Maria Butina, who purported to be a pro-gun activist, met American politicians and candidates to establish “back channels” and secretly reported back to the Kremlin through a high-level Russian official, according to the US justice department.
Prosecutors said in a statement that Butina, 29, had been “developing relationships with US persons and infiltrating organizations having influence in American politics, for the purpose of advancing the interests of the Russian federation”.
Butina was charged with conspiracy to act as a Russian agent within the US without notifying the attorney general. She was arrested on Sunday and appeared before a magistrate in Washington on Monday, officials said. In an affidavit, an FBI agent said investigators had searched Butina’s laptop computer and mobile phone.
According to a Rolling Stone (RS) report earlier this year -- and we reported on it in a post dated April 30, 2018 -- those "U.S. persons" included Jeff Sessions and his former chief of staff Rick Dearborn, who went on to become a member of the Trump transition team. The winding road that led from Butina to Sessions involved Vladimir Putin ally Alexander Torshin and Republican/NRA operative Paul Erickson.
Rolling Stone reported on an email between Erickson and Dearborn and describes Butina as "Torshin's protege." It says Erickson and Butina had started a business together in South Dakota. From the RS report, which was built on a response from Democrats to a U.S. House Intelligence Committee report on the Trump-Russia scandal:
In particular, the Democrats strongly suggest that Putin ally Alexander Torshin was running an op through the NRA: "The Kremlin-linked individual" – Torshin – "appears to have used the group" – the NRA – "to befriend and establish a back channel to senior Trump campaign associates through their mutual affinity for firearms," the Democrats write, "a strategy consistent with Russian trade craft." (Torshin, a lifetime NRA member, was recently sanctioned by the Treasury Department and can no longer travel to the United States.)
The Democratic report also publishes a full excerpt of an infamous May 2016 email from Paul Erickson to the Trump campaign. (Previously, this email had only been reported in snippets by The New York Times.) Erickson is an NRA- and GOP operative who repeatedly visited a Torshin-backed gun-rights group in Moscow. He later started a mysterious business with Torshin's protege, Maria Butina, in South Dakota.
How close does this get to Jeff Sessions. According to RS, the answer is "real close":
The excerpt is illuminating: Erickson addressed the email – which included a proposed meeting between candidate Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin – to Rick Dearborn, then a top Trump campaign staffer. But the full text suggests Sen. Jeff Sessions was directly in the loop. Erickson wrote:
"I'm now writing to you and Sen. Sessions in your roles as Trump foreign policy experts/advisors. […] Happenstance and the (sometimes) international reach of the NRA placed me in a position a couple of years ago to slowly begin cultivating a back-channel to President Putin's Kremlin. Russia is quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S. that isn't forthcoming under the current administration. And for reasons that we can discuss in person or on the phone, the Kremlin believes that the only possibility of a true re-set in this relationship would be with a new Republican White House."
Where was the excerpt found? In Jeff Sessions' files:
Did Sessions, now the attorney general, receive a copy of this email directly? The report's footnote, sourcing the email, reveals the document came from "Attorney General Jeff Session [sic] Document Production." Rolling Stone asked for clarification from a spokesperson for Ranking Member Adam Schiff; he replied: "We cannot comment."
That this email was found in Sessions' files is a startling revelation. Sessions previously told House investigators that he did not recall the outreach by Erickson, according to The New York Times. And it may provide new context for why Sessions recused himself from the Justice Department's Russia investigation.
The Democratic report also reveals that Dearborn moved Erickson's message up the chain of command – and amplified when and where Putin hoped to meet with candidate Trump. "Dearborn communicated this request on May 17, 2016 to the highest levels of the Trump campaign, including Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and Jared Kushner," the Democrats write.
Here is how we concluded our April post on Butina, Torshin, Erickson, Dearborn, and Sessions:
Russia's outreach efforts did result in a meeting with a Trump representative, and there is little doubt Jeff Sessions knew about it. There also is little doubt that Republicans on the intelligence committee tried to cover it up. Writes Dickinson:
"Torshin hoped to use the 2016 NRA convention to break the ice, and open a personal line of communication to "someone of high rank in the Trump Campaign," the report continues. "As explained in Dearborn's email, such a meeting would provide Torshin an opportunity “to discuss an offer he claims to be carrying from President Putin to meet with DJT." ("DJT" is a reference to Donald J. Trump.) "They would also like DJT to visit Russia for a world summit on the persecution of Christians at which Putin and Trump would meet.'"
Ultimately, Torshin met the future-President's son, Donald Jr., at the NRA convention. The Democrats upbraid the majority for "conveniently" concluding there was "no evidence that the two discussed the presidential election." The Democrats expand: "this relies solely on the voluntary and self-interested testimony of the individual in question . . . Trump Jr." The report adds: "The Majority refused multiple requests by the Minority to interview witnesses central to this line of inquiry, including Torshin, Butina, Erickson, and others."
How ugly could this get for the NRA -- with Jeff Sessions right in the middle of it? From RS:
"The Democrats conclude the NRA section of their report with a litany of questions the GOP majority refused to examine, writing that the GOP majority report "ignores significant outstanding questions about individuals who sought to set up this back channel, including why Torshin and Butina were interested in connecting the Trump campaign to Putin, what they sought to get out of that connection, why they enlisted the support of NRA colleagues, and whether others in the campaign were communicating with Russia through the NRA."
The Democrats also underscore that Republicans took no interest in getting to the bottom of allegations that Russian money illegally boosted Trump's candidacy. "The Majority refused to investigate," Democrats write, "whether Russian-linked intermediaries used the NRA to illegally funnel money to the Trump Campaign, to open lines of communication with or approaches to Trump or his associates, and how those approaches may have informed Russia's active measures campaign as it unfolded throughout 2016."
Butina, who has been in the United States, is the first Russian operative to be arrested in the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. If she cooperates with investigators or goes to trial, that could present a nightmare scenario for Jeff Sessions and some of his associates.