Hours after President Donald Trump publicly sided with Vladimir Putin over questions of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, the Justice Department announced the arrest of 29 year old Maria Butina, alleging that the Russian citizen violated U.S. law by engaging in a series of political activities involving members of one major political party and a U.S. gun rights organization.
“Butina worked at the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government,” the Justice Department said in a statement, charging she was tasked with “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 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,” the DOJ stated.
While the highly detailed FBI affidavit does not identify the particular political party or gun rights organization – all signs pointed to it being the Republican Party, and the National Rifle Association.
After entering the U.S. in August 2016 on a student visa, the 17 page affidavit basically says the only studying done by Maria Butina was of the U.S. political process, engaging in a conspiracy to exert influence in American politics, especially through her contacts with gun rights supporters.
The details also involve two unidentified Americans, one who Butina first contacted in Moscow around 2013, the other who was part of efforts to gather support for Russia within political circles in 2016 and 2017.
Much of the evidence came from documents, emails, and Twitter direct messages on Butina’s laptop, which was seized by authorities during the investigation.
But the FBI affidavit also seems to indicate that investigators have emails from one American linked to Butina – identified only as “U.S. Person 1.”
“I’ve been involved in security a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key POLITICAL PARTY 1 leaders through, of all conduits, the [GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION],” the communication read.
The FBI affidavit offers a variety of efforts to curry favor with Americans, at the National Prayer Breakfast, Russian-American “friendship” dinners, attending annual meetings of a national gun rights organization, and other political gatherings.
Butina’s work evidently also included an instance in 2015, when Butina was able to ask a question of President Trump at the “FreedomFest,” where Mr. Trump – the candidate – assured his audience that he wanted better relations with Moscow.
“Putin has no respect for President Obama,” Mr. Trump tells Butina, in this exchange.
While the charge against Butina was not brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office, the details of the inquiry dovetail with that investigation of illegal influence in the 2016 election, a probe which President Trump on Monday again labeled a ‘witch hunt.’