Today brought yet another twist in the ongoing investigation of Russian efforts to influence American politics. Here’s the New York Times:
A Russian woman who tried to broker a pair of secret meetings between candidate Donald J. Trump and the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, during the 2016 presidential campaign, was charged Monday and accused of working with Americans to carry out a secret Russian effort to influence American politics.
Working at the behest of a Russian government official and with help from an unidentified American political operative, the woman, Mariia Butina, worked to infiltrate American organizations as a way to secretly advance Russian interests, prosecutors said.
The charges, filed under seal on Saturday and unsealed today, allege that Butina worked for years as an undisclosed foreign agent of the Russian government, using American contacts to try to develop “back-channel” lines of communications with Russians government officials. In an affidavit, the DOJ claimed “these lines could be used by the Russian federation to penetrate the U.S. national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian federation. According to the affidavit, Butina worked closely with a specific American, identified only as U.S. Person 1, to “plan and develop the contours of the influence operation.”
I’d encourage you to read the entire affidavit to understand the charges, but the short version is that Butina attempted to use the close relationship between the GOP and what the affidavit calls simply a “gun rights organization” (almost certainly the NRA) to attempt to cultivate relationships with politicians and others who impact American foreign policy towards Russia. She not only attended NRA events, she also attended two National Prayer Breakfasts and worked diligently to facilitate contacts between GOP officials and the Kremlin. Indeed, U.S. Person 1 bragged in an email, “Unrelated to specific presidential campaigns, I’ve been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [POLITICAL PARTY 1] leaders through, of all conduits, the [GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION].”
Butina was an enthusiastic presence in the American gun-rights community. She claimed to be interested in advancing gun rights in Russia and said she represented a group called “Right to Bear Arms.” The most cursory Internet search shows picture after picture of her posing with various luminaries in the NRA, including Wayne LaPierre and former NRA president David Keene. So far there is no evidence that any of these NRA officials knew of Butina’s true agenda.
U.S. Person 1 hasn’t been identified, but the New York Times (and many other outlets) have “previously reported that Ms. Butina developed a close relationship with Paul Erickson, an N.R.A. member and longtime conservative activist who was part of the effort to arrange a meeting between Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump. Ms. Butina has publicly described hosting Mr. Erickson at an event in Moscow.”
Full disclosure: I know Erickson a little bit. I interacted with him on a friendly basis five years ago after I received the Ronald Reagan Award at CPAC and before that during the Romney campaign. He’s a relatively well-known figure in Republican circles.
There are a few key takeaways from today’s news:
First, Butina’s operation predates the Trump campaign. Back in March 2014, Butina emailed U.S. Person 1 and projected that the GOP would “likely obtain control over the U.S. government after the 2016 election.” Moreover, she said that party is “traditionally associated with negative and aggressive foreign policy, particularly with regards to Russia.” She identified the NRA’s significance in Republican politics and hoped to exploit that influence to gain relationships.
Second, the affidavit provides the clearest example yet of an American working knowingly and willingly with a Russian operative to advance Russian interests. U.S. Person 1 enthusiastically cooperated with a project that had nothing to do with advancing Russian gun rights and everything to do with facilitating her access to key Republican leaders.
Third, don’t jump to conclusions about the NRA’s role in Butina’s scheme. There are those who will read Twitter or skim headlines and immediately leap to the conclusion that “the NRA was facilitating a Russian intelligence operation” or that the “NRA helped a Russian agent” without considering that there’s a difference between exploitation and cooperation. So far it appears that she worked with U.S. Person 1 to exploit the NRA’s connections to the GOP. Any claim of cooperation is way ahead of the evidence.
Finally, it’s worth saying this after each new revelation in the ongoing series of Russia investigations (interestingly, this indictment didn’t come from the special counsel’s office but instead from DOJ national-security prosecutors), there is much we still don’t know about Russian efforts to influence American politics and about American participation in Russian plans. It’s frustrating to stand by and analyze the drip, drip of each new indictment, but it’s still necessary to wait before we pass judgment on the full extent of Russian perfidy and potential American complicity.