Feds Charge Russian Student, Linked To NRA, With Conspiracy

Jul 16, 2018
Originally published on July 16, 2018 7:43 pm

Updated at 5:01 p.m. ET

Just hours after President Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and held a joint news conference with his Russian counterpart that stunned many political observers in the U.S., federal prosecutors on Monday unsealed a criminal complaint alleging that a Russian graduate student living in the D.C. area conspired to act as an agent of Russia without registering, as required, under U.S. law.

Maria Butina, 29, was ordered detained by a magistrate judge in Washington, D.C., pending a detention hearing Wednesday. Court papers said she entered the U.S. on a student visa in August 2016, ostensibly for graduate work in international relations at American University. Instead, the FBI says, she secretly worked on behalf of the Russian government.

Butina, through her lawyer, denied that she was acting as a Russian agent when she drafted articles for conservative publications, attended the National Prayer Breakfast and set up meals between Russians and Americans.

FBI Special Agent Kevin Helson wrote in a sworn statement that one goal of the alleged conspiracy was to "exploit personal connections with U.S. persons having influence in American politics in an effort to advance the interests of the Russian Federation."

Authorities said Butina established contact with an unnamed American political operative in Moscow in 2013 who worked with her to arrange introductions to influential people inside the U.S. and to advance Russian interests. One of the contacts was with an "organization promoting gun rights," which NPR has previously reported is the National Rifle Association.

The American political operative, whom two sources identified as Paul Erickson, sent an email shortly before the 2016 election reporting that he had been involved in "securing a very private line of communication" between the Kremlin and Republicans, using the NRA, the court papers said.

Erickson has not been charged with wrongdoing, but he has told others that his finances are being investigated by federal authorities.

The FBI affidavit said Butina reported her activities to a Russian official via email, Twitter and other means. That Russian official is not named in the court filing but fits the description of Alexander Torshin, who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in April.

"I believe that Butina and the Russian official took these steps in order to infiltrate those groups and advance the interests of the Russian Federation," Helson wrote.

Robert Driscoll, a lawyer for Butina, denied in a written statement that she had been acting as a Russian agent. Driscoll said she had cooperated with Senate intelligence committee investigators and provided thousands of documents. He said the FBI executed a search warrant on her apartment in April.

"The substance of the charge in the complaint is overblown," Driscoll said.
"While styled as some sort of conspiracy to violate the Foreign Agent Registration Act, in actuality, it describes a conspiracy to have a 'friendship dinner' at Bistro Bis with a group of Americans and Russians to discuss foreign relations between the two countries."

He added: "There is simply no indication of Butina seeking to influence or undermine any specific policy or law in the United States."

The case is being pursued by the Justice Department's National Security Division and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington D.C., not the special counsel investigating Russian election interference.

The charge was unsealed on the same day as Trump's much-watched summit with Putin and just days after the Justice Department indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for undertaking a scheme to hack and then dump into the public domain the email communications of top figures in the Democratic Party.

Both developments by federal prosecutors appear likely to increase pressure on the president, his administration and Republicans in Congress to take a stronger approach to Russian interference in the U.S. political system — something Trump hesitated to do while standing alongside Putin on Monday in Helsinki.

U.S. intelligence officials are in agreement that Russia interfered in the 2016 election using a wide array of methods, including but not limited to hacking the Democratic National Committee's emails, breaking into American voting infrastructure and launching a sprawling misinformation campaign.

"I have great confidence in my intelligence people. But I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today," Trump said. "Dan Coats [the director of National Intelligence] came to me and some others, they said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it's not Russia. I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be."

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Just hours after the meeting between President Trump and Vladimir Putin, the Justice Department had a surprise. Authorities charged a Russian graduate student with carrying out an influence campaign here in the U.S. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is following that story and is here in the studio to discuss it. Hi, Carrie.


SHAPIRO: Tell us about this graduate student. What do we know about her and what she was allegedly doing here in Washington?

JOHNSON: Her name is Maria Butina. She entered the U.S. in August 2016 on a student visa to study international relations at American University here in Washington. But the Justice Department says she was actually working for Russia, writing articles in conservative publications, setting up meetings between Russians and Americans, attending the National Prayer Breakfast, and our colleague Tim Mak has reported, cozying up to the National Rifle Association.

The goal here was to get close to Republican officials and influence American policy toward Russia. She's accused of one count of conspiracy to violate the law known as FARA, the Foreign Agent Registration Act.

SHAPIRO: So if she was acting on behalf of the Russian government, she should have registered. She didn't register. If this was a conspiracy, it involved more than one person. Who are the other people likely involved?

JOHNSON: No one else was named by their actual name in these court filings. But a U.S. person was described as sending an email that he had a very private line of communication between the Kremlin and others in the Republican Party right before the election. Sources tell me that's Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican operative who's been linked to Butina. And he is not charged in these court papers, but I'm told the investigation into him continues, not just on this front but also into his finances.

These documents also describe a Russian official - a member of the legislature, an official at the Central Bank who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2018. Those same sources tell me that's Aleksandr Torshin, who's made a lot of visits to the U.S., tweeted a lot about the NRA. The court papers say Butina often reported back to Torshin about her activities via email and Twitter.

SHAPIRO: And what does Maria Butina have to say about all this?

JOHNSON: Well, her lawyer Robert Driscoll says she looks forward to clearing her name. He says these charges are overblown. Butina was arrested on Sunday here in D.C., but FBI agents searched her apartment many months ago in April. This investigation's been going on for a while. She's being held right now without bond in the D.C. jail, and she's due back in court in D.C. Wednesday for a detention hearing.

SHAPIRO: Now these charges come just a few days after this bombshell Friday news conference where the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, announced charges against 12 Russians who were involved in the campaign to hack Democrats during the 2016 election. Is there any connection between these cases?

JOHNSON: Well, this case today against Maria Butina is being handled by federal prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's Office in D.C. and the Justice Department's National Security Division, not the special counsel Robert Mueller, who's investigating other forms of Russian election interference.

The Justice Department didn't address the timing of this new charge today. The documents only went out after the summit between President Trump and Putin had ended. People can draw their own conclusions, I guess, about the timing.

I did call the special counsel's office today to see if Robert Mueller had any reaction to the criticism from both Trump and Putin of his investigation. As expected, Ari, there was no comment from the Mueller camp...


SHAPIRO: As usual.

JOHNSON: ...I guess, as usual.

SHAPIRO: It sounds like Maria Butina was a rather public figure, going to the National Prayer Breakfast, meeting with officials from the NRA. Are Americans who interacted with her over those periods going to be nervous now about potentially having been involved in what they may or may not have known was a conspiracy?

JOHNSON: This investigation is ongoing by the U.S. Attorney's Office in D.C. and federal national security prosecutors based at the Justice Department in Washington. The fact that other people were identified in the documents as Person 1 or Person 2 means the investigation continues. We're going to have to see where it all leads.

SHAPIRO: NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks, Carrie.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.