A 29-year-old Russian woman living in Washington has been arrested and charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian government while developing ties with American citizens and infiltrating political groups, the U.S. Justice Department said on Monday.
Maria Butina, who studied at the American University in Washington and is a founder of the pro-gun rights Russian advocacy organization Right to Bear Arms, is accused of working at the direction of a high-level official who worked for the Russian Central Bank and was recently sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Justice Department said in a statement.
The court records do not name the official.
However, she is pictured in numerous photographs on her Facebook page with Alexander Torshin, the deputy head of Russia’s Central Bank, and a person familiar with the matter confirmed to Reuters that she worked for him.
Torshin was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in April.
Butina was arrested on Sunday and was ordered held pending a hearing set for Wednesday, it said.
The complaint was made public on the same day that President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Helsinki, at which Trump refused to blame the Russian leader for meddling in the 2016 election.
Before the summit, Trump also took to Twitter to blast Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia, calling it a “rigged witch hunt.”
The investigation into Butina’s efforts to influence American politics was overseen by the Justice Department’s National Security Division, and not by Mueller’s office.
According to the complaint against her, she worked with two unnamed U.S. citizens and the Russian official to try to influence American politics and infiltrate a pro-gun rights organization.
The complaint does not name the group. However, photos on her Facebook page show she has attended events sponsored by the National Rifle Association.
.@NRA President Pete Brownell, NRA funders Arnold and Hilary Goldschlager, the Outdoor Channel’s Jim and Kim Liberatore and others with arrested Russian nationalist and @NRA lifetime member Maria Butina. Party hosted at a Moscow hunting club. pic.twitter.com/sOQ1qy9Y5k— Shannon Watts (@shannonrwatts) July 16, 2018
An NRA spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment.
She allegedly arranged dinners in Washington and New York City and tried to develop relationships with American politicians in order to establish “back channel” lines of communication to “penetrate the U.S. national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation,” the complaint said.
The complaint does not explicitly mention Trump’s campaign by name.
.@realDonaldTrump getting asked a question by arrested Russian nationalist and @NRA lifetime member Maria Butina. She posed as a reporter at the July 2015 FreedomFest to ask then-candidate Trump if he would continue the U.S. policy of sanctions against Russia if elected. pic.twitter.com/gB1gvNr3Bs— Shannon Watts (@shannonrwatts) July 16, 2018
However, Butina was a Trump supporter who bragged at parties in Washington that she could use her political connections to help get people jobs in the Trump administration after the election, according to the same person familiar with her actions.
In a Dec. 8, 2016, class project at American University, she gave a presentation titled “What Might President Trump’s Foreign Policy Be Toward Russia?” and listed several of Russia’s key policy objectives, according to a copy reviewed by Reuters.
In a video posted on YouTube from the FreedomFest event in Last Vegas in July 2015, Butina can be seen asking then-candidate Trump if he would continue to support sanctions against Russia if he were elected president.
The Justice Department’s complaint also references an email written by Butina in March 2015 which discusses the prospect of a major political party winning the 2016 election which was “traditionally associated with negative and aggressive foreign policy” toward Russia.
She goes on to say they should build a relationship with a major gun rights organization that is the “largest sponsor of the elections to the U.S. Congress” and a sponsor of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in order to improve U.S.-Russia relations.
Banner/Thumbnail Credit: Flickr/University of the Fraser Valley