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Who Is Maria Butina? The Story of Accused Russian Spy Who Infiltrated the NRA Before ’16 Election

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Last week, a Russian gun rights activist named Maria Butina, who had direct ties with the NRA, was charged by the Justice Department with acting as an unregistered agent of the Russian government. She was arrested in Washington, D.C., as she was preparing to go back to Russia. Butina is accused of trying to infiltrate the NRA and other right-wing groups. Butina worked for the Russian banker Aleksandr Torshin, a longtime friend of the NRA who now serves as the deputy head of the Russian central bank. In January, McClatchy reported the FBI was investigating whether Torshin illegally funneled money to the NRA to help Trump. The NRA spent more than $30 million to help elect Trump—more than twice what it spent on Mitt Romney’s run in 2012. For more, we speak with Greg Gordon, Washington correspondent for McClatchy. His report in January with Peter Stone was headlined ”FBI investigating whether Russian money went to NRA to help Trump.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the National Rifle Association is facing pressure to reveal more details about its role helping President Trump win the 2016 election. Last week, a Russian gun rights activist, Maria Butina, who had direct ties with the NRA, was charged by the Justice Department with acting as an unregistered agent of the Russian government. She was arrested in Washington, D.C., as she was preparing to return to Russia. Butina is accused of trying to infiltrate the NRA and other right-wing groups. She worked for the Russian banker Aleksandr Torshin, a longtime friend of the NRA who now serves as a deputy head of the Russian central bank. In January, McClatchy reported the FBI was investigating whether Torshin illegally funneled money to the NRA to help Trump. The NRA spent more than $30 million backing Trump as a candidate, more than twice what it spent on Mitt Romney’s run in 2012.

AMY GOODMAN: Maria Butina and Aleksandr Torshin attended a number of NRA events and other right-wing gatherings in recent years. In 2015, Maria Butina attended the FreedomFest conference in Las Vegas, where she had a chance to question then-candidate Donald Trump.

MARIA BUTINA: My question will be about foreign politics.


MARIA BUTINA: If you would be elected as the president, what will be your foreign politics, especially in the relationships with my country? And do you want to continue the politics of sanctions that are damaging of both economy, or you have any other ideas?

DONALD TRUMP: I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin, OK? And I mean where we have the strength. I don’t think you’d need the sanctions. I think that we would get along very, very well.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Less than a year later, in March 2016, Maria Butina and Aleksandr Torshin briefly met with Donald Trump Jr. at a fundraising dinner in Louisville. Two months later, an NRA member named Paul Erickson, who at the time was in a relationship with Butina, wrote an email titled, quote, “Kremlin Connection” to a Trump adviser. In the email, Erickson wrote Russia was “quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S.” Erickson is a longtime Republican operative who advised the presidential campaigns of Pat Buchanan and Mitt Romney. He also served on the board of the American Conservative Union. In recent years, Maria Butina was also photographed with many top Republican officials, including Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, former presidential candidate Rick Santorum and NRA President Wayne LaPierre.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the arrest of Maria Butina, we’re joined by Greg Gordon, Washington correspondent for McClatchy. He’s written a number of exposés about the NRA’s ties to Russia.

Greg Gordon, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about who Maria Butina is, how she fits into the NRA, and this bigger story of the NRA and Russia.

GREG GORDON: Good morning, Amy and Juan. And, Juan, I share your sadness about the Daily News.

So, this is one fascinating and concerning chute of the investigations that are underway right now into Russia’s influence in the 2016 election. And one question that is unanswered still is whether Russia somehow funneled money to the NRA to beef up its support for Trump. The NRA spent just a little over $10 million on Mitt Romney in 2012, and now we’re over $30 million and probably more, because they don’t have to publicly report money they spend on getting out the vote and that sort of thing.

So, Butina came to the United States in August of 2016, ostensibly to become a graduate student at American University. But at the same time, she has forged all these relationships, and she also, at the behest of Aleksandr Torshin, headed a Russian gun rights group called the Right to Bear Arms, which seems a—there seems to be a disconnect here with regard to this group, because Vladimir Putin doesn’t want his citizenry to be owning guns, except maybe a hunting rifle.

In any event, this led—the formation of this group and Torshin’s forays to meet with NRA officials led to a bond between these two groups. There were cross-visits. NRA board members and former leaders went over to—and, in fact, an NRA president, Pete Brownell—went over to Russia and were hosted and treated to lavish meals by this group of Russian officials. And they also met with some high-ranking Russian officials during their visits.

And there are a lot of things going on here, because some of the Russian gun companies are trying to get into the U.S. market. Kalashnikov, the famed manufacturer, was under U.S. sanctions. And so, this relationship continued, heading into the campaign, and in 2016, according to the FBI, which was tracking Butina very closely, she was very active in trying to set up meetings and back-channel communications through the NRA between U.S. officials and Russian officials.

The indictment of Butina appears to be just the first strike by the FBI, given that the charging documents state clearly that Torshin himself is also incriminated, and describe him as a co-conspirator. So, here you have—and Torshin is a close ally, of course, of Vladimir Putin, as so many of these figures, oligarchs and Russian officials at upper echelons of their government, are. And they’ve all popped up in different places in this massive investigation of Russian influence, which is—every time some new piece comes out, you have to take a step back and say, “Wow! They’re doing this, too?” They were hacking the Democratic—top Democratic officials. They were blitzing social media space with messages that were either pro-Trump, harshly critical of Hillary Clinton, or were trying to sow discord with messages about immigration, but a lot of messages about gun rights.

So, the Russians clearly saw the NRA and the gun rights movement, which backed Trump so strongly, as an important channel, according to the FBI, to make a connection. There were forays by Aleksandr Torshin also to try to set up a one-on-one meeting during the campaign between Trump and Putin. And Torshin himself thought that he was going to have a meeting, or he tried to have a meeting with Trump, and he was blocked at the last minute.

There’s also a blend here with the religious groups, the religious right in America, because Torshin and Maria Butina arranged for a delegation of Russians to attend the National Prayer Breakfast. And one of the things that’s interesting that hasn’t really drawn much attention is that this carried well into 2017 and even into 2018, and they just arrested Maria Butina last week, as she was preparing, in the FBI’s view, to leave the country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Greg, I wanted to ask you, in terms of the—you mentioned the $30 million that the NRA spent in support of Trump. A lot of that was—about $23 million was supposedly by its lobbying arm, which the lobbying arm does not have to disclose its donors publicly. So, what do you think are the chances now that Mueller and his investigators have begun to or have already subpoenaed the information on who were the donors to the NRA?

GREG GORDON: Yes. And my partner, Peter Stone, and I reported last month that legal experts say it’s highly likely that the FBI, the IRS and prosecutors have seen the secret reports that up until about a week ago were required to disclose these dark money donors. And we’re talking about $23 million of the $30 million that was spent by the lobbying arm.

Now, let’s be clear here. The Russians are not stupid enough to pump a bunch of money directly to the—you know, in the name of the Russian government or an oligarch or so forth, to pump money into the NRA that way. That just wouldn’t happen. Everything we’ve seen is that they’re always, you know, seeking plausible deniability for everything that happens.

And, of course, one of the key questions here is: If money—if money from the Russians went into the NRA’s coffers, did the NRA know about it? Because it could have come in through a limited liability corporation, and these corporations do not have to disclose their beneficial owners, the people behind them. So, one of the questions—Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon had a direct exchange with the NRA’s general counsel over several weeks this winter, and he was pressing to find out about this. You know, could the NRA have gotten money from the Russians for another purpose and then used that money to offset the money that already was devoted to those purposes and channel that into the election?

The NRA has said, in 2016, it got a grand total of $2,500 from Russian donors. Some of these were membership dues and so forth, from Aleksandr Torshin and others. And these monies, they said, were not used in the election. So, this is a hunt just to make sure.

AMY GOODMAN: But you also wrote a piece, Greg, “Lawyer who worked for NRA said to have had concerns about group’s Russia ties.”

GREG GORDON: Yes. Cleta Mitchell, who was a former NRA attorney, was described by sources as expressing concerns about how the NRA was handling its money in 2016. And we contacted her, and she was very upset and denied it adamantly. However, we went back to our sources again and again, and they stuck to that account. So, we’ll have to see how that piece plays out. Now, bear in mind, though, we were basically asking Cleta Mitchell to talk about or whether she talked about a former client and in any way compromised the attorney-client privilege that would have been in play. So, Maria Butina—I’m sorry, so, Cleta Mitchell was in a bad spot. But it’s interesting that this could have happened. And I must say that since our original story in January, we’ve confirmed more about the original allegations. And, of course, this goes—the release of this indictment, return of this indictment, also tends to confirm what we reported. But we’ll have to see whether any money really was exchanged or funneled in.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Greg, who is Konstantin Nikolaev, the oligarch, the Russian oligarch, linked to Maria Butina?

GREG GORDON: Thank you for asking. I meant to mention. So The Washington Post reported, I believe yesterday morning, that Maria Butina had a funder who was a Russian oligarch named Konstantin Nikolaev. So, Nikolaev was not named in the government or the prosecutor’s documents they filed last week, in which, by the way, I want to mention, before we finish here, about the sex. But Nikolaev, according to The Washington Post, was identified by Maria Butina, when she testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee, as the funder of some of her activities. And the charging documents point out that she said that she needed a $125,000 budget to proceed with her various contacts with U.S. political officials and intelligence officials, where possible. And that’s a big budget for a graduate student.

So, in the meantime, she was—she formed a relationship with an NRA—a sometimes NRA fundraiser and Republican operative named Paul Erickson. I believe you mentioned him before. And according to the latest government filings, Maria Butina had a romantic relationship with Mr. Erickson, who we believe is a person identified in these documents as “person number one.” According to the prosecutors, she was having this romantic relationship, but disdained—disdained having—doing this, and that she also offered sex in return for influence with another person during her time here, that the FBI was able to track. And Maria Butina, in emails, talked about an offer to work for the Russian intelligence agency, the FSB.

So, you know, we’re going to be fascinated to see where this case goes. Will she be—will she actually go to trial? Will there be—is it possible—now, she is the only Russian so far to be in U.S. custody as part of this broad—these investigations, Mueller’s investigation, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia’s investigation, into Butina and the NRA, or a possible movement of money into the NRA. I’m going to be careful about that. The NRA has repeatedly said it has not been contacted by the FBI, throughout, which is fascinating, but that doesn’t mean the FBI hasn’t combed through its possible donors.

So, we’ll have to see where this goes, but if—let’s just say, if they find that money went to the NRA, that will open up a whole new avenue of questions about whether there was any coordination between the NRA’s pro-Trump spending during the campaign and the Trump campaign, which would not be permissible under current federal election laws.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to Maria Butina in her own words, speaking at FreedomFest conference in 2015, the same year Donald Trump attended the Las Vegas event.

MARIA BUTINA: I am the founder, and now I’m the board member of the Right to Bear Arms. This is an all-Russian public organization. We promote gun rights. I made this trip because I think that freedom is very important, and the basic of any freedom is, of course, gun rights, economy. And I would like to know more and bring this knowledge to Russia. I’m traveling from Moscow, from Russia, and I hope it will be useful to my country.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Greg Gordon, if you can comment on what she’s saying and how she was taken, how she was arrested and denied bail? Was she leaving the country?

GREG GORDON: That’s what the FBI says. And let me just say, Maria Butina appears to have been ubiquitous. She was everywhere, it seems. She was sending tweets about gun rights. I was reading one yesterday where she hooked up with an 80-something-year-old woman who was, you know, concealed carry or was firing a powerful gun at a range. And she went out to the ranges around the Washington area and scouted them out. There are photos of Maria Butina wearing sort of racy outfits and pointing weapons. And she met with John Bolton. And, of course, she was at as many NRA events as she could—as she could make it.

And, you know, the question is: What was the plan here? And did she know about money? If there was money moving in illicitly through perhaps an oligarch or another channel, the Russians are very good at moving money and hiding it through offshore—you know, a whole chain of offshore accounts. Did that happen here? That’s the question the FBI has been, I think, trying to get to the bottom of. But at the same time, there’s this separate issue of what kind of just influence they were seeking, trying to broaden the Russian sphere of influence in the Western world. Is that what this was all about, or was there more?

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