US charges Russian national with being a foreign agent

The Justice Department charged a Russian national who, along with her mentor, aimed to set up backchannel communications between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, with conspiring against the US as a secret agent.

Mariia Butina, also known as Maria, who was involved with a Russian gun group that the National Rifle Association was supportive of, was arrested on Sunday and appeared in court in Washington, DC to Monday, according to the Justice Department.

The arrest is the latest dizzying development related to Russia in recent days and revealed only about three hours after President Donald Trump’s press conference in Helsinki in which he shocked the world by siding with Vladimir Putin rather than his own intelligence agencies regarding election meddling by Russia’s spy agencies in 2016.

The charges were filed by prosecutors from the Justice Department’s national security division. They came just three days after special counsel Robert Mueller’s office Friday indicted 12 members of Russia’s military intelligence service the GRU over a hacking and influence operation.

Butina, 29, has been cooperating with various government authorities “for months regarding public allegations related to her contacts with various American and Russian individuals” and “months ago” voluntarily testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee for eight hours, her attorney, Robert N. Driscoll, said in a statement Monday.

Driscoll denied that Butina was “an agent of the Russian Federation,” calling her instead of a recent graduate of American University in Washington “with a Masters Degree in International Relations and a 4.0 grade point average.”

The NRA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Butina has previously said her outreach to American political operatives was purely out of a shared passion for firearms. She told The Washington Post in April 2017 that “no government official has ever approached me about ‘fostering ties’ with any Americans.”

American University officials confirmed to CNN earlier this year that in fall 2016, Butina enrolled in the school’s graduate program for international affairs. Her LinkedIn page says she graduated this spring with a near-perfect GPA.

Driscoll said Butina had produced thousands of documents to the Senate panel and has offered through counsel to interview with Mueller’s office, “which has not expressed interest.”

Mueller’s office declined to comment on whether it office was involved in the investigation of Butina or made the referral on Butina to the National Security Division and Washington US Attorney’s Office.

Over a dozen FBI agents executed a search warrant at Butina’s Washington apartment in April, her lawyer said.

Driscoll called the substance of the charge levied against her in the complaint unsealed Monday “overblown.” He protested her Sunday arrest as made “without prior notice to counsel” and after multiple offers to assist the Justice Department, who did not “avail itself of that opportunity.”

“There is simply no indication of Butina seeking to influence or undermine any specific policy or law [of] the United States — only at most to promote a better relationship between the two nations,” Driscoll said.

Worked for a high-level Russian official

The Justice Department says Butina worked at the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government. The official was not formally named in the indictment but appears to be Alexander Torshin, who was previously a member of the Russian legislature and was later a top official at the Central Bank of Russia. The Treasury Department sanctioned Torshin in April 2018 as part of an effort to punish the Russian government for “malign activity” around the world.

Torshin also fostered extensive ties with gun-rights groups in the United States and tried to use his contacts to arrange a meeting with candidate Donald Trump during the campaign. There is no evidence that Torshin ever met Trump, but he crossed paths with Donald Trump Jr. during the 2016 NRA convention in Louisville, Kentucky.

Trump Jr. testified to lawmakers last year that he briefly met Torshin at a dinner with a few dozen officials from the NRA. Trump Jr. said they spoke for only “a few minutes” and did not talk about colluding with the Russian government.

Exchange with Trump in 2015

In July 2015 Butina attended the FreedomFest Convention where she asked Donald Trump a question about the then-candidate’s foreign policy.

Butina noted she was visiting from Russia and went on to inquire about what Trump’s relationship with Russia would be if he were elected president.

“If you would be elected as the president, what will be your foreign politics, especially in the relationships with my country? And do you want to continue the politics of sanctions that are damaging of both economy? Or you have any other ideas?” Butina asks.

“Obama gets along with nobody. The whole world hates us,” Trump responded.

Trump later said he knows the Russian president.

“I know Putin and I’ll tell you what, we get along with Putin. Putin has no respect for President Obama. Big problem, big problem,” Trump said. “And Russia has been driven — you know I’ve always heard for years I’ve heard one of the worst things that can happen to our country is if Russia ever gets driven to China. We have driven them together with the big oil deals that are being made. We’ve driven them together. That’s a horrible thing for this country. We have made them friends because of incompetent leadership.”

Russian official: country will protect Butina

Konstantin Kosachev, head of Federation Council (the upper house of the Russian parliament) Foreign Affairs committee told state news agency RIA Novosti, “If her Russian citizenship is confirmed, the Russian Federation will protect Butina.”

Kosachev has stressed that the Americans are obliged to officially notify the Russian side about the detention, and it is not yet clear whether this has been done. “If not, this is yet another violation of international obligations by the Americans,” he said.

Kosachev chalked up the indictment and its timing, hours after Trump-Putin summit in Finland, to an anti-Russian conspiracy by US foreign policy hawks and intelligence agencies.

By David Shortell, Marshall Cohen and Adam Levine, CNN