Russian ‘agent’ held on charges of seeking to infiltrate US govt

Maria Butina. (REUTERS)
Updated 19 July 2018
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Russian ‘agent’ held on charges of seeking to infiltrate US govt

  • Maria helped arrange visits by Torshin and other Russian officials to major political events
  • The arrest was announced Monday hours after Trump finished a summit and a press conference with Putin in Helsinki

WASHINGTON: A Russian gun rights enthusiast who built a network of powerful Republican contacts under the direction of a Kremlin power-broker was ordered held without bond Wednesday after FBI counterintelligence agents accused her of conspiring to infiltrate the US government.
US prosecutors said Maria Butina, 29, exploited her close links with the powerful NRA gun lobby while posing as a visiting graduate student to endear herself with senior Republicans, guided by one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s major political supporters, Alexander Torshin.
Butina was charged in the Washington federal court with acting illegally as an unregistered agent for the Russian government while she lived in Washington over the past three years with her boyfriend, a veteran Republican operative.
They called Butina a “covert Russian agent” who maintained contacts with Russian spies and pursued a mission “to penetrate the US national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation.”
That included offering sex to get a job in a US lobbying group, according to documents filed in court by the Department of Justice.
Butina pleaded not guilty to two criminal charges of conspiring to act as a foreign agent without registering, and acting as a foreign agent. The first charge brings a maximum five years in prison, while the second carries a maximum 10 years.
“This is not a spy case,” her lawyer Robert Driscoll said after Butina appeared in court in an orange jumpsuit.
“The government is speculating that someone is a Russian spy, but thousands of Russians met intelligence operatives” in the United States, he said.

Butina’s arrest Sunday added to the political turmoil in Washington over Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election and allegations that President Donald Trump’s campaign collaborated with the Russians.
The arrest was announced Monday hours after Trump finished a summit and a press conference with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, where the US leader rejected the US intelligence community’s verdict that the Russians meddled to support him over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 race.
Trump reversed that stance a day later under heavy attack from US politicians of both parties.
FBI agents described a long-term operation stretching back as far as 2011 when Torshin met then-National Rifle Association president David Keene and Butina launched a mirror Russian gun rights group named The Right to Bear Arms.
She befriended the Republican operative, unnamed in the indictment but widely identified as Paul Erickson, 56, who opened doors to NRA and Republican circles.
Butina began visiting the United States and was regularly hosted by the NRA and other groups, and became a “life member” of the American gun rights lobby.
Pictures of her meeting prominent Republican governors and congressman, and the powerful leaders of the NRA, are splashed across her social media accounts.
In July 2015, Butina was selected to ask Trump a question about his plans for ties with Russia at a rally in Las Vegas.
“I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin.... I don’t think you’d need the sanctions,” he said, in possibly his first campaign trail pronouncement on the issue.
Her activities ramped up after she moved to the US capital on a student visa in 2016, attending American University graduate school while she lived with Erickson.
Hardly masking her networking efforts, she told colleagues at the school that she had a nearly direct line to Putin.
She helped arrange visits by Torshin and other Russian officials to major political events like the National Prayer Breakfast, as they sought to construct a “back channel” with sympathetic, influential Americans.
Meanwhile Erickson, citing his Russian connections, tried to arrange a meeting between Putin and Trump in early 2016.
And that year Butina reportedly met Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. at a private dinner in Louisville, Kentucky during the NRA annual convention.

The FBI’s investigation of Butina began before the probe led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and the indictment did not involve Mueller’s team.
But the two investigations clearly overlapped, and Butina has already been interviewed by the Senate committee studying Russian meddling.
On Wednesday Moscow said the arrest was a political move seeking undermine the gains of the Helsinki summit.
“This happened with the obvious task of minimizing the positive effect,” of the Trump-Putin meeting, said foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
“There is an impression the FBI is simply carrying out a clearly political order,” she said.


US media: Trump Lawyer Cohen reaches plea deal with prosecutors

Updated 33 min 1 sec ago
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US media: Trump Lawyer Cohen reaches plea deal with prosecutors

  • Michael Cohen, 51, was to appear in federal court in Manhattan on Tuesday afternoon
  • Reports say prosecutors were focused on more than $20 million in loans obtained by Cohen from taxi businesses

NEW YORK: US President Donald Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen has entered into a plea agreement with federal prosecutors in New York, on campaign finance violations, bank fraud and tax evasion, news media outlets reported.
Cohen, 51, was to appear in federal court in Manhattan on Tuesday afternoon, a court official told Reuters.
News that Cohen had entered into a plea agreement followed a reports he was discussing a deal with prosecutors.
A plea bargain could increase legal risks for the president, as it raises the possibility that Cohen will provide information to US Special Counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign.
Trump has repeatedly denied any collusion and has called the Mueller investigation a witch hunt. Russia has denied meddling in the election. US intelligence agencies have concluded Moscow interfered.
Cohen was part of Trump's inner circle for more than a decade, working as his personal attorney at the Trump Organization and continuing to advise the president after the election. But their relationship has frayed in recent months.
Lanny Davis, a lawyer for Cohen, declined to comment. Cohen and another of his lawyers, Guy Petrillo, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the earlier reports.
The probe is being led by the office of US Attorney Geoffrey Berman in Manhattan.
Federal agents had seized documents and files from Cohen in April that stemmed from a referral from Mueller's office.
Cohen once said he would "take a bullet" for Trump, but their relationship has deteriorated since the April FBI raid on Cohen's office, hotel room and home.
The New York Times reported on Sunday that federal prosecutors were focused on more than $20 million in loans obtained by Cohen from taxi businesses owned by him and his family.
The loans are part of the investigation into whether Cohen committed bank and tax fraud, and for possible campaign law violations linked to a $130,000 payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels.
Mueller's investigation, which began in May 2017, has resulted in the indictment of more than 30 people and five guilty pleas.
Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, is on trial in Alexandria, Virginia, for 18 counts of financial crimes resulting from the Mueller probe. The jury in his case was in its fourth day of deliberations on Tuesday.