A flame-haired Russian national was charged Monday with trying to use the National Rifle Association to influence the Republican Party on behalf of the Kremlin, according to a federal indictment unsealed hours after President Trump refused to fault Vladimir Putin for interfering in the 2016 election.
Maria Butina, 29, founder of the Russian “gun rights group” The Right to Bear Arms, sidled up to NRA bigwigs to butter them up as part of Putin’s plan to “advance Moscow’s long-term strategic objectives in the United States, in part establishing relationships with American political organizations,” according to the indictment filed in a Washington, D.C., Federal Court.
Butina was arrested Sunday and charged with conspiracy for acting as an agent of the Russian government without registering.
According to FBI Agent Kevin Helson, Butina was in the country on a student visa while working for the Russian government. Formerly a protege of Russian Central Bank official Alexander Torshin, Butina tried to arrange a series of meetings and dinners in Washington and New York City between 2016 and 2017 with influential gun-rights leaders and politicians in order to “advance the interests of the Russian Federation.” Torshin, a former Russian senator, is a lifelong member of the NRA.
“Russia influence operations are a threat to the U.S. interests as they are low-cost, relatively low-risk, and deniable ways to shape foreign perceptions and to influence populations,” Helson wrote in his affidavit.
In 2015, Butina’s gun group hosted an American delegation from the NRA, including the group’s ex-president, David Keene, and then-Milwaukee sheriff — and Trump booster — David Clarke. She has also been photographed with a number of high-profile NRA executives and Republicans, including chief lobbyist Wayne LaPierre, former President Pete Brownell, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
The redhead also tried to set up meetings between Trump and Putin, according to The New York Times.
The NRA has faced scrutiny from special counsel Robert Mueller over its ties to Torshin as he continues to investigate possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin.
The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.
The FBI seized Butina’s laptop and cell phone containing emails, documents and Twitter direct messages with her handlers in the Kremlin. “I am ready for further orders,” she wrote in one.
She used her connections to help get a Russian delegation to the National Prayer Breakfast last year. Trump was among the speakers.
Butina had an earlier interaction with Trump.
She can be heard on video at the libertarian FreedomForum convention asking then-candidate Trump in 2015 about what type of relationship the U.S. would have with Russia if he were elected.
“I know Putin, and I’ll tell you what, we get along with Putin,” Trump told her from the podium. “Putin has no respect for President Obama.”
Her lawyer denied her involvement in any espionage.
“Maria Butina is not an agent of the Russian Federation,” her lawyer Robert Driscoll said. “She is a Russian national in the United States on a student visa who recently graduated from American University in Washington, D.C.”
The Russian Embassy in Washington said it was aware of Butina’s arrest and demanded to speak to her.
“We are in contact with the US authorities and demand from them consular access to the Russian citizen in order to protect her legitimate rights,” the embassy tweeted.
Driscoll said Butina has cooperated with federal authorities for months, submitting to eight hours of questioning from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
“Notwithstanding her cooperative approach, over a dozen FBI agents executed a search warrant on her Washington, D.C., apartment in April,” Driscoll said. “Since that time, she has offered repeatedly, to answer any questions the Department of Justice has had. Rather than avail itself of that opportunity, the government chose to arrest Ms. Butina on Sunday without prior notice to counsel.”
The Justice Department announced Butina’s indictment hours after Trump wrapped up a press conference with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, during which the President disputed the findings of his own intelligence agencies while hinting he trusted Putin’s repeated denials of meddling in the 2016 election.