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Timeline: The odd overlap of Maria Butina, the gun-rights movement and the 2016 election

Russian gun rights activist Maria Butina developed bonds with conservative leaders during the 2016 campaign - culminating in outreach to then-candidate Trump. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde, Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)
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Another criminal allegation against another Russian national who was involved in the 2016 election was announced Monday by the Justice Department — but the circumstances are far different from what we’ve seen in the past.

To date, the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian interference in the 2016 election has resulted in indictments against 25 Russian nationals and three Russian businesses. The criminal complaint filed against Maria Butina, the founder of a pro-gun group in Russia, comes not from Mueller but from the Justice Department directly. Butina is accused not of trying to influence the 2016 election or having colluded with the campaign of President Trump but, instead, of having conspired to act as an agent of the Russian government.

This doesn’t mean, though, that Butina had no connection to the campaign. In fact, she worked closely with a former Russian politician named Alexander Torshin, who was sanctioned by the U.S. government earlier this year. Torshin actively sought to build a connection with the Trump campaign in 2016, according to various reports that have emerged over the past year, including leveraging his lifetime membership in the National Rifle Association to build a relationship with Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son.

It’s not clear how significant the criminal complaint against Butina might be. But it’s worth fleshing out the timeline presented in that case in order to show where Butina, Torshin and 2016 politics overlapped. This timeline includes several points first presented in a very good report by Mother Jones.

2011: Maria Butina forms Right to Bear Arms in Russia. The aim of the organization mirrors that of the NRA: Broadening Russians’ access to firearms.

April 15, 2012: Alexander Torshin, a former Russian senator and lifetime member of the NRA, tweets about Butina’s group, comparing it to the NRA.

His longstanding relationship with Butina and biographical descriptions included in the complaint make it clear that the “RUSSIAN OFFICIAL” identified in the document is Torshin.

2013: Per the complaint, Butina allegedly makes contact with an American political operative (“U.S. Person 1” in the complaint), who agrees to introduce her to influential figures in American politics. That includes a “gun rights organization,” identified contextually within the complaint as the NRA.

November 2013: John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and, since April 2018, White House national security adviser, records a video promoting an expansion of gun rights in Russia that’s later used by Right to Bear Arms for promotion.

April 2014: Butina and Torshin attend the national NRA convention.

March 24, 2015: Butina allegedly emails Person 1 to propose a project titled “Diplomacy.” (The email subject line apparently makes reference to a former KGB propagandist.) She writes that the Republican Party (identified only as POLITICAL PARTY 1 in the complaint) will likely gain power in 2016 but is “traditionally associated with negative and aggressive foreign policy, particularly with regards to Russia.” The time was right, she wrote, to build a relationship with the party, using the “[c]entral place and influence” in the Republican Party of the NRA.

She noted her relationship with the NRA and past interactions with Republican officials in the email, anticipating a $125,000 budget to be spent on major political conferences. Person 1 responded with suggestions about people with whom she should meet and some strategic recommendations.

April 24, 2015: Butina attends the NRA convention in Nashville. There she and Torshin meet Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.), who reportedly greets her in Russian.

June 12, 2015: Writing for National Interest, Butina argues that a Republican president might be the only way to improve relations with Russia. After the article was published, she sent it to Torshin, who approved.

July 11, 2015: Butina asks Trump a question at FreedomFest, a libertarian event held that year in Las Vegas. As president, she asked, would Trump continue the sanctions imposed against Russia in 2014?

“I know Putin, and I’ll tell you what, we get along with Putin,” Trump replied. “Putin has no respect for President Obama. Big problem. Big problem. And Russia has been driven — you know I’ve always heard, for years I’ve heard, one of the worst things that can happen is if Russia ever gets driven to China. We have driven them together, with the big oil deals that are being made. We’ve driven them together. That’s a horrible thing for this country. We have made them friends because of incompetent leadership. I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin, okay? And I mean where we have the strength. I don’t think you’d need the sanctions.”

July 13, 2015: Butina attends the launch of Walker’s presidential campaign.

August 2015: Butina allegedly assists Torshin in preparing for a congressional delegation to Moscow. It’s not clear who participated in this trip.

Dec. 8, 2015: An NRA delegation arrives in Moscow to meet with Butina’s group. Right to Bear Arms covers some of the trip’s costs. Included in the group is former Milwaukee County sheriff David Clarke.

2015 and 2016: Butina allegedly exchanges emails with another American (“U.S. Person 2”) in an effort to arrange a series of dinners in New York and Washington to introduce Russians to people influential in American politics.

Jan. 19, 2016: Butina allegedly contacts Torshin about logistics for the upcoming National Prayer Breakfast.

Feb. 4, 2016: The National Prayer Breakfast is held with Torshin in attendance. He regularly attended the event.

Feb. 14, 2016: Torshin tweets that Butina is in the United States, where she reports that Trump is “for cooperation with Russia,” according to Mother Jones.

March 14, 2016: Butina allegedly emails Person 2 and indicates that Torshin had informed her that “Putin’s side” had approved of her outreach plan to high-profile political figures.

March 30, 2016: Butina allegedly emails an organizer of the prayer breakfast to suggest that Putin might attend in 2017, given certain conditions. He did not, but the organizer offered 10 spots at the 2017 event for Putin.

May 2016: Through two different individuals close to the Trump campaign, Torshin tries to set up a meeting with Donald Trump Jr. when the two are at the NRA convention in Kentucky later that month. In one of the emails, adviser Rick Dearborn explained that Russia was “quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S.”

May 10 and 11, 2016: Butina allegedly contacts Persons 1 and 2 to set up a series of dinners with influential political figures later that month.

At some point in May, Butina is allegedly part of a group seeking a meeting with the Trump campaign to discuss persecutions against Christians, according to Post reporting.

May 20, 2016: At a dinner on the sideline of the NRA convention, Torshin and Trump Jr. are seated near each other and meet briefly.

August 2016: Butina allegedly arrives in the United States on an F-1 student visa.

Sept. 16, 2016: Butina allegedly emails Persons 1 and 2 to express an urgent need for another dinner with prominent figures in Washington out of concern that those looking for Russia expertise would turn to the “currently popular radically oppositional to Russia crowd of experts.”

Oct. 4, 2016: Person 1 allegedly emails an acquaintance.

“Unrelated to specific presidential campaigns,” he writes, “I’ve been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key POLITICAL PARTY I leaders through, of all conduits, the [NRA].”

Oct. 5, 2016: Over Twitter, Butina allegedly messages Torshin, who is being treated in a hospital: “We made our bet. I am following our game. I will be connecting the people from the prayer breakfast to this group. . . . Yesterday’s dinner showed that American society is broken in relation to Russia. This is now the dividing line of opinions, the crucial one in the election race. [The Republicans] are for us, [Democrats] — against- 50/50. Our move here is very important.” (The complaint obscures the identity of the parties.)

They also allegedly discussed whether or not Butina should serve as an election observer, but decide against it. “Right now everything has to be quiet and careful,” Butina writes. Torshin had served in that capacity in 2012, according to Mother Jones.

Oct. 17, 2016: Butina allegedly asks Torshin if he has recommendations for the prayer breakfast seats.

Nov. 8, 2016: Trump wins the presidency. The NRA spends more than $30 million supporting his campaign.

Nov. 8 and 9, 2016: Butina and Torshin allegedly discuss the election results.

“Think about in which areas of life we could go towards bringing us closer. ISIS- understandably, what else we need to look at the American agenda,” Torshin allegedly writes. Butina suggests a phone call, but he worries that their phones are tapped. In May, Yahoo reported that Torshin’s phones were tapped — by Spanish authorities.

Nov. 11, 2016: Butina allegedly sends Torshin a proposal for a conference, featuring a number of members of Congress, focused on Russia.

Nov. 12, 2016: Torshin allegedly rejects the plan, saying that “they” won’t go for it — a message that prosecutors allege signal instruction from the Russian government to Butina.

Nov. 30, 2016: Butina allegedly emails Person 1 about the prayer breakfast, assuring Person 1 that the people included in the Russian delegation, handpicked by Torshin and herself, were “coming to establish a back channel of communication.”

Dec. 1, 2016: Person 1 allegedly explains to Butina how to book the hotel for the Russian delegation to the prayer breakfast and suggests that Torshin cover the cost.

Dec. 26, 2016: Torshin allegedly explains who will and won’t be attending, as per the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Jan. 20, 2017: President Trump is inaugurated.

Butina attends one of the inaugural balls, according to Post reporting.

Feb. 2, 2017: Butina and Torshin attend the prayer breakfast.

Feb. 6, 2017: Butina allegedly thanks a prayer breakfast organizer for meeting with her and suggests she has “important information” for the organizer. She asks for a follow-up meeting.

Feb. 8, 2017: Butina allegedly emails Person 2 to thank him.

“My dearest President has received ‘the message’ about your group initiatives and your constructive and kind attention to the Russians,” she writes.

Jan. 18, 2018: McClatchy reports that Mueller’s team is investigating the NRA’s role in the 2016 election. In a letter released several months later, the group indicates having received only about $2,500 from “people associated with Russian addresses.”

April 6, 2018: Torshin is one of more than 20 Russians sanctioned by the American government in response to Russian interference in 2016, among other incidents.