Maria Butina, the Russian who reportedly infiltrated the National Rifle Association and became a popular figure in conservative circles in 2016, certainly earned her keep. The indictment issued last week states she worked closely with a Russian official, widely believed to be Russian Central Bank Deputy Gov. Alexander Torshin, to access and influence conservative organizations and politicians. In its press release announcing the indictment, the Justice Department stated:
The court filings detail the Russian official’s and Butina’s efforts for Butina to act as an agent of Russia inside the United States by developing relationships with U.S. persons and infiltrating organizations having influence in American politics, for the purpose of advancing the interests of the Russian Federation. The filings also describe certain actions taken by Butina to further this effort during multiple visits from Russia and, later, when she entered and resided in the United States on a student visa. The filings allege that she undertook her activities without officially disclosing the fact that she was acting as an agent of Russian government, as required by law.
Voters surely are entitled to know whom she tried to influence and who, if anyone, got allegedly Torshin-laundered money. Democrats, in particular ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee Ron Wyden (Ore.), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Robert Menendez (N.J.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), sent a letter Monday to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin demanding a response to an inquiry from Wyden sent in February. The senators want “production of any documents relevant to financial links between the NRA, its associated entities and Ms. Butina and any entities or individuals related to her.” Don’t hold your breath waiting for the senators to get the information.
Republicans — if they have clean hands and want to protect American democracy — should be chiming in to demand prompt disclosure of such information. Until we can see how much Russian money went into the NRA, where it went and with whom Torshin and Butina met, a cloud will hang over all pro-NRA candidates, which is most Republicans. News reports have confirmed that one of the people Torshin met with was none other than Donald Trump Jr. (Yes, the president’s son met with the man allegedly sending Butina to infiltrate GOP circles for the benefit of Russia.) Now we should know whom else the duo met with, what was discussed and whether Torshin was able to route NRA money to sympathetic candidates.
Former federal prosecutor Harry Litman explains, “There have been reports for years that Torshin illegally funneled money to the NRA for use in the Trump campaign, and the criminal charges against Butina lay out a thick relationship that she and Russian officials forged with the organization, and through it, various Republican political figures.” He adds, “It would be derelict of Congress not to seek to get to the bottom of whether Moscow used the NRA to illegally interfere in the election.”
In the meantime, it is not unreasonable for all recipients of NRA money to put any NRA-related donations aside and not touch the money unless and until this is all cleared up. Every Republican on the ballot in November, as well as members of their staff, needs to disclose contacts with Torshin and Butina or their associates. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre needs to be questioned as to whether he knew his organization was being used by a hostile foreign power, and if so, when he knew it. Alas, all that will likely have to wait until there is a Democratic majority in one or both houses.
“We need to know who at the NRA received money, above all, for the purposes of awareness. The Torshin/Butina case should serve as an example to all future campaigns and organizations the dangers of foreign influence via financial donations,” says former FBI special agent Clinton Watts. “We should also be looking at how Torshin/Butina donations might have been used to direct foreign policy influence. Who were the individuals that received the money? Why did Torshin/Butina send them cash and what did the Russian influence effort seek to achieve in return for the donation?”
Trump overtly and wittingly is acting as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s supplicant. But there may be others — witting and unwitting — who have been snared in Russian influence operations. As former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti tells me, “The American people have a right to know if their elected representatives have ties to a foreign adversary, and an investigation by Congress is likely the only way that information will be made public.” These people should want to divest themselves of any money they received, remove the taint of Russian influence and prevent their receipt of Russian-tainted money or meetings with Russian operatives from being used to, well, blackmail them. They should act now, before this becomes a serious campaign liability.