Monday’s bombshell Department of Justice complaint accusing Maria Butina, a Russian national, of secretly infiltrating the National Rifle Association (NRA) was full of remarkable detail, and even more remarkable implications.
All told, the DOJ complaint accused Butina and Russian official Alexander Torshin — himself previously accused by Spanish authorities of massive money laundering and mob ties — of building ties with the NRA to get close to to Republican leadership.
As one of the unnamed Americans listed in the complaint wrote in October, a month before the U.S. presidential election, Butina and Torshin had helped build a “VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin” and Republican party leaders, describing the NRA as a “conduit.”
The ties between Torshin, who was sanctioned by the U.S. in April, and the NRA have been scrutinized for the past few months — all the more as Torshin said he and Butina were the only two Russian nationals he knew of who were lifetime NRA members.
Сегодня в NRA (США) мне известны всего 2,человека из РФ со статусом "life member": Мария Бутина и я. C чем я её и поздравляю!)
— А.П. Торшин (@torshin_ru) November 9, 2016
Indeed, a glimpse through Butina’s photos show just how successfully she managed to woo Republican leaders and activists alike.
There’s no indication any of them were aware Butina was, at least by 2015, coordinating her activities with Torshin — or that Torshin, according to Butina’s emails unearthed in the DOJ complaint, had relayed information to Russian President Vladimir Putin directly. Rather, they appear to have acted as unwitting dupes in Torshin’s and Butina’s bid to build what the DOJ described as a “back channel” between Republicans and Russia. (We know that Torshin first made contact with NRA higher-ups as early as 2011.)
Butina, for instance, asked then-candidate Donald Trump about sanctions on Russia in 2015 — a policy Trump hinted he would do away with.
Later, Butina posted a photo from the exchange, which took place at an event called FreedomFest. “So much for Republicans being supposedly against Russia,” Butina wrote of Trump’s response.
But Trump was by no means the only Republican hopeful Butina met and spoke with in the run-up to the election. For instance, both she and Torshin met with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R). Butina wrote that Walker even greeted her in Russian.
For good measure, Butina also crossed paths with outsiders for the GOP nomination, including former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) and former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R).
But it wasn’t only Republican nominees Butina, who positioned herself as someone looking to expand gun rights in Russia, met with in her time trying to woo conservatives to Russia’s positions.
For instance, Fox News contributor Katie Pavlich interviewed Butina for TownHall.com, with Pavlich describing Butina as “the woman working with the NRA and fighting for gun rights in Russia.” Butina also appeared on the popular radio show of Religious Right activist Eric Metaxas — alongside Paul Erickson, whom the Washington Post named yesterday as one of the unnamed Americans Butina and Torshin worked with in their infiltration efforts.
For good measure, Butina also acted as one of the funders for the notorious 2015 trip in which numerous NRA higher-ups — such as Keene, NRA mega-donor Joe Gregory, and current NRA President Pete Brownell — traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian officials under U.S. sanction. Also on the trip: notorious ex-Sheriff David Clarke.
And, of course, there are the higher-ups at the NRA who grew close to Butina over the past few years. Former NRA President Wayne LaPierre (pictured above) was spotted with Butina at one point, and longtime NRA head David Keene took such a liking to Butina that she acted as his special guest at the NRA’s 2014 annual meeting.
But Butina’s photo-ops and group trips to Moscow don’t represent the entirety of her interactions with influential Americans. According to the DOJ complaint, a pair of Americans specifically helped Butina’s efforts along — as evidenced by emails the DOJ complaint unearthed.
One, as aforementioned, has already been identified: Paul Erickson, a conservative activist who has worked on numerous presidential campaigns, including Mitt Romney’s. As the New York Times reported last year, in 2016 Erickson reached out to Rick Dearborn, one of Trump’s campaign advisers, and said, “Putin is deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump.” Erickson also wrote that he had been “slowly cultivating a back-channel” to the Kremlin for years — via, as is now clear, the NRA.
The identity of the second unnamed American is unclear. This American had multiple interactions and emails with Butina, especially just after Trump’s inauguration. We know, for instance, that this American was “among the participants in a series of email communications… that reveal [Butina’s] efforts” to arrange meetings between Russian nationals and influential Americans.
We also know that the American — well before the actual election — wanted Butina’s and Torshin’s “Russian-American project” to succeed.
Perhaps most damning, though, is that this unnamed American apparently helped organize Butina’s and Torshin’s events surrounding the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast. As Butina wrote to “a National Prayer Breakfast organizer,” “I have important information for you to further this new relationship” between Russia and the U.S.
Butina wrote to the second unnamed American that Putin “has received ‘the message’ about your group initiatives and your constructive and kind attention to the Russians.”
While the American remains unidentified, all of the information in the complaint matches the descriptions of George O’Neill Jr., a Rockefeller scion and conservative activist. In early February 2017, O’Neill hosted a luxurious dinner for, as he later wrote, “former and current Russian officials” and “a number of prominent U.S. Republicans and conservatives,” among others.
The four-hour dinner included, unsurprisingly, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), the most outspoken pro-Putin member of Congress, as well as Rep. Thomas Massie (R.-KY). Also confirmed in attendance? Torshin, Butina, and Erickson.
O’Neill, for good measure, has also been outspoken in publicly pushing conservatives to support Russia. In The American Conservative last year, O’Neill wrote that he supports using conservatives’ efforts to build a “good relationship” with Russia. Among the voices O’Neill recommended listening to: Stephen Cohen, who is now writing for Russian propaganda channel RT; Pat Buchanan, who has written that Putin has God on his “side”; and writers for anti-Semitic sites like Russia Insider and Unz Review.
That wasn’t all, though. For O’Neill, any suggestion that conservative activists were acting as unwitting dupes of Russians was laughable. As he wrote, “the suggestion that American conservatives might be susceptible to manipulation by foreign officials certainly betrayed a lack of understanding[.]”
Given that we now know just how many conservative activists and Republican leaders have been caught up in Butina’s and Torshin’s infiltration efforts — to say nothing of the efforts from other Russian nationals, official or otherwise — O’Neill may want to rethink his claims.
UPDATE, 22 July 2018: A report from CNN found that, in 2017, Butina and Erickson also attended a “post-Thanksgiving barbecue” hosted by Rep. Mark Sanford (R.-SC). Said Sanford, “I did meet her, a few interactions were pleasant. It’s the girlfriend of a guy I’ve known for 30 years. She seemed nice enough.”