But by August 2016, when she moved to the United States on a student visa, the FBI was watching, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter.
Rather than question or confront her, they said, officials decided to track her movements to determine whom she was meeting and what she was doing in the United States — the kind of monitoring that is not uncommon when foreign nationals are suspected of working on behalf of a foreign government.
By then, Butina had already publicly quizzed Trump about his views on Russia and briefly met his eldest son at an NRA convention. After the FBI began monitoring her, Butina attended a ball at Trump’s inauguration and tried to arrange a meeting between him and a senior Russian government official at last year’s annual National Prayer Breakfast.
By 2017, after she had enrolled as a graduate student at American University in Washington, Butina began probing groups on the left as well, trying unsuccessfully to interview a D.C.-based civil rights group about its cyber-vulnerabilities for what she said was a school project, according to a person familiar with her outreach.
On Sunday, alerted that she was preparing to leave Washington for South Dakota, where monitoring her would be more difficult, federal authorities arrested Butina.
The 29-year-old was indicted by a grand jury on Tuesday, accused of conspiracy and failing to register as a foreign agent. The indictment alleges that she worked with her contact in the Russian government to infiltrate American political groups as part of a scheme “to advance the interests of the Russian Federation.”
Robert Driscoll, an attorney for Butina, said she is not a Russian agent but merely a student with an interest in politics and a desire to network with Americans. “She intends to defend her rights vigorously and looks forward to clearing her name,” he said in a statement.
U.S. officials allege that her activities show the breadth and sophistication of Russia’s influence operations in the United States. At the same time prosecutors say 12 Russian intelligence officers in Moscow sought to affect the 2016 presidential campaign by hacking and releasing stolen documents from Democrats, Butina was roaming the country, building ties on the Kremlin’s behalf with powerful conservative figures, according to court filings.
“The filing of this latest complaint is just further evidence of how far-reaching and carefully planned Russia’s assault on American democracy has been,” said a former U.S. official with knowledge of the Russia investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing probe. “To anyone who doubts that the Russian counterintelligence threat is real, this complaint should be further proof that it’s a threat that is live, real and urgent for the country to grapple with.”
Butina’s activities raise questions about why the NRA and other groups gave her high-level access, allowing her to meet important politicians and influential thought leaders.
NRA officials did not respond to requests for comment.
People who encountered Butina said the gregarious redhead had a life story that appealed to many activists and officials she met at GOP events. She told a conservative radio show in 2015 that she grew up in the woods of Siberia, where her father taught her and her sister to hunt bears and wolves.
After a brief career as the owner of a small chain of furniture stores, Butina moved to Moscow, where she began a career in public relations and founded a group called the Right to Bear Arms to advocate for the loosening of Russia’s restrictive gun laws.
Soon, her group acquired a powerful patron, a Russian senator from Putin’s party who later became the deputy director of Russia’s central bank: Alexander Torshin, a lifetime member of the NRA who had ties with Christian conservatives through an annual prayer breakfast he helped host in Moscow.
Acting as Torshin’s assistant and interpreter, Butina soon began forming her own connections to the NRA, becoming friendly with David Keene, a past chairman of the American Conservative Union who served as the NRA’s president from 2011 to 2013, as The Washington Post previously reported.
In 2013, Butina and Torshin invited Keene and other American gun enthusiasts to Moscow to attend the annual meeting of her organization.
There, Butina met Paul Erickson, a South Dakota-based Republican operative who was well known to Republican insiders, going back to the work he did as national political director for Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign in 1992. She told the Senate Intelligence Committee in April that she began a romantic relationship with the American operative, people familiar with her testimony said.
Erickson matches a description of an American described in court filings as a political operative who helped introduce Butina to influential American political figures “for the purpose of advancing the agenda of the Russian Federation.”
Erickson, who has not been charged, did not respond to requests for comment.
Starting in 2014, Butina began attending annual NRA conventions, according to her social media accounts. She and Torshin got unusual access to elite NRA gatherings, according to a person familiar with NRA event arrangements. In recent years, they were regular guests at Golden Ring of Freedom dinners and VIP events reserved for people who typically donate $1 million to the NRA.
Butina told the Senate Intelligence Committee that neither she nor Torshin made contributions to the NRA other than membership dues, according to people familiar with her testimony. Their warm treatment was extended merely to thank them for serving as hosts to NRA leaders in Moscow, she said.
The NRA, which spent millions more to support Trump than any previous presidential candidate, has denied accepting funding from Butina or Torshin. In an April letter to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), an NRA official said that other than membership dues, Torshin “has not made any contributions and is therefore not a member of any major donor program.”
The NRA gave Butina a springboard into the world of Republican politics. In March 2015, court documents show that she and Erickson exchanged emails about a special “diplomacy” project, aiming to use the organization to influence the Republican Party, which Butina predicted would win control of the White House.
At the group’s annual convention in Nashville that year, which featured a dozen presidential hopefuls, they mingled with headliners in a VIP green room, according to a person who was present.
In a social media post, Butina wrote that she met Walker and was surprised when she was able to exchange a few words in Russian with the Wisconsin governor, who was preparing a bid for the presidency and leading in polls. A Walker spokesman said Tuesday that there were thousands of people at the convention and that “many of them approached the governor and asked to say hello and take a photo with him.”
Later in 2015, she attended Walker’s kickoff political rally in Wisconsin and a town hall for candidates in Las Vegas, where candidates Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Trump were speaking. She also helped arrange a meeting for Torshin in St. Petersburg with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who was visiting with a congressional delegation on a trip cited in court filings.
Butina was spotted in VIP areas at political events such as CPAC, giving her access to organization leaders and top staff, according to people who saw her there.
“Hello, I am Russian,” one veteran CPAC attendee recalled she told him as she introduced herself, quickly asking questions in accented but otherwise excellent English: “What do you do? Who do you back for president?”
The CPAC veteran, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation, recalled her as “friendly, curious and flirtatious.”
Daniel Schneider, the executive director of the American Conservative Union, which sponsors CPAC, said in an emailed statement that Butina “was never authorized to enter any greenroom or VIP reception. If she got in, she was snuck in, in violation of our rules and security protocols.” He said that the organization has “no association” with Erickson or Butina, and said that Erickson “was removed from the ACU Board for cause and has not been allowed to attend CPAC in recent years.”
According to people who met her, Butina often raised the issue of gun rights before asking to exchange business cards and to stay in touch on social media, according to people who met her.
“She was like a novelty,” said Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, who met Butina at a handful of conservative events in 2016. “She ran a gun rights group in Russia and, by definition, with the kind of repression under Putin, your assumption was that was kind of a revolutionary, radical thing.”
In a 2017 email to The Washington Post, Butina argued that her group was “not very popular” with Russian officials. She said she received no funding from the Russian government. “No government official has EVER approached me about ‘fostering ties’ with any Americans,” she wrote.
Igor Shmelyov, the chairman of the Russian group Butina founded, said her arrest came as a “great shock.”
“Maria is interested in guns, so of course her social circle is connected to this,” he said, adding that she interacted with supporters of the NRA and the Second Amendment Foundation because of that personal interest. “To say that all this means she was lobbying for Russian interests is rather ridiculous.”
But according to the FBI, she spoke frequently with a “high-level official in the Russian government” about her efforts to broker better ties between Russia and the United States. The description matches Torshin, who was among 17 senior Russian government officials penalized by the U.S. government in April for playing a role in advancing Russia’s “malign activities.” In March 2016, she emailed an American contact that Putin’s administration had expressed approval for her and Torshin’s efforts to build a “communication channel” in the U.S., according to court filings.
“Maria Butina is currently in the USA. She writes me that D. Trump (an NRA member) is truly in favor of cooperation with Russia,” Torshin tweeted in Russian in February 2016.
The following month, she emailed an American contact that Torshin had received approval from Putin’s administration for their efforts, according to court filings.
On the night of Trump’s election victory, the filings say, she messaged Torshin, “I’m going to sleep. It’s 3 a.m. here. I am ready for further orders.”
Erickson lobbied for a role in Trump’s transition team and complained after the election when he ran into a problem with his security clearance, according to people familiar with the situation.
Even without official credentials, he pressed Trump donors and former campaign officials, pushing for top positions for people he thought especially qualified. One person recalled his lobbying to get K.T. McFarland named as an adviser to Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser.
As scrutiny grew of Russian actions during the campaign, Butina’s work in her role as a graduate student at American University attracted notice as well. She sparked alarm at one Washington-area civil rights group in June 2017, when she asked to interview the group’s director about its vulnerability to cyberattacks for a school project.
“It was incredibly suspect activity,” said Jon Steinman, co-founder of HillCyber, a cybersecurity firm that consulted with the group. Steinman said he immediately contacted the FBI and was interviewed about the episode at length in January.
Driscoll, Butina’s attorney, said the inquiry was not surprising given that she was enrolled in a cybersecurity program. An American University spokesman confirmed that Butina graduated with a master’s degree in May but otherwise declined to comment.
With her degree in hand, Butina prepared to leave Washington for South Dakota this weekend. Then the FBI moved in.
This story has been updated.
Devlin Barrett and Robert Costa in Washington and Anton Troianovski in Moscow contributed to this report.