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Maria Butina, Russian gun-rights advocate who sought to build ties with NRA, charged with acting as a covert Russian agent

Maria Butina, 29, founded a Russian group called the Right to Bear Arms. On July 16 she was charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of Russia. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

A Russian woman with ties to a senior Russian government official was charged in Washington on Monday with conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian Federation, including by building ties to the leadership of the National Rifle Association and other conservative political organizations.

Maria Butina, 29, who recently received a graduate degree from American University, was arrested Sunday in the District and made her first appearance in U.S. District Court before Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson, where she was ordered held without bond.

Butina is accused of trying to cultivate relationships with American politicians to establish “back channel” lines of communication and seeking to infiltrate U.S. political groups, including an unnamed “gun rights organization,” to advance Russia’s agenda. Descriptions in court papers match published reports about Butina’s interactions with the NRA.

The case, which is not part of the special counsel investigation into Russian interference, lays out the strongest allegations to date of American involvement in Russia’s influence operations.

Butina was allegedly assisted in her efforts by a U.S. political operative who helped introduce her to influential political figures. That person was not charged and is not named in court papers, but the description matches that of Paul Erickson, a GOP consultant who sought to organize a meeting between then-candidate Donald Trump and Alexander Torshin, Butina’s Russian colleague and a former Russian senator, at a May 2016 NRA convention.

NRA officials and Erickson did not respond to requests for comment.

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Butina’s attorney, Robert Neil Driscoll, denied that she is a Russian agent and said she was merely networking to develop relationships with Americans.

He told the judge that she had testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed session several months ago and had offered before her arrest to cooperate with the government.

Butina did not speak during the brief hearing, other than to state her name. A detention hearing and preliminary hearing were set for Wednesday.

The Russian Embassy said in a statement to the Interfax News Agency that it is “seeking consular access” to Butina “with the aim of defending her legal rights.”

A former furniture store owner from Siberia and gun-rights activist, Butina was the first to publicly quiz President Trump about his views on Russia when she asked him a question at a town hall in July 2015.

She also briefly met Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, at the NRA convention in May 2016, according to a person familiar with the encounter.

Court filings do not mention her interactions with Trump and his son, but do recount Butina’s other contacts regarding the NRA convention and the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event attended by government and political leaders in Washington. Erickson sought to arrange a meeting for Torshin with Trump at the February 2017 breakfast, according to a person familiar with the event.

After attending the event with a large Russian delegation, Butina wrote to an organizer to offer “important information for you to further this new relationship” with Russia, according to court filings. The nature of the information is not described.

Read the affidavit about Maria Butina

The charges against Butina were announced days after the Justice Department unveiled an indictment against 12 Russian intelligence officers for allegedly conspiring to hack Democrats in 2016 and just hours after Trump cast doubt on Russia’s involvement in an extraordinary joint news conference with President Vladi­mir Putin.

Over the weekend, law enforcement officials became increasingly concerned that Butina appeared to be planning to leave the Washington area, according to people familiar with the matter. Investigators were concerned such a trip could pose operational challenges for their work and decided to make an arrest, these people said.

Although special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is aware of the details of the Butina case, the investigative work began before he was appointed to that job, and it has continued to be handled by federal agents and prosecutors outside of his office, these people said.

In an affidavit filed with the court, FBI Special Agent Kevin Helson outlined a two-year alleged effort by Butina to penetrate and influence the U.S. political system for Russia’s benefit by building ties to the American conservative movement.

Butina’s efforts in the United States came as a number of Republicans began rethinking the party’s traditional hostility to Russia, forming new bonds with Putin’s government around conservative social views on religion and same-sex marriage. That shift culminated with the November 2016 election of Trump, who had argued throughout his campaign that the United States should seek warmer relations with Russia.

Guns and religion: How American conservatives grew closer to Putin’s Russia

As early as March 2015, Butina emailed the American political operative about her belief that the Republican Party would likely win the White House in 2016, according to court papers. She proposed a special project to use the NRA to build relations with the GOP.

She wrote that “the resulting status needs to be strengthened” before the 2016 election and asked for a $125,000 budget to help her attend “all upcoming major conferences” of the Republican Party.

According to the affidavit, the FBI found evidence on Butina’s computer that she kept an unnamed Russian official closely apprised of her activities. Descriptions of the official in the complaint match Torshin, a Russian central banker who has also built ties with the NRA.

In one March 2016 email to an unnamed American, Butina described Torshin’s “desire in our Russian-American project” and indicated that a Putin representative had expressed support “for building this communication channel.”

Butina began reaching out to NRA members and other American gun enthusiasts in 2013 and hosted delegations of NRA executives and gun activists in Moscow. She and Torshin also attended a series of NRA events in the United States starting in 2014.

In June 2015, as Trump announced his candidacy, Butina wrote a column in the National Interest, a conservative U.S. magazine, suggesting that only by electing a Republican could the United States and Russia hope to improve relations.

The next month at FreedomFest, a libertarian political event in Las Vegas, she asked Trump at a public event: “What will be your foreign politics, especially in the relations with my country?”

“I know Putin and I’ll tell you what, we get along with Putin,” Trump responded, in the first of his many campaign statements about his desire to build better ties with Russia.

Butina told The Washington Post in April 2017 that her question to Trump was “happenstance” and that she has never been an employee of the Russian government.

Butina also attended an NRA convention in May 2016, where Erickson worked to get Torshin a meeting with Trump. In an email to the campaign, Erickson referred to Torshin as “Putin’s emissary” in an effort to improve relations with the United States, The Post and other media organizations previously reported.

The meeting did not happen, but Torshin had an interaction at the event with Trump Jr., who has said it was brief and not memorable. Trump Jr. also interacted with a woman described as Torshin’s assistant who he later came to believe was Butina, according to a person with knowledge of the episode.

Butina also accompanied Erickson to Trump’s inauguration, one of a number of Russians who attended the festivities and toasted to better relations between Russia and the United States.

Tom Hamburger, Shane Harris and Carol D. Leonnig in Washington and Anton Troianovski in Helsinki contributed to this report.