries.
While Mr. Putin denied any involvement Monday in such activities, court documents showed that Ms. Butina told associates that her covert efforts were approved by Mr. Putin’s administration.
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Ms. Butina, whose first name is more commonly spelled Maria, was involved in two failed efforts to set up meetings between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin in 2016. The charges announced Monday do not name Mr. Trump, but they make clear Ms. Butina’s overtures were part of a carefully crafted Russian intelligence operation.
Ms. Butina is the 26th Russian — and the first one arrested — to face charges related to interference in the presidential election. In February, the Justice Department charged 13 Russians and three companies with stealing the identities of American citizens, posing as political activists and using the flash points of immigration, religion and race to manipulate the 2016 campaign.
“Maria Butina is not an agent of the Russian Federation,” her lawyer, Robert N. Driscoll, said in a statement. He described the charges as overblown, saying that arranging dinners and making friends were being mischaracterized as nefarious. “There is simply no indication of Butina seeking to influence or undermine any specific policy or law,” he added.
The charges were filed by Justice Department national security prosecutors, not the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. The investigation into Ms. Butina has been proceeding for some time and was carried out parallel to Mr. Mueller’s investigation, a former official said. F.B.I. agents raided her home in April, her lawyer said.
Ms. Butina entered the United States on a student visa in 2016, but the scheme she was working on dated to 2013, prosecutors said. At that time, politicians like former Gov. Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio, both of Florida, who have shown no willingness to align themselves with Russian interests, were seen as likely Republican presidential front-runners. Court records describe an effort to shift the party’s views on Russia.
As Mr. Trump’s unusual candidacy gained steam, the Russian government came to favor him over Hillary Clinton, then a Democratic presidential candidate, and worked to support his candidacy, prosecutors and intelligence officials have said.
The Justice Department said that Ms. Butina worked at the behest of an unidentified high-level Russian government official. He has been previously identified as Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of the Russian central bank who has been linked both to Russia’s security services and organized crime. Mr. Torshin is among the nearly two dozen Russian officials or oligarchs who were sanctioned this year for actions including trying to subvert Western democracies.
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Mr. Torshin is a leading figure in Mr. Putin’s political party, United Russia, and has spoken glowingly of Mr. Trump. He has described Mr. Trump as a “supporter of traditional family values” and “a real man” who “really is for cooperation with Russia.”
Ms. Butina viewed the N.R.A. as a powerful force for shifting Republican policies, court records show. She described the group as “the largest sponsor of the elections to the U.S. Congress” and as a sponsor of the Conservative Political Action Conference. The N.R.A. is not named in court records, but its ties to Ms. Butina and Mr. Torshin have been previously reported. The N.R.A. did not respond to a message seeking comment.
In May 2016, Mr. Torshin and Ms. Butina proposed a meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin during the annual N.R.A. convention in Louisville, Ky. Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, shot down the proposal. But Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, did meet Mr. Torshin and Ms. Butina at an N.R.A.-sponsored dinner, although Mr. Trump’s lawyer has called the encounter brief. Congressional investigators have obtained a photograph of the three at the event, people familiar with the inquiry said.
Prosecutors said that an American political operative helped Ms. Butina identify political, news media and business officials to target. Ms. Butina met the operative in Moscow, prosecutors said. Quoting from emails, prosecutors laid out the most explicit evidence to date that Americans knowingly aided the Russian influence effort.
In one email, the American said he had given Ms. Butina a map for how to proceed. “I and your friends in America can’t make it any easier for you than that,” the political operative wrote.
Ms. Butina and Mr. Torshin attended several events hosted by groups affiliated with Republicans, including two National Prayer Breakfasts in 2016 and 2017. In one email, Ms. Butina wrote that Mr. Torshin had suggested that Mr. Putin attend the February 2017 breakfast, at which Mr. Trump spoke.
“Pres. Putin did not say ‘no’!” Ms. Butina wrote in the email.
Though the American operative is not identified, The New York Times has previously reported that Ms. Butina developed a close relationship with Paul Erickson, an N.R.A. member and a longtime conservative activist who was part of the effort to arrange a meeting between Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump. Ms. Butina has publicly described hosting Mr. Erickson at an event in Moscow. Mr. Erickson and his lawyer did not respond to messages seeking comment. He is not identified in court records and has not been charged.
Ms. Butina also worked with a second unidentified American, prosecutors said.
After the November 2016 election, Ms. Butina wrote to Mr. Torshin on Twitter, prosecutors said: “I am ready for further orders.”
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