A woman arrested and indicted for espionage over her contacts during the 2016 election actually penetrated more significantly than first thought. Maria Butina allegedly tried to gain access to political activists in the GOP through the NRA, but Reuters now reports that she landed meetings with two senior officials during the Obama administration. That could change the entire dynamic of the Butina narrative, and perhaps more narratives than that:
Maria Butina, accused in the United States of spying for Russia, had wider high-level contacts in Washington than previously known, taking part in 2015 meetings between a visiting Russian official and two senior U.S. officials.
The meetings, disclosed by several people familiar with the sessions and a report prepared by a Washington think tank that arranged them, involved Stanley Fischer, then Federal Reserve vice chairman, and Nathan Sheets, then Treasury undersecretary for international affairs.
Butina traveled to the United States in April 2015 with Alexander Torshin, then the Russian Central Bank deputy governor, and they took part in separate meetings with Fischer and Sheets to discuss U.S.-Russian economic relations during Democratic former President Barack Obama’s administration.
The two meetings, which have not been previously reported, reveal a wider circle of high-powered connections that Butina sought with American political leaders and special interest groups.
The think tank, Center for the National Interest, had urged Donald Trump to improve US-Russian relations and to retreat from “Eurasian conflicts” in December 2016. In a report on its earlier activities to improve Russia ties in 2013-2015, CNI outlined meetings it had taken with Obama administration officials during a time when Barack Obama himself pursued a similar policy. The meeting took place near the end of that time, in April 2015. The meeting was ostensibly set up to discuss Torshin’s new appointment as deputy central bank governor.
The timing of this meeting seems significant. By this time, Russia had annexed Crimea more than a year earlier, and overtly invaded eastern Ukraine seven months prior to the meeting. Sanctions had already been applied to Russia, but Obama still wanted to pursue friendlier ties. Torshin’s meeting with Fischer could be explained as a way to coordinate banking systems, but sending an undersecretary of state to a meeting with Torshin signals something more significant.
However, the streak of presidential naïveté on Vladimir Putin didn’t start there, and it didn’t end there either. Butina’s presence as a potential spy is certainly interesting, but so is Torshin’s, who also figures into the “it was the NRA’s fault” narrative. If the Obama administration was granting her and Torshin access to the Undersecretary for International Affairs, it’s tough to blame the NRA or the GOP for a lack of due diligence in engaging with either one of them. Torshin didn’t end up on a sanctions list until April of this year, long after the NRA distanced themselves from him.
In that sense, the timing is doubly significant. Democrats like Rep. Ted Lieu had been pointing to a December 2015 visit to Moscow by NRA board members as a signal of the election being compromised:
Lieu, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre in March, expressing his concern with the NRA’s relationship to Torshin and noting that Torshin “acted as a liaison” during a December 2015 visit to Moscow by several NRA attended by board members.
“Torshin’s influence in Russia and his relationship with the NRA suggest this allegation [that Torshin secretly funneled money to the NRA during the 2016 campaign season] may have merit,” Lieu wrote. “It is deeply disturbing that an organization like the NRA, whose stated purposes and objective is to ‘protect and defend the Constitution,’ would meet with sanctioned individuals connected to a foreign adversary that seems determined to undermine elections.”
How deeply disturbing is it, then, that the Obama administration had made itself available to Torshin eight months earlier? Or that it allowed a potential honey-trap spy like Butina to be in the same room as a high-ranking State Department official? The NRA is, after all, a private organization, while the State Department holds a vast store of classified information regarding our foreign policy.
This tends to emphasize just how much of a red herring the NRA thread is. The real story of the Russian disruption operation in 2016 was that it succeeded because the Obama administration failed to prevent it, including people like James Clapper and John Brennan who spend a lot of time on TV shows pointing fingers everywhere else. Obama put a higher priority on engagement with Putin than he did on stopping their hostile intelligence operations in the US, as demonstrated by this meeting and the several opportunities Obama turned down to fight fire with fire.
And now it looks as though they didn’t bother to vet Butina before allowing Fischer and Sheets to meet with her. Will these Obama-era officials be asked to explain themselves, or will they just appear on TV shows to opine endlessly on Trump’s naïveté about Putin?