A tangled web involving a Russian spy, sex, the National Rifle Association and the president is the latest installment of the ongoing story about Russia's meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Vox, citing a McClatchy article, reported that the FBI has charged Maria Butina with conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent. Agents say the 29-year-old Russian was spying for the Kremlin when she infiltrated the NRA and attended Republican Party political events.
Butina and Alexander Torshin, a Russian banker and gun-rights advocate, engaged in a long-term effort to get close to NRA officials. They invited the organization's leaders to events in Moscow, and Butina was often seen at NRA conferences. Their goal was to use the NRA to improve the Republican Party's perception of Russia.
Butina allegedly broke the law by failing to register as a foreign agent. She also is accused of offering “sex in exchange for a position with a special interest organization.” The FBI noted that Butina dated and lived with a GOP consultant, and offered sexual favors to a second influential person.
She asked Donald Trump a question about Russian sanctions at one of the candidate's campaign events, met with Donald Trump Jr. at an NRA dinner, and boasted that she was facilitating communications between the Republican nominee's campaign and Russia.
Torshin, who reportedly was present for Butina's conversation with Trump's eldest son, is under investigation in Spain for possible money laundering. The FBI is looking into whether Torshin violated U.S. laws by channeling funds to the NRA that were used to help the Trump campaign. The gun group refutes the allegation.
Torshin was a Russian lawmaker before becoming a top officer at his country's government-controlled bank in 2015. Spanish investigators believe he has connections to the crime syndicate Taganskaya. Three months ago, the U.S. Treasury Department added Torshin to its list of Russians who are subject to sanctions.
Butina, a native of Siberia, got to know Torshin after she created the Moscow-based Right to Bear Arms organization. The two alleged spies soon met NRA officials and began going to the group's annual conventions. They became lifetime NRA members.
Paul Erickson and other American gun-rights activists attended Right to Bear Arms events in Russia, including a “concealed-carry fashion show” in 2013. Erickson, a lobbyist and Republican consultant, allegedly became Butina's top U.S. contact and lover.
Vox noted that Erickson helped conservative Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign in 1992 and later worked for Zaire dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. He sits on the American Conservative Union's board of directors and has raised money for the NRA.
The Justice Department claims that in March 2015, before Trump started his presidential bid, Butina shared with Erickson a plan she called “Diplomacy.” In the subject line of her email, she wrote “The Second Pozner,” a reference to former Russian Disinformation Department officer Vladimir Pozner.
Butina told Erickson that she expected Republicans to seize control of the White House and Congress in 2016, and lamented that the party was “traditionally associated with negative and aggressive foreign policy” concerning Russia. She pointed out that the NRA has a “central place and influence” in the GOP due to the group's political donations.
Erickson responded with information and this message: “If you were to sit down with your special friends and make a list of ALL the most important contacts you could find in America for a time when the political situation between the U.S. and Russia will change, you could NOT do better than the list that I just emailed you. All that is needed is for your friends to provide you with the financial resources to spend the time in America to TAKE ALL OF THESE MEETINGS.”
Butina told Erickson that one of the “funders” helping to cover her expenses in the United States had “deep ties to the Russian presidential administration.” She was apparently talking about a billionaire Russian oligarch, whose name the FBI has not revealed.
In 2013, Butina persuaded John Bolton (the current national security adviser) to speak in a video for her gun organization. The following year, the right-wing TownHall website interviewed her and described her as “the woman working with the NRA and fighting for gun rights in Russia.”
Butina later showed up for a number of Republican campaign rallies, posing for pictures with candidates such as Scott Walker, Rick Santorum, and Bobby Jindal.
At the FreedomFest conference in Las Vegas in July 2015, Butina asked Trump: “If you would be elected as the president, what would be your foreign politics, especially in the relationships with my country? And do you want to continue the policy of sanctions that are damaging to both economies, or do you have other ideas?”
Trump replied: “I know Putin, and I’ll tell you what, we get along with Putin. I don’t think you’d need the sanctions. I think that we would get along very, very well. I really believe that.”