AR-15 rifles are displayed on the exhibit floor during the National Rifle Association (NRA) annual meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S. (Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg)

Russian Accused of Infiltrating NRA on Mission From Kremlin

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. authorities accused a Russian national of trying to establish a back channel to American politicians during the last election cycle, announcing the charges just hours after President Donald Trump accepted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assurance his country hadn’t interfered.

The woman, Mariia Butina, tried to create a quiet line of communication between U.S. and Russian officials and attempted to infiltrate the National Rifle Association on behalf of the Russian government in a long-running scheme that traces its origins to at least 2013, prosecutors said. Butina, who appeared in federal court in Washington on Monday, is accused of failing to register as a foreign agent.

Butina is the latest Russian to be charged in an expanding investigation that on Friday led to the indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers who allegedly stole and disseminated emails from Democratic groups. Special counsel Robert Mueller previously charged Russian social-media trolls and their backers with trying to sow discord in the U.S. political system and help elect Trump. The Justice Department’s national security unit brought the charges against Butina and is handling the continuing investigation stemming from the computer intrusions.

Butina served as a special assistant to the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank, Alexander Torshin, a former Russian senator belonging to Vladimir Putin’s political party who is allegedly tied to the Russian mob world. Torshin, who isn’t named in the complaint but is identifiable by title, is now under sanctions by the U.S. government.

Torshin has repeatedly sought to bolster ties to the Trump family using connections he made at the NRA, where both he and Butina are lifetime members. The FBI is reportedly investigating whether the NRA took money from Russian interests to bolster Trump’s campaign. Torshin sought at one point to set up a dinner between Trump and Putin. He also spoke with Donald Trump Jr. during an NRA gathering in Kentucky.

The NRA didn’t immediately reply to requests for comment.

Torshin didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment and Russia’s central bank declined to comment. The Kremlin referred questions to the foreign affairs ministry, which didn’t immediately respond.

Butina, who also goes by Maria, entered the U.S. under a student visa. She is to appear in court again on July 18.

Her attorney, Robert Driscoll, said in a statement that his client isn’t a Russian agent and has been cooperating with government entities for months. Though she testified to a Senate committee and offered to cooperate with Mueller, Driscoll said, FBI agents nonetheless raided her Washington apartment in April. They took a laptop computer and an iPhone, according to prosecutors.

"There is simply no indication of Butina seeking to influence or undermine any specific policy or law or the United States -- only at most to promote a better relationship between the two nations," Driscoll said.

No Sign of Flagging

The Justice Department shows no signs of flagging in its pursuit of Russian interference in the 2016 election, as the U.S. president has likewise given little credence to the conclusions of his Justice Department and intelligence community.

In comments that caused consternation at home and abroad, Trump stood alongside Putin at a press conference in Helsinki on Monday and called Mueller’s probe a “disaster.” Asked if he raised election interference with the Russian president, he said: “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,” Trump said.

Acknowledging that the U.S. leader had asked him about it, Putin said: "I had to reiterate things I said several times. The Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere in internal American affairs including the election process."

Both leaders emphasized the need for closer ties between their countries -- echoing what Butina had previously said was her own goal. According to prosecutors, Butina described her work with Torshin as part of “a serious mission -- restoration of relations between countries.”

Political Operative

Butina’s efforts went back at least to 2013, when prosecutors said she met with a U.S. citizen and political operative in Moscow. She championed an organization, Right to Bear Arms, that advocates American-style Second Amendment rights in Russia, where firearms are considerably more restricted.

In 2015, she began laying the foundation for a Republican takeover of Congress the following year. In emails to allies, she suggested that infiltrating the NRA would be a key element in trying to improve Russia-U.S. relations, according to prosecutors. They didn’t identify the gun rights group or the political party in court papers.

The NRA was "the largest sponsor of the elections to the U.S. congress," as well as a sponsor of the Conservative Political Action Conference, Butina wrote in one email cited in the complaint. She wanted a budget of $125,000 to participate in all major Republican conferences, according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors described the corrosive effects of such efforts.

"Russian influence operations are threat to U.S. interests as they are low-cost, relatively low-risk, and deniable ways to shape foreign perceptions and to influence populations,” prosecutors wrote. “Moscow seeks to create wedges that reduce trust and confidence in democratic processes, degrade democratization efforts, weaken U.S. partnerships with European allies, undermine Western sanctions, encourage anti-U.S. political views, and counter efforts to bring Ukraine and other former Soviet states into European institutions."

‘Friendship and Dialogue’

In early 2016, she sought to promote Russia’s interests by organizing a series of "friendship and dialogue" dinners in Washington and New York and she attended two National Prayer Breakfasts, according to prosecutors. That spring, with Republican primaries still hotly contested, a Russian official wrote to Butina about the prospect of Putin attending the National Prayer Breakfast in 2017: "Pres. Putin did not say ’no’!" The organizer of the breakfast promised Butina 10 seats for it.

In one Twitter exchange cited by prosecutors, Butina talked about an exchange with a political candidate in Las Vegas in 2015. It has been reported that she asked Donald Trump the candidate in July of that year: “What will be your foreign politics?”

Trump responded: “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.”

Butina was active in several states, working with a variety of conservative politicians not identified in the court papers.

"She’s very, very well connected with elected officials in the Soviet Union," Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, said of Butina in a 2017 interview with Time. A 2015 gun rights event she organized allegedly drew the attention of several National Rifle Association officials, including Pete Brownell, who until recently was the head of the group’s board. He was replaced by Oliver North.

"I am deeply grateful for the friendship of the American NRA," Butina told Time in 2017. "My work has been focused exclusively on the expansion of gun rights -- very publicly."

In response to questioning from Senator Ron Wyden, the NRA admitted it received $2,512 from those with Russian addresses from 2015 through April 2018. It confirmed Torshin was a dues-paying member, while denying he was part of "any major donor program."

"Saying we have serious concerns about a Russian national with deep ties to the NRA, an organization that helped fund and elect President Trump, being arrested on charges of espionage doesn’t go nearly far enough," Avery Gardiner, co-president of the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said in a statement following Butina’s arrest. "The NRA says it is the President’s ’most unflinching ally,’ and we demand that the NRA’s leadership answer, at once, long-standing questions about their organization’s Russian connections, especially as to the 2016 campaign."

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