Washington • A Russian national with alleged ties to a top Russian official was charged in federal court in Washington Monday with conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian Federation, and was ordered held without bond.
Maria Butina, 29, was arrested Sunday in Washington and made her first appearance in U.S. District Court before Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson. Her attorney, Robert Neil Driscoll, told the judge that Butina's residence was searched by the FBI in April, that she had testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed session several months ago, and that "we have been offering to cooperate with the government the entire time."
Butina did not speak during the brief hearing other than to state her name. A detention hearing and preliminary hearing were set for Wednesday.
The charges against Butina come days after the Justice Department unveiled an indictment against 12 Russian intelligence officers for allegedly conspiring to hack Democrats in 2016 and just hours after President Donald Trump cast doubt on Russia’s involvement in an extraordinary joint news conference with President Putin.
Butina is accused of developing relationships with American politicians and a "gun rights organization," none of which are named in the affidavit supporting the criminal complaint. FBI Special Agent Kevin Helson wrote that Butina was attempting to "establish a 'back channel' communication for representatives of the Government of Russia."
The affidavit also contains apparent communications, by direct message on Twitter, between Butina and the unnamed Russian official. "Your political star has risen in the sky," the official told Butina. "Now it is important to rise to the zenith and not burn out (fall) prematurely," and they later discussed the "Russia-USA friendship society."
In 2017, Butina and the official attended the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, the affidavit states.
Driscoll said during the hearing that Butina had recently earned a master's degree in international relations from American University. "Maria Butina is not an agent of the Russian Federation," Driscoll said in a statement after the hearing. He said she "has been cooperating with various government entities for months regarding public allegations related to her contacts with various American and russian individuals," testified for eight hours before the Intelligence Committee and provided "thousands of documents."
"The substance of the charge in the complaint is overblown," Driscoll said. He said the government was attempting to make such actions as attending the prayer breakfast into "nefarious acts," when Butina was merely networking to develop relationships with Americans.
Butina, a former Siberian furniture store owner, founded a Russian gun rights group called the Right to Bear Arms and became an assistant to Russian central banker and former senator Alexander Torshin, who is a lifetime member of the NRA.
She began reaching out to NRA members and other American gun enthusiasts in 2013, on several occasions hosting NRA executives and gun activists in Moscow, including one delegation that included former Milwaukee Sheriff Dave Clarke. She and Torshin also attended a series of NRA events in the United States starting in 2014.
As she traveled the U.S., she had a number of key interactions with the Trump campaign. In June 2015, as Trump announced his candidacy, Butina wrote a column in the National Interest, a conservative U.S. magazine, suggesting that only by election a Republican could the U.S. and Russia hope to improve relations.
The next month, she attended a town hall meeting in Las Vegas where Trump — who had declared his candidacy for the presidency the previous month — was speaking. She found her way to a microphone and publicly asked Trump: “What will be your foreign politics, especially in the relations with my country?”
"I know Putin and I'll tell you what, we get along with Putin," Trump responded, in the first of his many campaign statements about his desire to build better ties with Russia.
Butina also attended an NRA convention in May 2016, where a Republican operative named Paul Erickson worked to get Torshin a meeting with Trump. In an email to the campaign, Erickson referred to Torshin as "President Putin's emissary" in an effort to improve relations with the United States.
The meeting did not happen, but Butina and Torshin did have brief interaction with Donald Trump Jr., the president's son, at the event. Trump Jr. has said the interaction was brief and not memorable.
Butina then accompanied Erickson to Trump’s inauguration, one of a number of Russians who attended the festivities and toasted to better relations between Russia and the U.S.