Meet Maria Butina - the Russian spy who just upended the NRA and conservative religious organizations

Meet Maria Butina  -  the Russian spy who just upended the NRA and conservative religious organizations

Russian spy Maria Butina has entered a guilty plea in federal court, admitting to conspiracy against the United States on behalf of the Russian government. According to federal prosecutors, the 30-year-old Butina—who has been in jail without bail since being arrested in July—infiltrated the Republican Party and the National Rifle Association (NRA) in order to share information with Alexander Torshin, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and former deputy governor of Russia’s central bank. 

A hearing was set for February 2019 to discuss a sentencing date for Butina, who faces a maximum of five years in prison and will likely be deported back to Russia after serving her time. Butina’s attorneys, however, have requested a more lenient sentence of no more than six months—and she has agreed to fully cooperate with prosecutors. 

Here are five interesting facts about Butina’s history.

1. Butina Is an ally of Russian politician Alexander Torshin

Butina, according to prosecutors, has worked closely with Alexander Torshin—a prominent figure in United Russia, the political party that Vladimir Putin belongs to. 

Torshin was her political mentor, offering advice on her work with Russia’s pro-gun organization Right to Bear Arms. Torshin is a controversial figure in Europe, to say the least. 

In Spain, federal law enforcement has investigated Torshin for alleged money laundering and working with Alexander Romanov, who the Spanish Civil Guard has alleged to be a figure in Russia’s Taganskaya crime syndicate. Spanish authorities, according to El País (Spain’s leading newspaper), had Torshin under close surveillance during his visits to Mallorca in 2013 and wiretapped his conversations with Romanov—although Torshin has vehemently denied having anything more than a casual acquaintance with Romanov and doing anything illegal in Spain or anywhere else. And Spanish law enforcement has shared the Torshin/Romanov wiretaps with the FBI. 

When Yahoo News asked José Grinda (a high-ranking federal prosecutor in Spain) about Donald Trump, Jr.’s meetings with Torshin, Grinda replied, “Mr. Trump’s son should be concerned.

2. Butina has been romantically involved with GOP activist Paul Erickson

Paul Erickson, Butina’s boyfriend, is a veteran GOP activist who served as campaign manager for Patrick Buchanan’s 1992 presidential run (Buchanan challenged President George H.W. Bush in a GOP primary and lost) and also worked on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2012. Erickson has been heavily involved in the National Rifle Association (NRA), which is how he met Butina—the FBI alleges that she used Erickson’s political connections to infiltrate the NRA and the GOP on behalf of the Russian government. In September, Erickson (who has been visiting Butina in jail) received a letter from federal law enforcement informing him that he could be charged with acting as a foreign agent.

3. Butina was a gun rights activist in Russia

Russia has very strict gun control laws—much stricter than the United States—and Butina has been heavily involved in a group called Right to Bear Arms, which was founded in 2012 and considers itself a Russian equivalent of the NRA. Along with Torshin, Butina established an alliance between the NRA and Right to Bear Arms. In 2015, those who attended a Right to Bear Arms convention in Russia included Butina, Erickson, David Keene (the NRA’s president at the time) and Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke.

4. Butina tried to arrange a meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in 2015/2016

Donald Trump didn’t actually meet Vladimir Putin in person until July 2017, but Butina hoped to bring them together in 2015 or 2016. Butina’s first interaction with Trump came in 2015 at the FreedomFest event: when Butina asked for the presidential candidate’s views on U.S./Russia relations and the Obama Administration’s policy of sanctions against Russia, Trump responded that if elected president, he would favor better relations with the Russian Federation and President Putin. However, Butina’s efforts to arrange an in-person Trump/Putin meeting in 2015 or 2016 were unsuccessful. And she also tried, unsuccessfully, to bring Trump and Torshin together at the May 2016 NRA convention.

5. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs asserted that Butina’s arrest was meant to undermine the ‘positive results’ of the Helsinki summit

On July 18, after Butina had been arrested, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs asserted that her arrest was designed to undermine the “positive results” of President Trump’s meeting with Putin at the Helsinki Summit. Trump’s meeting with Putin that month inspired very different reactions on the right: the alt-right cheered Trump’s positive rapport with the Russian president, while Sen. John McCain angrily lambasted Trump for being so favorable to someone he considered a tyrant. 

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