A Russian national was charged in federal court Monday with conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian Federation within the United States.
Maria Butina, 29, was charged with “undertaking activities without officially disclosing the fact that she was acting as an agent of the Russian government.” The criminal complaint accused Butina of failing to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. That is the same charge filed against President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
The affidavit in the complaint claims that Butina corresponded with a Russian official using email, Twitter and other electronic means, and worked with two U.S. citizens in an effort to influence American politics.
According to the Justice Department, “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.”
Butina served as the deputy to Alexander Torshin, a former member of President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party and the deputy head of the Central Bank of Russia. He is believed to be the “Russian Official” named in court papers.
Torshin was among the 24 Russian oligarchs and senior Russian government officials sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department this year for profiting from the Russian government’s illegal and subversive activities in the United States and around the world. They were banned from the United States.
The two U.S. citizens mentioned in the affidavit were not named in the complaint. One is described as an “American political operative,” and the other as having email communications with Butina about setting up dinners between Russians and influential Americans in Washington, D.C., and New York City.
The charges were filed by Justice Department national security prosecutors, not special counsel Robert Mueller who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Butina’s arrest came 48 hours after the U.S. indicted 12 Russians for cyber attacks on the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Here is what we know from the indictment about Butina and what she is accused of doing.
- The indictment said that Butina was attempting to "establish a 'back channel' communication for representatives of the Government of Russia."
- She is a Russian national who entered the United States in August 2016 on a student visa. She studied international relations at American University in Washington D.C.
- She is a former Siberian furniture store owner.
- She co-founded a Russian gun rights group called the Right to Bear Arms.
- In the complaint, Butina is accused of trying to infiltrate an unnamed “gun rights organization” believed to be the National Rifle Association. She described the organization as “the largest sponsor of the elections to the U.S. Congress.”
- Butina made contact with NRA members, attended NRA meetings in the United States and hosted NRA executives and gun activists in Moscow.
- According to court documents, Butina told associates that what she was doing in the United States was approved by Putin.
- Butina asked Trump a question about US-Russia relations during FreedomFest in Las Vegas in July 2015. FreedomFest, according to its organizers, is “an annual festival where free minds meet to celebrate great books, great ideas, and great thinkers in an open-minded environment. It is independent, non-partisan, and not affiliated with any organization or think tank.” Butina asked Trump, “My question will be about foreign politics. If you will be elected as 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 [sic]? Or you have any other ideas?"
- Court documents said that an “American political operative” – U.S. Person 1 in the complaint – helped Butina to target political, business and news media officials for her plans. She met with the American political operative in Moscow, prosecutors said. The person introduced her to the gun rights organization officials.
- U.S. Person 2 in the complaint is a U.S. citizen “who was included among the participants in a series of email communications in 2016 and 2017 that reveal Butina’s efforts to arrange a series of dinners in the District of Columbia and New York City involving Russian nationals and U.S. persons having influence in American politics.
- Her home was searched by FBI agents in April, according to her attorney, Robert Neil Driscoll. Driscoll told U.S. District Court Judge Deborah Robinson that his client has “has been offering to cooperate with the government the entire time."
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story used an alternative spelling of Maria Butina’s name. We have elected to follow Associated Press style.