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 U.S. citizens and infiltrating political groups, the U.S. Justice Department said on Monday.
By – Emily Goodin
Maria Butina allegedly worked at the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government who has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Justice Department said in a statement.
Butina was arrested on Sunday and was ordered held pending a hearing set Wednesday, it said.
It is unclear if the arrest and indictment was a result of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, which Trump called a ‘witch hunt’ at his press conference Monday.
The development came just hours after Donald Trump used a press conference in Helsinki to say that he found Vladimir Putin’s denial of election meddling ‘very powerful’.
Butin was alleged to have acted from 2015 to 2016 as an unregistered foreign agent on the orders of an unnamed senior Russian official – meaning that the Justice Department’s indictment accuses Putin’s government of election meddling.
Burina, a fiery red-haired Russian gun activist who founded the Right to Bear Arms, the Russian equivalent of the NRA, is the first Russian held by law enforcement since the election.
Others have been indicted but remain in Russia, and no extraditions have been formally requested.
The indictment did not name the organizations and citizens Butina is alleged to have targeted – but the NRA is clearly one of them.
According to court papers, Butina met with U.S. politicians and candidates, attended events sponsored by special interest groups – including two National Prayer Breakfast events – and organized Russian-American ‘friendship and dialogue’ dinners in Washington with the goal of ‘reporting back to Moscow’ what she had learned.
Court papers do not name the Kremlin official. The person is described as a member of the Russian legislature who later became a top official in the country’s central bank. Prosecutors also note that the official has since been sanctioned by the U.S.
Butina is a Russian gun rights advocate who founded a pro-gun organization in that country, the Right to Bear Arms, in 2011 and who has been involved in coordinating in recent years between American gun rights activists and their Russian counterparts, U.S. media accounts have reported.
Butina hosted several leading NRA executives and pro-gun conservatives at her group’s annual meeting in 2015, according to the reports in The New York Times, Time and the Daily Beast.
Among those who attended were former NRA President David Keene, conservative political operative Paul Erickson and former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, later a strong Trump supporter.
However in May, Senate Democrats on the Judiciary Committee demanded that Butina be put in front of them over claims she was part of a Russian scheme to support Trump by giving money to the NRA – one of his most vocal backers.
‘The Committee has obtained a number of documents that suggest the Kremlin used the National Rifle Association as a means of accessing and assisting Mr. Trump and his campaign,’ Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee said in a release that outlined their preliminary findings in their investigation of potential Russian influence on the election.
It is illegal for foreign money to be used to influence federal elections.
Trump has close ties to the NRA. The pro-gun group endorsed him early in his campaign and the president repaid that loyalty with two successive appearances at its national convention, the most recent just this month.
The Democrats claimed two individuals appear to be involved in the election effort: Russian nationals Alexander Torshin and Butina.
Butina worked as an assistant to Torshin, the deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia.
She’s traveled to NRA events and posted photos to her social media accounts of her holding guns. She has also started a business with former Trump adviser Paul Erickson.
Both Butina and Torshin have ‘longstanding ties’ to former NRA president David Keene.
The Democrats also charge that during the 2016 election, Torshin, Butina and their intermediaries ‘repeatedly offered’ the Trump campaign back channels to Russia and relayed requests from Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet with Trump.
‘The extent of Russia’s use of the NRA as an avenue for connecting with and potentially supporting the Trump campaign needs examination,’ the Democrats said, adding that Butina, Torshin and Erickson ‘have refused to cooperate.’
‘Requests for documents and staff interviews have been sent to Ms. Butina, Mr. Erickson, and Mr. Keene, but they have refused to cooperate,’ the Democrats noted.
DailyMail.com has reached out to the NRA for comment.
The NRA spent at least $30 million on the president election in 2016, either to boost Trump or attack Hillary Clinton, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Overall, the NRA and its affiliated PACs spent at least $54 million on the 2016 contest, the Center for Responsive Politics notes.
Read more: From 2018/06/11