The Slatest

How Russia’s Mariia Butina Allegedly Used Sex to “Infiltrate” the Republican Party and NRA (Update: Prosecutors Retract One Sex-Related Claim)

Butina, seated, holds a microphone at a press conference.
Mariia Butina in Moscow in 2013. STR/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, a grand jury indicted a 29-year-old Russian national named Mariia Butina (the extra i is not a typo) for what a previously filed FBI affidavit had described as a yearslong plan to “infiltrate” an unnamed gun-rights group (which is identifiable as the National Rifle Association) and gain influence with an unnamed political party (which is identifiable as the Republican Party). On Wednesday, prosecutors filed a motion arguing that Butina, who has been arrested, should be detained while awaiting trial. That motion includes two new pieces of information that add significantly to what had previously been a fairly thin public case that Butina was engaged in particularly sinister activity: first, that she has contacts with Russia’s FSB intelligence agency, and second, that she manipulated her main Republican ally by sleeping with him while also attempting to trade sex for influence with another individual at an unnamed special-interest group. (Update, Sept. 10: The government later retracted the sex allegation.)

Butina, accounts given by the government and in previous reporting by Rolling Stone and the Daily Beast indicate, worked in a sort of in-between space between being a legitimate lobbyist and a full-on covert spy. She used her real name and kept a LinkedIn profile that documented her past work for Russia’s central bank and her role in a Russian gun-rights group called the Right to Bear Arms; the page also notes that she was at one point an assistant to Russian official Alexander Torshin, who appears to have been her liaison to the Kremlin once she began working in the U.S. The grand-jury indictment says that Butina lied on a 2016 visa application by asserting that her professional relationship with Torshin had ended, but even so they appear to have made little subsequent attempt to conceal their connection—both, for example, attended the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast in D.C.

Butina also actively sought a media profile, discussing her gun-rights group in a Russian GQ profile accompanied by a high-fashion photo shoot. She posted pictures of herself with NRA execs and Republican politicians like Scott Walker on social media, and, in July 2015, asked presidential candidate Donald Trump a question at a public event in Las Vegas. Much of her work in the U.S. appears to have been similar to what many aboveboard lobbyists do: The FBI affidavit describes her attending conferences, seeking introductions to influential individuals, and setting up meetings between Americans and Russians in order to promote Russian interests. At one point, the affidavit quotes from an email in which Butina describes her work as “informal diplomacy” on behalf of the Russian government.

One catch, though, is that she wasn’t registered with the federal government to do these things, which American law requires. Butina is, thus far, charged with two crimes: Acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government and conspiring to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign government.* And Wednesday’s filing suggests that what she was engaged in went beyond informal off-books lobbying. For one, there’s the connection to Russian intelligence:

The defendant maintained contact information for individuals identified as employees of the Russian FSB, the Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsii, the main successor agency to the USSR’s Committee of State Security, the KGB. For example, in the defendant’s electronic contact list, there was an email account listed at an FSB-associated domain. Another document uncovered during the execution of a search warrant contained a hand-written note, entitled “Maria’s ‘Russian Patriots In-Waiting’ Organization,” and asking “How to respond to FSB offer of employment?” … Additionally, FBI surveillance observed Butina in the company of a Russian diplomat in the weeks leading up to that official’s departure from the United States in March 2018. That Russian diplomat, with whom Butina was sharing a private meal, was suspected by the United States Government of being a Russian intelligence officer. 

And then there’s the sex stuff. This paragraph from Wednesday’s filing is going to be a harsh read for Paul Erickson, a 56-year-old Republican operative who, among other things, was the national political director of Pat Buchanan’s nationalist, proto-Trumpian 1992 presidential campaign. Erickson reportedly helped Butina make connections within the NRA and GOP and was previously reported to have been in a romantic relationship with her (Update: This is the allegation that the government has withdrawn):

During the course of this investigation, the FBI has determined that Butina gained access through U.S. Person 1 to an extensive network of U.S. persons in positions to influence political activities in the United States. Butina, age 29, and U.S. Person 1, age 56, are believed to have cohabitated and been involved in a personal relationship during the course of Butina’s activities in the United States. But this relationship does not represent a strong tie to the United States because Butina appears to treat it as simply a necessary aspect of her activities. For example, on at least one occasion, Butina offered an individual other than U.S. Person 1 sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization. Further, in papers seized by the FBI, Butina complained about living with U.S. Person 1 and expressed disdain for continuing to cohabitate with U.S. Person 1.

(To be clear, the “special interest organization” referred to here is not necessarily the NRA; Butina also had contact with other groups.)

Erickson and Butina’s work together is where her story ties into other ongoing national narratives involving the relationship between Russia and the right-wing movement in the U.S. Per the Washington Post, Butina and Erickson met when she and Torshin hosted NRA executives and other Americans at a conference in Moscow in 2013 ; Butina subsequently attended a number of right-wing events in the U.S., including NRA conventions and the Conservative Political Action Conference, as a VIP. In 2016, Torshin—who, remember, is accused of being what you might call Butina’s “handler”—met with Donald Trump Jr. at a private dinner during the NRA’s annual convention in Kentucky. And per a previous filing, Erickson at one point bragged in an email that he had “been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [Republican] leaders through, of all conduits, the [NRA].”

There’s still much that we don’t know about Butina’s alleged spy work, such as whether she and/or Torshin have any further contact with the Trump campaign besides his dinner with Don Jr., or whether or not Butina and Erickson used their connections to achieve any specific Russia-friendly policy goals. Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation was not involved in Butina’s arrest, but it’s reportedly investigating whether Torshin funneled Russian money to the NRA for use in the 2016 campaign. In other words: Stay tuned, because this could end up being a lot of fun under a certain bleak definition of fun that involves the exposure of corrupt collaboration between the U.S. government and a foreign white-nationalist autocracy!

Correction, July 25: This post originally stated in error that Butina is accused of violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act. She is in fact accused of violating a similar but distinct statute, 18 U.S.C. § 951, that involves failing to register as an agent of a foreign government. (The distinction between 951 and FARA is so fine that a Department of Justice inspector general report from 2016 found confusion about it within the DOJ itself.)

Read more from Slate:
Mariia Butina’s Cozy Relationship With the Christian Right Makes Total Sense
The Most Explosive Revelation From the Charges Against Mariia Butina
Nothing Trump Says Can Be Trusted
Trump Is Not Appeasing Putin. What He’s Doing Is Much Worse.