Twelve days after Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th American president, a small group of Russian and American figures huddled at the ritzy Bistro Bis restaurant on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
On one side of the table, according to a TIME piece from March 2017, sat a gaggle of prominent Americans. There was Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) — “Putin’s favorite congressman,” as he’s known — and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY). There was Paul Erickson, the GOP lobbyist now accused of helping Russian nationals infiltrate the National Rifle Association (NRA). There was an editor from The National Interest, and even, as Bloomberg reported, a Hollywood director.
On the other side of the table sat their Russian guests. It’s unclear how many were in attendance, although one report noted that “current and former Russian officials” joined in the four-hour feast.
Two of the Russian nationals present that night, however, have become familiar names in the past few months, and are now tied to the clearest attempt yet seen at Russian infiltration of American social conservatives: Alexander Torshin, who has since been sanctioned by the U.S., and Maria Butina, the subject of a recent DOJ indictment for infiltrating the NRA to further Russia’s interests.
The dinner appears to have been one of Torshin’s final forays into American politics. The morning after the dinner Torshin attended the National Prayer Breakfast, and he planned to meet Trump at the White House — a plan that fell through when White House officials realized Torshin was facing money laundering and mafia-related charges in Spain.
But that night, Torshin and Butina rubbed elbows with some of Washington’s cognoscenti, all of whom apparently saw the opportunity for an entirely new relationship between America and Russia. As Butina later said of the seating arrangement — Russians on one side, Americans on the other — “The better to hear, the better to toast.”
But the man who brought this eclectic group of pro-Trump, pro-Moscow voices together wasn’t an official representative of the new administration, or even one of the many other Republican officials Butina met along the way. Rather, the night’s host was a man whose life is as cloistered as his lineage is legendary: George D. O’Neill, Jr., scion of the Rockefeller fortune, and a man who fits the profile of the final unnamed American who helped Butina access the top ranks of the NRA.
For a direct descendant of the Rockefeller line — O’Neill is the great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller Jr. — the host of that February 2017 dinner is remarkably reclusive. He doesn’t maintain much of an online footprint; his biography on The American Conservative identifies him primarily as an artist and the “founder of The Committee for Responsible Foreign Policy,” itself a bare-bones operation that doesn’t appear to do much.
O’Neill did not respond to ThinkProgress’ numerous requests for an interview, but there are a few indicators of his personage publicly available. A handful of pieces he’s written also help illuminate the conspiratorial source of O’Neill’s views on Russia, and why he saw fit, as McClatchy wrote, to host “a fancy four-hour dinner” with people like Torshin and Butina.
“George is the black sheep of the family.”
For instance, O’Neill, whom TIME identified as simply a “conservative activist,” was the subject of a torrid, horrid 2000 profile in Vanity Fair. The profile detailed the myriad accusations of infidelity trailing O’Neill, sometimes with women decades his junior, sending his then-wife on a “nightmare of inﬁdelity, perversion, and guns that led to her hospitalization for depression.”
The allegations, Vanity Fair’s Lisa DePaulo wrote, included O’Neill “diddling everyone from baby-sitters to the local funeral director’s wife, employing a harem of big-breasted young women in his business, trying to force his wife into threesomes with the help, and — as if there could be anything worse — supporting Pat Buchanan.” (O’Neill denied the allegations of sexual impropriety.)
As one friend said, “George is the black sheep of the family.”
The profile also hinted at O’Neill’s burgeoning political leanings — specifically, to the far-right. Not only did O’Neill work as an NRA instructor, but as the Vanity Fair piece points out, he helped the work of far-right, anti-equality traditionalists like Phyllis Schlafly, aiding in her campaigning. Eventually, in 1992, O’Neill signed on with the presidential campaign of paleoconservative Pat Buchanan — which, as Vanity Fair noted, “was really more a crusade on behalf of the populists (read ‘angry white males’) of America than a serious bid for election.”
That position doesn’t seem to have changed over the years; as one of O’Neill’s contacts told ThinkProgress, O’Neill is still a “Pat Buchanan conservative.” And Buchanan, of course, has only veered closer to outright fascistic positions over the past few years — and has, in his old age, begun wondering aloud if “God” is on the “side” of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
2. Pat Buchanan is aware of this and, as a traditionalist Catholic, in fact straddles that overt white supremacist/Christian traditional values line when it comes to reasons espoused for admiring Putin. For more on this, see my essay “Bad Ecumenism”:https://t.co/sPUbALj0Uf
— Christopher Stroop (@C_Stroop) July 17, 2018
Somewhere along the way, O’Neill began lobbying for similar, Kremlin-friendly positions.
Guess who’s coming to dinner
In 2010, O’Neill began working as co-chair of an organization called Come Home America, which called on “Citizens Opposed To War and Empire!” The group’s cover photo features Martin Luther King Jr. alongside Ron Paul, the latter of whom recently tweeted a racist, anti-Semitic cartoon.
Come Home America produced a series of essays, as well as an open letter to then-President Barack Obama, calling on him to “initiate a fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy away from domination of others through military strength and damaging sanctions.” Among the signatories was Cindy Sheehan, who is currently lobbying for California’s secession. A number of individuals affiliated with the AntiWar.com conspiracy site also signed the letter. (Recent stories on AntiWar.com include headlines like “‘Russiagate’ – Attack On Our Values or Power of War Propaganda?” and “Trump-Putin Fallout: Bipartisan Hysteria Against Peace.”)
Come Home America’s website folded sometime in 2016, although Kevin Zeese, who co-chaired the group with O’Neill, told ThinkProgress that it still exists as a “discussion group.” Zeese currently helps run the Popular Resistance website, one of the outlets that unwittingly published material from another Russian agent.
After the group disbanded, O’Neill moved on to a far more prominent project: bridging the widening gap in Russian-American relations. It’s unclear if O’Neill supported Trump during the 2016 election, but his work and writings certainly align with Trump’s policies on Russian rapprochement — just as O’Neill’s role lines up with that of the unnamed American helping Butina along in 2016-17.
“The suggestion that American conservatives might be susceptible to manipulation by foreign officials certainly betrayed a lack of understanding.”
After O’Neill’s February 2017 dinner generated a bit of coverage in the D.C. press, he took to the pages of The American Conservative to offer a riposte. In April 2017, O’Neill, who is also a board member of The American Ideas Institute, the parent organization of The American Conservative, wrote that the dinner “didn’t seem like a particularly newsworthy event — just a routine opportunity for some top Washington hands to share views and perceptions with prominent counterparts from another national capital.”
He maligned the “the neo-McCarthyite, anti-Russian hysteria that has swept Washington,” adding that “the suggestion that American conservatives might be susceptible to manipulation by foreign officials certainly betrayed a lack of understanding” about the conservatives he’d grown close to.
O’Neill, who lives in Florida, closed the piece with a series of recommended analysts and outlets — some of whom have later been outed as anti-Semitic, and few of whom are taken seriously by the broader Russia-watching community. For instance, O’Neill recommended Stephen Cohen — an analyst who recently began writing for RT, and who described the 2014 Crimean “referendum” allowing Russian annexation as “legitimate” — and Ron Unz, whose site, Unz Review, has published anti-Semitic material in the past. O’Neill also recommended Russia Insider, another anti-Semitic outlet.
O’Neill recently contributed another piece to The American Conservative, discussing last week’s Helsinki summit between Trump and Putin as the next step in Trump’s “bold peace initiative.” (In the piece, O’Neill wrote that Russia borders countries like Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, which it doesn’t.) Mere days before Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted a dozen Russians for campaign hacking, and just before the DOJ detailed how Maria Butina wormed her way into the NRA, O’Neill wrote that “the failing ‘Trump-Russia collusion’ hysteria is proving baseless.”
Between his own writings and his recommendations of more fringe figures, O’Neill is clearly a supporter of Trump’s rhetoric on Russia — especially as it pertains to rolling over in the face of things like Russian interference, or Russia’s invasion of southern Ukraine. But did O’Neill take his efforts beyond just a handful of articles or that one-off dinner with Butina and Torshin?
Perhaps. In the DOJ’s complaint last week, FBI Special Agent Kevin Helson detailed Butina’s communiques with an unidentified “U.S. Person 2.” (The unidentified “U.S. Person 1” was revealed last week to be Erickson.)
Butina was in contact with “U.S. Person 2” as early as March 2016, when she wrote that Torshin “confirmed to her ‘his desire in our Russian-American project,’ and that a representative of the Russian Presidential administration had expressed approval ‘for building this communication channel.’ [Butina] additionally assured U.S. Person 2 that he should not worry as ‘all that we needed is <<yes>> from Putin’s side.'”
Butina followed up in September 2016, writing Erickson and “U.S. Person 2” about “organizing another Russian-American ‘friendship and dialogue’ dinner in the District of Columbia.” And then, on February 8, 2017 — seven days after O’Neill brought Erickson, Torshin, and Butina together with Reps. Rohrabacher and Massie for a lavish dinner in Washington — Butina sent a follow-up email to “U.S. Person 2.” As she wrote:
Our delegation cannot stop chatting about your wonderful dinner. My dearest President has received ‘the message’ about your group initiatives and your constructive and kind attention to the Russians.
To be clear, neither O’Neill nor DOJ has confirmed that O’Neill is the unnamed “U.S. Person 2” in the complaint. And those who have worked with O’Neill in the past doubt he played any role in Butina’s operation. “I have no idea what his relationship with [Butina] is like,” Zeese told ThinkProgress. “I’m sure that George is not a Russian co-conspirator. George is about as patriotic, true-blue for a red Republican as you can be.”
And that may yet be the case. But between his writings and recommendations, as well as his willingness to host unregistered Russian agents and Russian officials who would later be sanctioned — all under the guise helping Trump’s “bold peace initiative” — O’Neill’s potential role in Butina’s and Torshin’s operations prompts a new slew of questions.
Nor did O’Neill’s efforts apparently end with last year’s dinner. As the Rockefeller scion wrote to a reporter last year inquiring about the February 2017 dinner, “I plan to continue these private interactions.”
UPDATE, 26 July 2018: Hours after this article on O’Neill went live, the Wall Street Journal confirmed that O’Neill was the second unnamed American who helped Butina’s efforts. Wrote the Journal, “Charges against Maria Butina, the Russian accused of being a secret foreign agent, name as one of her contacts ‘U.S. Person 2.’ That person is George O’Neill Jr., a Rockefeller heir and conservative writer, interviews and public documents indicate.”