U.S. prosecutors have arrested a Russian woman who cultivated ties with American conservative politicians and groups and charged her with acting as a covert agent for the Russian government.
In U.S. court filings in Washington late on July 16, prosecutors said Maria Butina, 29, entertained and cultivated relationships with U.S. politicians and worked to infiltrate U.S. political organizations, particularly the National Rifle Association, the powerful gun lobbying organization, while reporting back to a high-ranking official in Moscow.
The U.S. complaint says Butina in an e-mail in 2015 described the gun association as the "largest sponsor" of congressional elections in the United States and said Russia should build a relationship with it and the Conservative Political Action Conference, a top backer of Republican political campaigns, to improve U.S.-Russia relations.
The U.S. case against Butina, a founder of the pro-gun-rights Russian advocacy organization Right to Bear Arms, was announced just hours after the conclusion of a summit in Helsinki between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The complaint portrays Butina as active in promoting Russian interests in U.S. politics, including an easing of sanctions imposed on Moscow in 2014, in the year leading up to Trump's election as president in 2016.
In a video posted on YouTube from the FreedomFest, a conservative political event in Las Vegas in July 2015, Butina is seen asking then-candidate Trump if he would continue to support sanctions against Russia if he were elected president.
Reuters, citing an anonymous source, reported that Butina was a Trump supporter who bragged at parties in Washington that she could use her political connections to help get people jobs in the Trump administration after the election.
According to the complaint, Butina reported back to a top government official in Moscow, who is not named in the court papers. But the official was described as "a high-level official in the Russian government who was previously a member of the legislature of the Russian Federation and later became a top official at the Russian Central Bank."
That description fits Aleksandr Torshin, whom Butina has previously been affiliated with. She is pictured with Torshin in numerous photographs on her Facebook page.
Torshin, who became a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association in 2012, was among a group of Russian oligarchs and officials targeted with sanctions in April because of their ties with Putin and their roles in "advancing Russia's malign activities."
Court papers filed in support of Butina's arrest accuse her of participating in a conspiracy that began in 2015 in which the senior Russian official "tasked" her with working to infiltrate American political organizations with the goal of "reporting back to Moscow" what she had learned.
In addition to seeking out meetings with U.S. lawmakers and candidates, the complaint says Butina attended events sponsored by private lobbying groups, including the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event in Washington that attracts leading conservative politicians.
Butina allegedly organized Russian-American "friendship and dialogue" dinners in Washington and New York with the goal of developing relationships with U.S. politicians and establishing "back channel" lines of communication, as well as "penetrating the U.S. national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation," the complaint says.
Court papers say that an unnamed American who worked with Butina in an October 2016 message claimed to have been involved in setting up a "private line of communication" ahead of the 2016 election between the Kremlin and "key" officials in a U.S. political party through the National Rifle Association.
Butina was arrested on July 15 and charged with conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian government under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, a decades-old law that until recently was rarely enforced.
In a statement, Butina's attorney, Robert Driscoll, called the allegations "overblown" and said prosecutors had criminalized mundane networking opportunities.
Driscoll said Butina was not an agent of the Russian Federation but was instead in the United States on a student visa, graduating from American University with a master's degree in international relations.
"There is simply no indication of Ms. 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 said.
"The complaint is simply a misuse of the Foreign Agent statute, which is designed to punish covert propaganda, not open and public networking by foreign students."
Court papers charging Butina with conspiracy to inflitrate U.S. political organizations include several e-mails and Twitter conversations in which she refers to the need to keep her work secret or, in one case, "incognito."
Prosecutions under the U.S. foreign-agent law picked up in the last year amid growing concern in Washington about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
It wasn't immediately clear if the case against Butina was connected to U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into alleged Russian election meddling. The charges against her were brought by a different Justice Department office: the U.S. Attorney for Washington, D.C.
Among the most prominent people to face charges under the foreign-agents law is Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who was charged by Mueller last year.