What a Russian operative's indictment reveals about the Kremlin's attempts to infiltrate American politics and the NRA

  • The Justice Department on Monday revealed it had arrested prominent Russian gun rights activist Maria Butina over the weekend.
  • In the unsealed indictment, the department accused Butina of conspiring to infiltrate American political groups and advance the agenda of the Kremlin through her network of high-profile American contacts in politics and media.
  • The indictment includes the first formal accusation against an American citizen of conspiring with the Russian government to influence the 2016 presidential election — and provides new details about the Russian government's attempts to curry favor among prominent Americans.
In this photo taken on Sunday, April 21, 2013, Maria Butina, leader of a pro-gun organization in Russia, speaks to a crowd during a rally in support of legalizing the possession of handguns in Moscow, Russia. 
AP Photo
In this photo taken on Sunday, April 21, 2013, Maria Butina, leader of a pro-gun organization in Russia, speaks to a crowd during a rally in support of legalizing the possession of handguns in Moscow, Russia. 

The Justice Department on Monday revealed it had arrested prominent Russian gun rights activist Maria Butina over the weekend, accusing her of setting up "back channel" lines of communication with the Kremlin in an operation that spanned from the months before Trump announced his candidacy in 2015 through February 2017, the month after his inauguration.

In the unsealed indictment, the department accused Butina of conspiring to infiltrate U.S. political groups and advance the agenda of the Russian government through her network of high-profile American contacts in politics and media.

The indictment includes the most explicit and detailed accusation to date against a Russian, working with the help of an American citizen, to influence the 2016 presidential election. It also provides new details about the Russian government's attempts to curry favor among prominent Americans.

Notably, the charges are not being made by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is probing Russia's attempts to meddle in the 2016 election. The investigation was carried out by the FBI's field office in Washington, and Butina is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia and the Justice Department's national security division.

Nonetheless, the timing of the charge is critical. Butina was arrested just two days after Mueller announced charges against 12 Russians for hacking into computers belonging to the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton, and just a day before Trump appeared with Putin in Finland and publicly questioned his intelligence community's assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to bolster Trump's odds.

The president is not mentioned directly in the indictment. But the two were captured on camera in an exchange between Butina and then-candidate Trump at a Las Vegas campaign event in 2015. At the "FreedomFest" gathering, Butina asked Trump what he thought about sanctions on Russia. Trump responded that he had a good relationship with Putin and "I don’t think you’d need the sanctions."

In an affidavit filed with the indictment, FBI special agent Kevin Helson accuses Butina of working with a "U.S. Person 1," who has been identified as Paul Erickson, a longtime GOP consultant who advised Mitt Romney and Pat Buchanan.

Erickson and Butina appear jointly on the filings of a South Dakota business called "Bridges LLC," and are personal friends. The Daily Beast reported last February that Erickson dressed in costume as Rasputin at Butina's birthday party held shortly after the 2016 presidential election.

Butina's Russian supervisor in the indictment, referred to only as a Russian official, has been widely identified as Alexander Torshin, a former Russian senator and longtime supporter of the NRA. Torshin is the deputy head of Russia's central bank, and has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department and linked to organized crime. The FBI has investigated Torshin for using the NRA as a conduit for funds that would help Trump win the presidency, McClatchy reported earlier this year.

Butina's attorney Robert Driscoll said the charges were "overblown" in a written statement, pointing to Butina's 4.0 GPA at American University and noting that Butina had cooperated with the Senate Intelligence Committee and offered to sit for an interview with Mueller, who, he said, has not expressed interest. Driscoll said Butina had offered repeatedly to cooperate with the Department of Justice as well, but it had chosen to arrest her without notice.

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment, and Erickson could not immediately be reached by CNBC. In a statement posted to Twitter, the Russian embassy in Washington wrote, "We are in contact with the US authorities and demand from them consular access to the Russian citizen in order to protect her legitimate rights"

How Butina allegedly infiltrated the NRA

Helson writes in his affidavit that Butina and the Russian official developed relationships with American politicians to establish "back channel" lines of communication.

"These lines could be used by the Russian Federation to penetrate the U.S. National decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation," the affidavit reads.

Butina reportedly regularly met with both the Russian official and the U.S. person to "develop the contours" of the Russian influence operation, according to the affidavit.

In March 2015, Butina proposed a project, code-named "Diplomacy," that sought to leverage the central role of the NRA in the politics of a "major U.S. political party." That party, which is referenced multiple times in the affidavit, appears to be the Republican Party.

Butina wrote in her email to the U.S. person that a major U.S. political party would likely obtain political control after the 2016 elections. She requested $125,000 to participate in "all upcoming major conferences" of the major political party.

In a series of email exchanges with the U.S. person, Butina received a list of media, business and political contacts for her "special project" as well as praise for her "ground work" to pave the way for introductions to those contacts.

"All that is necessary is for your friends to provide you with the financial resources to spend the time in America to TAKE ALL OF THESE MEETINGS," the U.S. person said in one of the emails. "I and your friends in America can't make it any easier for you than that," the person wrote.

Other efforts in the U.S.

Butina's efforts to promote Russia's agenda in the U.S. were "diverse and multifaceted," according to the affidavit. They included a number of efforts to arrange "friendship and dialogue" dinners in Washington as well as an attempt to get Putin to attend the National Prayer Breakfast in 2017.

Putin did not end up attending the breakfast. According to a 2016 email, Butina believed there were a number of conditions that would have to be met, including a personal invitation from the U.S. president.

In a September 2016 email, Butina wrote to two American contacts suggesting scheduling a dinner in early October, a month before the U.S. election. She wrote that it was time to build a team of Russia advisors for the new president.

Erickson wrote back to say that he had been "involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key POLITICAL PARTY 1 leaders through, of all conduits, the [GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION]."

Butina's indictment was largely overshadowed on Monday by Trump's summit with Putin, though some critics of the president heralded the charges as further evidence of Russian meddling presented while Trump was meeting the Russian leader.

Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, connected the indictment to the Treasury Department's announcement on Monday that nonprofits would no longer be required to disclose the names of their donors to the IRS in their annual filings.

"Trump’s Treasury Department made it easier for anonymous foreign donors to funnel dark money into nonprofits the same day a Russian national linked to the NRA was arrested for attempting to influence our elections,” Wyden said. “It’s the latest attempt by Secretary Mnuchin and Donald Trump to eliminate transparency and keep officials and lawmakers from following the money."

Read the full indictment and affidavit.