The Justice Department on Monday charged that a Russian woman acted as an illegal agent of Moscow to influence U.S. politicians and advocacy groups, including the National Rifle Association.
Her alleged crime was failing to register with the U.S Justice Department as required as a foreign operative. Her mission: try to influence the Barack Obama administration and then the Trump government.
Maria Butina, 29, was a protege of Alexander Torshin, a U.S.-sanctioned Russian banker who joined the National Rifle Association and had a brief encounter with Donald Trump Jr. during the election at an NRA event. Mr. Torshin was her mentor and Moscow handler, according to messages the FBI gleaned from her laptop and phone.
Both Mr. Torshin and Ms. Butina are lifetime NRA members. She presented herself on social media as a gun-loving hunter.
There is no allegation of Ms. Butina affecting any specific law or policy. Her attorney denied she is a Russian agent.
Her activities as described by an FBI agent appear akin to the role of a schmoozing a foreign diplomat. She attended the National Prayer Breakfast, went to political events, organized dinners, invited the NRA to Moscow and used the NRA to meet political figures.
She didn’t hide her identity as a Russian national. But she did conceal that she was an agent of Moscow and posed as a college student at American University, according to the FBI.
She was able to acquire tickets to the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast and invited Russians handpicked by Mr. Torshin. She told an American contact, “They are coming to establish a back channel of communications.”
Mr. Torshin, a confidant of Vladimir Putin and a suspect in bank crimes in Spain, nearly scored a face-to-face with President Trump before the breakfast. An aide discovered Mr. Torshin’s legal problems and the greeting was canceled.
Her stated goal in Twitter messages was to help repair fractured U.S.-Moscow relations in the wake of Mr. Putin’s invasion of Crimea.
The charge was brought by the U.S. attorney for D.C., not special counsel Robert Mueller. He is investigating whether Trump campaign people coordinated with Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election. Last week, he brought indictments against 12 Russian military officers who did the actual hacking into Democratic Party computers.
The FBI raided her apartment last spring, seizing her laptop and cell phone.
FBI special agent Kevin Helson said in an affidavit that Ms. Butina met an unidentified American and political operative in Moscow in 2013. This person worked with her to infiltrate the NRA “for the purpose of advancing the agenda of the Russian Federation,” the agent said.
She also interacted with a second American in 2016-17 to arrange a series of dinners in D.C. and New York City.
The affidavit said Ms. Butina and the official sought to establish ties to American politicians and influence the government’s decision-making process.
One of their operations begun in 2015 was to ingratiate themselves to the NRA and use those associations to make contact with Republicans who support the gun rights group.
She requested a budget of $125,000 to participate in Republicans “all upcoming major conferences.”
The FBI agent identifies the party only as “political party 1.” But Republicans have a close associations with the NRA whose political action committee donates to GOP advocates.
Person No. 1 sent her an email in 2015 outlining his strategy for her that made clear she would identity herself as a Russia advocate.
“There is no limit as to how many American companies that you can meet — at the highest levels — if you are able to represent that you are a potential line of communications in future Russian Federation governments,” he said.
The NRA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Torshin told her in a Twitter message that she “prevented a conflict between two great nations” by having NRA officials visit Moscow.
She attended the 2016 and 2017 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington.
The FBI agent said all the messaging amounted to Ms. Butina acting as “an illegal agent of the Russian
She told Mr. Torshin in 2016 message, “Oh well. I am just starting in this field. I still have to learn and learn from you! These are not just words! Harsh and impetuous moves will ruin everything early.”
The Russian replied, “this is hard to teach. Patience and cold blood+faith in yourself. And everything will definitely turn out.”
Robert Driscoll, Ms. Butina’s attorney, rebutted the charges, saying his client is not a Russian agent and had cooperated with Congress and the FBI.
“There is simply no indication of Butina seeking to influence or undermine any specific policy or law or the United States — only at most to promote a better relationship between the two nations,” Driscoll told Bloomberg.
Ms. Butina has previously surfaced in U.S. media reports related to her gun-rights advocacy.
In 2011, she founded a pro-gun organization in Russia, the Right to Bear Arms, and she has been involved in coordinating between American gun rights activists and their Russian counterparts, according to reports in The New York Times, Time and the Daily Beast.
Ms. Butina hosted several leading NRA executives and pro-gun conservatives at her group’s annual meeting in 2015, according to those reports. Among those who attended were former NRA President David Keene, who at the time was opinion editor of The Washington Times, conservative political operative Paul Erickson and former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, later a strong Trump supporter.
• This story is based in part on wire service dispatches.