Verrrry hard not to notice that the big Russiagate indictments of GRU agents on Friday and this new one of Mariia Butina today just so happened to bookend Trump’s summit with Putin. It’s almost as if the DOJ expected (correctly) a Russia-apologist fiasco in Helsinki and wanted some damning evidence of Russian treachery lined up to appear side by side with Trump’s comments.
The DOJ press release isn’t very interesting…
According to the affidavit in support of the complaint, from as early as 2015 and continuing through at least February 2017, Butina worked at the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government who was previously a member of the legislature of the Russian Federation and later became a top official at the Russian Central Bank. This Russian official was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control in April 2018.
The court filings detail the Russian official’s and Butina’s efforts for Butina to act as an agent of Russia inside the United States by developing relationships with U.S. persons and infiltrating organizations having influence in American politics, for the purpose of advancing the interests of the Russian Federation. The filings also describe certain actions taken by Butina to further this effort during multiple visits from Russia and, later, when she entered and resided in the United States on a student visa.
…but the FBI affidavit accompanying the DOJ complaint sure is. It’s worth knowing upfront that Butina is a gun-rights advocate who started a pro-gun group in Russia and, per WaPo, “began reaching out to NRA members and other American gun enthusiasts in 2013, on several occasions hosting NRA executives and gun activists in Moscow…” She also attended NRA events in the U.S. Onto the affidavit and the introduction of the mysterious “U.S. Person 1”:
The “GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION” is unnamed, but here’s an interesting paragraph further in:
Butina wanted to influence a certain gun-rights organization known for its own influence over a major political party that was traditionally hostile to Russia and was likely, as of March 2015, to take over the federal government after the 2016 election. That … sounds like a description of the NRA and GOP, which was favored to win back the White House before Trump jumped into the race because Democrats had controlled the presidency for eight years. Nothing too shocking about that, I suppose. Of course Russia would look for ways to lobby GOP leaders on Russian relations and saw the NRA as an in. Butina attended the National Prayer Breakfast too, knowing that that’s another place to meet powerful Republicans. It’s not a crime to be a foreign agent — although it is a crime to be a foreign agent without registering with the federal government, which is what Butina’s been charged with.
Here’s where things get interesting:
A back channel between Republican leaders and the Kremlin, via the NRA, *before* Trump was elected? Was Trump among those key Republican leaders? Did NRA officials know Butina was working on the Kremlin’s behalf? And who is U.S. Person 1, anyway? People on Twitter are hinting that it might be Carter Page or Roger Stone but this tweet from Adam Schiff a few months ago pointed in a different direction:
We lay out some new facts:
1.) Russians sought to establish a secret back channel with Trump campaign through NRA in May 2016 according to an email from Paul Erickson to Rick Dearborn & Jeff Sessions. They sought to make “first contact” at the NRA convention. See the email here: pic.twitter.com/1fN7OG0Nds
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) April 27, 2018
As chance would have it, Erickson “has raised funds for the NRA and is a friend of Butina’s,” per a McClatchy story published six months ago. A friend and business partner, in fact:
Bridges LLC, a company that Erickson and Butina established in February 2016 in Erickson’s home state of South Dakota, also is expected to draw scrutiny. Public records don’t reveal any financial transactions involving Bridges. In a phone interview last year, Erickson said the firm was established in case Butina needed any monetary assistance for her graduate studies — an unusual way to use an LLC.
Erickson said he met Butina and Torshin when he and David Keene, a former NRA president, attended a meeting of Right to Bear Arms a few years ago in Moscow. Erickson described the links between Right to Bear Arms and the NRA as a “moral support operation both ways.”
Per WaPo, Erickson tried to get Alexander Torshin — likely the “RUSSIAN OFFICIAL” in communication with Butina throughout the affidavit — a meeting with Trump at the NRA convention in May 2016. Didn’t happen, although they did get introduced briefly to Trump Jr. at the event. Hopefully this interaction a year earlier was brief too:
— Rebecca Berg (@rebeccagberg) July 16, 2018
Importantly, there’s no allegation anywhere here that Butina or Torshin were involved in the Russiagate plot to damage Clinton’s campaign. Their goal seems to have been to cultivate friendships with right-wing political and cultural influencers in hopes of putting them in touch with the Kremlin and eventually building relations with Russia. (Mueller’s office had nothing to do with the complaint as far as I can tell, further supporting the conclusion that the charges are outside the purview of his investigation.) But naturally Butina’s friend Erickson reaching out to Sessions and Dearborn in the spring of 2016 is interesting against the backdrop of Russiagate. Which Republican/NRA/right-wing leaders were quietly talking to Moscow in 2016, and about what? Does the fact that the Kremlin had already invested in building relationships with Republicans before the election help explain why it tried to nudge the electorate towards Trump? Does anyone believe that it’s a coincidence that the DOJ dropped this four hours or so after Trump’s huggy-kissy presser with Putin?