An NRA-linked Russian national was arrested and charged with spying

A man with a NRA cap holds his gun while people with their AR-15-style rifles pray during a blessing ceremony at the Sanctuary Church in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania on February 28, 2018.

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A man with a NRA cap holds his gun while people with their AR-15-style rifles pray during a blessing ceremony at the Sanctuary Church in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania on February 28, 2018.
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REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

  • Maria Butina, a Russian gun-rights activist with deep ties to the National Rifle Association, was arrested on espionage charges.
  • Butina is accused of working as a Russian agent at the direction of a high-ranking Russian government official – believed to be fellow gun-right activist Alexander Torshin.
  • An affidavit submitted along with the criminal complaint against Butina said she and the official worked to establish “back channel” lines of communication with US political operatives.
  • The aim was “to penetrate the US national decision-making apparatus” and advance Russian interests.

Maria Butina, a Russian national with significant connections to the National Rifle Association, was arrested over the weekend on espionage charges, the Justice Department announced Monday.

Specifically, she is suspected of conspiring to act as an agent of the Russian government in the US.

Butina was arrested on Sunday and made an initial court appearance Monday afternoon, the Justice Department said. A hearing in her case has been set for Wednesday.

Butina was not arrested as part of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election. But her arrest indicates that the US government as a whole is focusing more of its attention on Russia’s influence in domestic politics.

According to an affidavit submitted with the complaint, Butina worked at the direction of a high-level Russian government official who was previously a member of the Russian parliament and later a top official at the Russian Central Bank. The official is not named but the description in the indictment fits that of Alexander Torshin, a Russian gun-rights advocate and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Torshin was sanctioned by the US in April.

The affidavit says that Butina worked for the official from as early as 2015 through at least February 2017.

Both Torshin and Butina have deep ties to the NRA, and Torshin attended the NRA’s convention every year between 2012 and 2016, occasionally with Butina at his side. He has met every NRA president since 2012, according to NPR.

And when the NRA sent a delegation to Moscow in the winter of 2015, it was Torshin who received them on behalf of The Right to Bear Arms, the Russian gun-rights group that Butina spearheads.

Butina and the Russian official worked to establish a ‘back channel’ with US political operatives to advance Russian interests

Butina has been cultivating her own ties with American gun-rights activists, like Republican strategist Paul Erickson, whom she has been acquainted with since at least 2013.

Erickson appears to fit the description of an individual denoted as “US Person 1” in the affidavit.

The affidavit said Butina and this individual worked together to arrange introductions to other Americans who are influential in US politics, “including an organization promoting gun rights … for the purpose of advancing the agenda of the Russian Federation.”

The affidavit outlines several emails Butina sent to US Person 1 that highlight the depth of her connections to the NRA and to GOP politics. It also elaborates on the extensive contacts between Butina and the Russian official during the election. The document said Butina and the Russian official worked to establish “back channel” lines of communication with US political operatives to penetrate the US national decision-making apparatus” and advance Russian interests.

Erickson first invited scrutiny last year, when The New York Times reported that he emailed Trump campaign aide Rick Dearborn in May 2016, with the subject line “Kremlin Connection,” telling him that he could arrange a backdoor meeting between Trump and Putin.

Russia is “quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the US,” Erickson wrote.

‘President Putin’s emissary on this front’

Torshin was designated to make “first contact” with Trump from Russia’s side. Erickson described him in an email as “President Putin’s emissary on this front.”

Erickson wrote that Torshin would make “first contact” with the campaign at a dinner honoring wounded veterans that was organized by Clay. Neither Trump nor his campaign advisers attended the reception. Donald Trump Jr. and Torshin did, however, attend a separate NRA dinner the same night.

Butina made a similar request through Rick Clay, a conservative Christian advocate. Dearborn forwarded Clay’s email to senior adviser Jared Kushner, who reportedly rebuffed the offer.

Vladimir Putin

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Thomas Kronsteiner / Getty Images

The affidavit also lists another individual, “US Person 2,” described as a US citizen who was included in a series of email communications in 2016 and 2017.

The emails “reveal Butina’s efforts to arrange a series of dinners” in Washington, DC, and New York with influential American political operatives.

Butina allegedly told this person that the Russian official was “very much impressed by you” and that the “Russians will support the efforts from our side.”

In another email, sent on October 4, 2016, US Person 1 allegedly said to an acquaintance, “Unrelated to specific presidential campaigns, I’ve been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [GOP] leaders through, of all conduits, the [NRA].”

The next day, Butina and the Russian official exchanged a series of Twitter direct messages in which Butina said they had “made” their “bet” and that she was “following our game.”

The official replied that it “is not about winning today’s fight (although we are striving for it) but to win the entire battle. This is the battle for the future, it cannot be lost! Or everyone will lose.”

Butina had a birthday party on November 12, 2016, four days after Trump won the US election in a shocking upset. The gathering featured several top Trump campaign advisers, according to The Daily Beast. Erickson, who was also in attendance, reportedly told guests Butina was on the Trump transition team.

Two months later, Butina was one of several Putin-allied Russians who attended Trump’s inaugural celebrations.