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U.S. Politics Woman who sought ‘back channel’ meeting for Trump and Putin is charged as Russian agent

A Russian woman who tried to broker a secret meeting between Donald Trump and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, during the 2016 presidential campaign was charged Monday and accused of working with Americans to carry out a secret Russian effort to influence U.S. politics.

At the behest of a senior Russian government official, the woman, Mariia Butina, made connections through the National Rifle Association, religious organizations and the National Prayer Breakfast to try to steer the Republican Party toward more pro-Russia policies, court records show. Privately comparing herself to a Soviet Cold War propagandist, she worked to infiltrate U.S. organizations and establish “back channel” lines of communication with American politicians.

“These lines could be used by the Russian Federation to penetrate the U.S. national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation,” an FBI agent wrote in court documents.

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The charges were filed under seal Saturday, the day after 12 Russian intelligence officers were indicted on a charge of hacking Democratic computers during the 2016 campaign. Butina, 29, was arrested Sunday and appeared Monday in court. The records were unsealed hours after Trump stood beside Putin in Helsinki and said that he saw no reason the Russian leader would try to influence the presidential election.

Trump’s own intelligence chiefs have concluded otherwise, and the two sets of charges served as jarring bookends to Trump’s summit with Putin. As Trump disparaged the investigation, the Justice Department painted a picture of a multi-faceted Russian effort to sway the election through computer espionage, personal overtures and the assistance of U.S. intermediaries.

While Putin denied any involvement Monday in such activities, court documents showed that Butina told associates that her covert efforts were approved by Putin’s administration.

Butina, whose first name is more commonly spelled Maria, was involved in two failed efforts to set up meetings between Trump and Putin in 2016. The charges announced Monday do not name Trump, but they make clear Butina’s overtures were part of a carefully crafted Russian intelligence operation.

Butina is the 26th Russian – and the first one arrested – to face charges related to interference in the presidential election. In February, the Justice Department charged 13 Russians and three companies with stealing the identities of U.S. citizens, posing as political activists and using the flash points of immigration, religion and race to manipulate the 2016 campaign.

“Maria Butina is not an agent of the Russian Federation,” her lawyer, Robert N. Driscoll, said in a statement. He described the charges as overblown, saying that arranging dinners and making friends were being mischaracterized as nefarious. “There is simply no indication of Butina seeking to influence or undermine any specific policy or law,” he added.

The charges were filed by Justice Department national security prosecutors, not the special counsel, Robert Mueller. The investigation into Butina has been proceeding for some time and was carried out parallel to Mueller’s investigation, a former official said. FBI agents raided her home in April, her lawyer said.

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Butina entered the United States on a student visa in 2016, but the scheme she was working on dated to 2013, prosecutors said. At that time, politicians like former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, both of Florida, who have shown no willingness to align themselves with Russian interests, were seen as likely Republican presidential front-runners. Court records describe an effort to shift the party’s views on Russia.

As Trump’s unusual candidacy gained steam, the Russian government came to favour him over Hillary Clinton, then a Democratic presidential candidate, and worked to support his candidacy, prosecutors and intelligence officials have said.

The Justice Department said that Butina worked at the behest of an unidentified high-level Russian government official. He has been previously identified as Alexander Torshin, deputy governor of the Russian central bank who has been linked both to Russia’s security services and organized crime. Torshin is among the nearly two dozen Russian officials or oligarchs who were sanctioned this year for actions including trying to subvert Western democracies.

Torshin is a leading figure in Putin’s political party, United Russia, and has spoken glowingly of Trump. He has described Trump as a “supporter of traditional family values” and “a real man” who “really is for co-operation with Russia.”

Butina viewed the NRA as a powerful force for shifting Republican policies, court records show. She described the group as “the largest sponsor of the elections to the U.S. Congress” and as a sponsor of the Conservative Political Action Conference. The NRA is not named in court records, but its ties to Butina and Torshin have been previously reported. The NRA did not respond to a message seeking comment.

In May 2016, Torshin and Butina proposed a meeting between Trump and Putin during the annual NRA convention in Louisville, Kentucky. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, shot down the proposal.

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But Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, did meet Torshin and Butina at an NRA-sponsored dinner, although Trump’s lawyer has called the encounter brief. Congressional investigators have obtained a photograph of the three at the event, people familiar with the inquiry said.

Prosecutors said that an American political operative helped Butina identify political, news media and business officials to target. Butina met the operative in Moscow, prosecutors said. Quoting from e-mails, prosecutors laid out the most explicit evidence to date that Americans knowingly aided the Russian influence effort.

In one e-mail, the American said he had given Butina a map for how to proceed. “I and your friends in America can’t make it any easier for you than that,” the political operative wrote.

Butina and Torshin attended several events hosted by groups affiliated with Republicans, including two National Prayer Breakfasts in 2016 and 2017. In one e-mail, Butina wrote that Torshin had suggested that Putin attend the February 2017 breakfast, at which Trump spoke.

“Pres. Putin did not say ‘no’!” Butina wrote in the e-mail.

Though the American operative is not identified, The New York Times has previously reported that Butina developed a close relationship with Paul Erickson, an NRA member and a long-time conservative activist who was part of the effort to arrange a meeting between Putin and Trump. Butina has publicly described hosting Erickson at an event in Moscow. Erickson and his lawyer did not respond to messages seeking comment. He is not identified in court records and has not been charged.

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Butina also worked with a second unidentified American, prosecutors said.

After the November 2016 election, Butina wrote to Torshin on Twitter, prosecutors said: “I am ready for further orders.”

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