Beyond the N.R.A.: Maria Butina’s Peculiar Bid for Russian Influence

WASHINGTON — Twelve days after a younger Russian gun-rights activist gained entry to a few of America’s most distinguished conservatives, at a chic dinner close to the Capitol, a Republican operative was keen to maintain the momentum going.

In a February 2017 e mail, the operative, Paul Erickson, proposed one other “U.S./Russia friendship” dinner. He famous that the activist, Maria Butina, who now is accused of being a covert Russian agent, was making an “ever-expanding circle of influential friends.”

Ms. Butina, he wrote in the e mail, had simply met Susan Eisenhower, the granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, throughout a go to to Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. The Russian lady had additionally gotten to know the ex-wife of a grocery store inheritor, who had endowed an institute devoted to furthering American-Russian relations, and the “silky smooth” former Russian diplomat who ran it.

Then there was the recipient of the e mail, George O’Neill Jr., a Rockefeller relative and conservative author. He was serving to pay Ms. Butina’s payments, mentioned an individual aware of their relationship, and hoped to make her the centerpiece of his personal challenge to enhance America’s ties to Russia.

In bringing fees towards Ms. Butina, 29, final month, federal prosecutors described her actions as a part of a marketing campaign, supported by Russian intelligence, to make use of gun rights as a Trojan horse to make her means into conservative teams and advance Moscow’s pursuits in the United States.

While the charging paperwork deal with her alleged efforts to infiltrate the National Rifle Association, interviews with greater than two dozen individuals in Russia and the United States present that her makes an attempt at connecting with distinguished American conservatives prolonged past making inroads with the gun-rights group. The interviews, together with beforehand unreported emails obtained by The New York Times, additionally reveal new particulars about her ties to the two older American males she relied on to make her means in the United States: Mr. Erickson, with whom she struck up a romance, and Mr. O’Neill.

Prosecutors allege that the relationships have been nothing greater than autos for her work on behalf of Russia, citing messages by which she informed a Russian official all her actions could be “only incognito! Right now everything has to be quiet and careful.”

Yet for an alleged Russian agent funded by an oligarch, Ms. Butina hardly lived a lifetime of faux identities, secret communications and hidden allegiances.

The flame-haired graduate scholar at American University in Washington overtly advocated in speeches for Russia-friendly insurance policies and nearer ties between her homeland and the United States. She posted photos on Instagram of herself toting weapons and checked in on Facebook from places like Russia House, a caviar-slinging lounge in Washington. She consulted with the Outdoor Channel tv community for a present about searching in Russia. Her cellphone case was adorned with an image of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, driving a horse shirtless.

Ms. Butina’s defenders say she was an idealistic, if naïve, activist, and contend that Russians’ interactions with the N.R.A. have been makes an attempt at rapprochement that solely seem sinister when seen by way of an outdated Cold War lens.

“I’m just amazed that in today’s world, if you shake hands with a Russian, you must be an agent of the Kremlin,” mentioned David Keene, a former N.R.A. president, who met with Ms. Butina at conferences in Moscow and the United States.

While saying he discovered “nothing unusual” about her, Mr. Keene steered that there may have been extra to Ms. Butina and her visits to the United States than was obvious. “She did say that they pressured her occasionally to get information when she went home, which I’m sure was true,” he mentioned in a short interview, however didn’t elaborate.

Ms. Butina denies allegations that she was a covert agent and used sex as spycraft, in line with her lawyer, Robert Driscoll. He famous that she willingly testified earlier than the Senate Intelligence Committee in April, and didn’t flee the United States when the F.B.I. raided her condominium later that month.

“The government seems to be charging her with establishing relationships,” he added. “She’s pro-gun, fine. She’s not making the N.R.A. more pro-gun. She’s pro-U.S.-Russia relations — no surprise, she’s Russian.”

Three authorities officers informed The Times that Ms. Butina’s arrest stemmed from a counterintelligence investigation predating the 2016 election that has centered on a Russian authorities official, Aleksandr P. Torshin, who labored intently with Ms. Butina for years. Mr. Torshin, a former senator near Christian conservatives in Russia, has been attending N.R.A. conventions in the United States since 2011.

In Ms. Butina, Mr. Torshin discovered somebody adept at participating with highly effective conservatives. She snapped photos with distinguished Republicans, together with Scott Walker and different former presidential candidates. She had Thanksgiving dinner final yr at the nation house of Representative Mark Sanford, Republican of South Carolina. She befriended Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader, successful an invite to his weekly gathering of influential conservatives in Washington.

In an April 2016 e mail, she mentioned connecting a Russian nuclear scientist with Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California, who was visiting Russia at the time. Weeks earlier than the presidential election, she went with J. D. Gordon, a Trump marketing campaign aide, to see the rock band Styx.

She even managed to get a photograph with Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, whom she met at a 2016 dinner hosted by the N.R.A. in Louisville, Ky. Separately, she helped Mr. Torshin ship a message to the Trump marketing campaign proposing that Donald J. Trump meet President Putin (the marketing campaign turned them down).

“It was very clear that she was a networker and a bit of a name-dropper,” mentioned Ms. Eisenhower, who performed down her personal encounter with Ms. Butina. “She’s the kind of person — and you see them in Washington and all over the place — people who have to get their picture taken with anybody of any moderate importance.”

But it was Mr. Erickson and Mr. O’Neill — referred to in the indictment of Ms. Butina as U.S. Persons 1 and a pair of — whom she relied on most.

In the previous 4 years, roughly $89,000 moved between the American financial institution accounts of Mr. Erickson, the political operative, who couldn’t be reached for remark, and Ms. Butina’s Russian checking account, in line with information from the United States Treasury which might be being examined by Senate investigators. All informed, Treasury officers flagged as suspicious nearly $300,000 in transactions in and out of her Russian bank account.

Mr. O’Neill, the Rockefeller inheritor, who will not be accused of wrongdoing and who declined to remark for this text, met Ms. Butina at a conference for big-game hunters in Las Vegas. He has used his wealth to advocate a United States withdrawal from conflicts round the world and for higher relations with Russia, as he defined to Ms. Butina in a letter in April 2016.

“I have no other agenda,” he wrote.

Ms. Butina’s agenda, although, is now in query. Months later, in October 2016, she despatched Mr. Torshin a direct message on Twitter, telling him that her work with Mr. O’Neill was “currently ‘underground’ both here and there.”

But, she assured Mr. Torshin, “We made our bet. I am following our game.”

An ‘Inferior Girl’

It was a he-said, she-said scandal that divided a university campus. Ms. Butina claimed harassment by a male professor. He countered that she had supplied intercourse for a passing grade.

It occurred in 2009 in the Siberian area of Altai the place she grew up. The distant area was not an apparent launchpad for a younger lady whose ambitions went past operating her household’s small furnishings enterprise.

There, she discovered to hunt together with her father. In a speech years later, she referred vaguely to a childhood incident that made her really feel threatened, and implied that having had a gun may have made a distinction.

In Russian weblog posts, Ms. Butina expressed a resolve to beat being seen as “an inferior girl” in a male-dominated rural tradition, and make a reputation for herself in politics.

Her encounter with the faculty professor got here after he claimed she had cheated on a check and supplied to miss the infraction if she had intercourse with him, in line with her personal writings and native information accounts. She mentioned no and reported the professor to the administration, which fired him, solely to rehire him after he sued for reinstatement. For his half, he asserted that Ms. Butina had supplied sexual favors.

She cited the episode on social media over the years, as proof that girls should empower themselves. Mostly, she expressed anger that lots of her classmates took the professor’s aspect.

She had not been out of school lengthy when she introduced her intention to marketing campaign for native workplace with Mr. Putin’s ruling United Russia celebration, prompting some commenters on her weblog to accuse her of promoting out her beliefs. “Of course, I have no illusions about the existing regime in the country and the ruling party,” she responded, “but if I really want to change something for the better, then I have to try to do it in the only available version today — from within.”

Guns began out low on her platform, after taxes and jobs. But quickly they might be all she talked about.

Enter the Senator

By the finish of 2011, Ms. Butina had fashioned an advocacy group, Right to Bear Arms, and was giving speeches and organizing demonstrations. At an occasion in Moscow, activists introduced pots, pans and kitchen knives to indicate what little they needed to defend themselves with out weapons.

Mr. Torshin, 64, confirmed up with a horse whip. He and Ms. Butina struck up a friendship.

In Russia, Mr. Torshin is highly effective — the Treasury Department added him to a listing of sanctioned officers in April — however not a member of Mr. Putin’s internal circle. A Communist Party functionary in the late Soviet interval, he later served as deputy speaker of the higher home of Russia’s parliament, and was appointed deputy governor of the Russian central financial institution in 2015. He has additionally been accused by the Spanish authorities of laundering cash for the Russian mafia, fees he denies.

In the senate, Mr. Torshin sometimes championed causes seen as eccentric, equivalent to obligatory chemical castration for convicted pedophiles and legalizing handguns, a non-starter in a rustic that tightly restricts gun possession. “The Kremlin looked at this as his personal exotica,” mentioned Aleksei V. Makarkin, a political analyst in Moscow.

Ms. Butina turned an unpaid assistant to Mr. Torshin, in line with her résumé. Mr. Torshin would typically carry a bouquet of white lilies to their morning conferences, and he preferred to inform people who Ms. Butina shared a birthday with Mikhail T. Kalashnikov, inventor of the AK-47 rifle.

Mr. Torshin’s introduction to the N.R.A. got here by way of an unlikely go-between, a Nashville lawyer named G. Kline Preston IV, a Russophile who dabbled in Russian commerce and regulation. Mr. Preston mentioned he met Mr. Torshin by way of a Russian embassy official, whom he befriended after inviting the official to a Fabergé egg exhibition in Nashville in 2007.

Mr. Torshin ultimately requested Mr. Preston to attach him with leaders of the N.R.A., though Mr. Preston was not a member. After cold-calling the group’s headquarters, the lawyer lastly organized a gathering at a resort restaurant between Mr. Torshin and Mr. Keene, then the N.R.A. president, throughout the group’s nationwide conference in Pittsburgh in April 2011.

Later, Mr. Keene despatched Mr. Torshin a handwritten word pledging help for his efforts and welcoming him to the N.R.A.’s subsequent annual assembly. Mr. Torshin attended the subsequent 4.

A Special Project

In November 2013, Mr. Keene got here to Moscow to talk to Ms. Butina’s fledgling gun-rights group. Joining him was Mr. Erickson, who served with Mr. Keene on the board of the American Conservative Union.

Mr. Erickson, 56, had labored on dropping campaigns for right-wing candidates together with Pat Buchanan. He had additionally left a path of fraud lawsuits accusing him of peddling nugatory investments in oil fields and medical tools. Concern about his observe file prompted the A.C.U. to ask him to depart the board in 2014, mentioned Matt Schlapp, the group’s chairman.

Ms. Butina contacted Mr. Erickson round March 2015, looking for recommendation on utilizing her gun-rights advocacy to realize entry to the Republican Party forward of the 2016 election, prosecutors say.

In an e mail to Mr. Erickson, Ms. Butina famous that the N.R.A.’s deep pockets made it particularly influential in American elections. Mr. Erickson replied with a proposal to assist prepare conferences with “potential American contacts” and suggested her to get monetary backing for journey to the United States.

She despatched a proposal for $125,000 to cowl journey to the United States to a Russian oligarch, Konstantin Y. Nikolayev, a transport magnate whose spouse runs a Russian gun firm that Ms. Butina visited with an N.R.A. delegation in 2015, in line with an individual aware of the proposal. Mr. Nikolayev didn’t take up that deal, however funded a few of Ms. Butina’s journey in help of her gun-rights efforts, the individual mentioned. In a press release, Mr. Nikolayev mentioned he had not offered any monetary help since 2014.

A month later, Ms. Butina was in South Dakota, talking to school college students in Mr. Erickson’s hometown, Vermillion. She justified the want for gun rights in her nation with two arguments typically superior by Russian officers: that Western sanctions had weakened Russia’s economic system, inflicting extra crime, and that the Ukrainian struggle posed a risk.

She would go on to affix the N.R.A., attend at the least three of its conventions and get to know board members and three former presidents.

During their time collectively, Mr. Erickson and Ms. Butina started an intimate relationship, and he as soon as referred to her as “Miss Moscow” in an e mail. The F.B.I. mentioned she seen the relationship as “simply a necessary aspect of her activities,” citing paperwork by which she “expressed disdain” at having to stay with Mr. Erickson. The investigators additionally alleged that she supplied to have intercourse with another person “in exchange for a position with a special interest organization,” although they didn’t say when or the place the incident occurred.

Mr. Driscoll, her lawyer, mentioned at a courtroom listening to final month, “We have no idea what the government is talking about.”

Better Relations

With Mr. Erickson opening doorways, Ms. Butina met with conservatives round Washington. Some of the classes have been organized by Mr. O’Neill, who as soon as in contrast America’s nationwide safety institution to the “wickedness” of the Soviet Union.

In emails with Mr. O’Neill in early 2016, in line with federal prosecutors, Ms. Butina talked about “building this communication channel” for what she termed “our Russian-American project.”

Other messages obtained by The Times counsel a familiarity between the two. “Are you coming to Florida at the end of the week?” he wrote on April 11, 2016. “We just acquired another big tractor, which you will have fun driving.”

In an e mail with a reporter final yr, Mr. O’Neill mentioned “any clear-thinking person” ought to perceive the advantages of higher relations with Russia. “One does not have to be a ‘useful idiot’ or a ‘Putin stooge’ to hold this view, nor does one have to approve of all of Russia’s or Putin’s actions, which can sometimes be problematic.”

In Mr. Trump, he and Ms. Butina discovered a candidate who shared their views. In July 2015, Ms. Butina asked Mr. Trump about financial sanctions towards Russia throughout his look at FreedomFest, a libertarian convention in Las Vegas. Mr. Trump responded that, as president, he “would get along very nicely with Putin.”

When Mr. Trump emerged as the Republican front-runner, Ms. Butina and Mr. Torshin tapped their American contacts, hoping to rearrange a gathering between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin.

In May 2016 Rick Clay, a conservative Christian activist from West Virginia, emailed a Trump marketing campaign aide, looking for to arrange a Trump-Putin assembly. As a primary step, Mr. Clay suggested that Mr. Torshin, who was looking for the assembly on Mr. Putin’s behalf, meet Mr. Trump at the N.R.A. conference in Louisville.

In an interview, Mr. Clay mentioned the proposal was relayed to him by a longtime buddy, Johnny Yenason, of the Military Warriors Support Foundation, who had attended a Russian National Prayer Breakfast that yr the place Mr. Torshin spoke. Mr. Yenason couldn’t be reached for remark.

“It had everything to do with Christian values and putting two peoples together who had the same ideas,” Mr. Clay mentioned. “At least, we thought that they did at the time.”

The assembly between Mr. Torshin and Mr. Trump by no means occurred. But that didn’t dampen Ms. Butina’s enthusiasm for his candidacy.

As the November 2016 election outcomes got here in, Ms. Butina excitedly posted a message about Mr. Trump’s victory on a Russian social media web site: “A supporter of the rights to arms and the restoration of relations with Russia. Congratulate everyone!”

Privately, in line with courtroom filings, she messaged Mr. Torshin, saying it was three a.m. and she or he was going to mattress.

“I’m ready for further orders,” she mentioned.


A caption in an earlier model of this text misidentified a person pictured with Maria Butina and Donald Trump Jr. at a 2016 N.R.A. dinner. It is Pete Brownell, not Aleksandr Torshin.

Follow Matthew Rosenberg, Mike McIntire, Michael LaForgia, Andrew E. Kramer and Elizabeth Dias on Twitter: @AllMattNYT, @mmcintire, @laforgia_, @AndrewKramerNYT and @elizabethjdias

Matthew Rosenberg reported from Washington; Mike McIntire, Michael LaForgia and Elizabeth Dias from New York; and Andrew E. Kramer from Moscow. Reporting was contributed by Jahd Khalil in South Dakota, and Catie Edmondson and Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks in Washington.

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