Who Is Maria Butina? NRA Activist Charged With Conspiracy to Act as a Russian Agent and Influence U.S. Politics

The same day President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and suggested that he believed Russia’s claim that it did not interfere in the 2016 presidential elections, the Justice Department indicted another Russian for attempting to influence U.S. politics.  

Maria Butina, a 29-year-old Russian woman who lives in Washington, D.C., was arrested on Sunday and charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian government, according to a criminal complaint unsealed Monday.

“While serving as Special Assistant to an official of the Russian Federation, Butina would meet in person and communicate via electronic means with that official for the purpose of developing and executing a plan to identify and exploit personal connections with U.S. persons having influence in American politics who were in positions to advance the interests of the Russian Federation,” the complaint reads.

Butina is a well-known activist with the National Rifle Association (NRA) and is closely linked with Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican figure who said he was an adviser for Trump’s transition team. She is also an assistant to Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank who requested an interview with Trump at the NRA’s 2016 convention. Torshin did not secure a meeting with then-candidate Trump, but he did meet briefly with Donald Trump Jr. It is still unknown what the two men discussed, but the president’s son has said the conversation was inconsequential.

The indictment does not name Torshin, but he is widely believed to be the unnamed Russian official mentioned. He maintained a longstanding relationship with Butina, who was enrolled as a graduate student at the American University in Washington and recently graduated with a master's degree in international relations. 

Butina later reportedly bragged that she had put members of the Trump campaign in touch with the Kremlin. Both Torshin and Butina have allegedly been involved with the GOP since 2015, and experts say that the case against Butina is likely related to Russia’s attempts to infiltrate the Republican Party through the NRA.

The pro-gun association contributed at least $30 million to the Trump campaign. The Senate Judiciary Committee requested documents related to Russia and the NRA in late 2017. Several months later, reports revealed that the FBI was also looking into whether Torshin, an ally of Putin, was funneling money into the NRA that was later directed to the Trump campaign. No charges have been brought against Torshin yet, but he is currently under U.S. sanctions. 

On Friday, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officials for allegedly hacking into the computer servers of Hillary Clinton when she was running for president in 2016. Mueller’s team has been investigating whether the Trump campaign collaborated with Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 election, including through hacking Democratic Party officials.

Despite the unanimous conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that the Russian government ordered the interference in the election, Trump has continued to cast doubt on the findings and suggested that he believed Putin more than his own aides. Monday’s press conference with Putin was widely criticized by analysts and former government officials in Washington.

Butina will remain in custody until her court hearing, scheduled for July 18.