Politics

Russian Spy Indictment an Aftershock to Trump’s Helsinki Statements

Justice Department unveils charges hours after Finland summit

Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Justice Department further roiled an already tense Capitol Hill with an indictment Monday accusing an alleged Russian agent of efforts to influence Republican politicians during the 2016 election.

The indictment came on the heels of President Donald Trump’s joint press conference in Finland where, standing next to Russian President Vladimir Putin, he rebuffed the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

At the conference, Trump sided with Putin’s denials over the findings of the U.S. intelligence community and the House and Senate Intelligence committees, saying he didn’t “see any reason why it would be” Russia who interfered in the election.

Just hours later, the Justice Department announced charges against  Mariia Butina, whom they accused of a years-long campaign to influence U.S. politics in Russia’s favor. The indictment accuses Butina of establishing secret communications channels with Republican officials during and after the 2016 election.

Watch: Trump Defies Own Intel Director on Evidence of Russian Election Interference

Butina, a 23-year-old Russian gun rights advocate who had been living in Washington, D.C., since 2013, tried to set up “back-channel” communications by forging a close relationship with the National Rifle Association, according to the indictment. The goal was to influence Republican Party to adopt views more favorable to Russia.

The timing of the announcement served Democrats in Congress, who seized on it as further evidence that Trump was wrong-headed, if not complicit, in denying Russian interference.

Sen. Ron Wyden, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, responded to the indictment Monday afternoon by sending a letter to the NRA questioning its relationship with Russian nationals. Wyden since March has asked the NRA for answers following press reports that the FBI was investigating Russian coordination with the NRA to support Trump in the 2016 election.

Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, suggested further revelations would soon become public regarding the allegations against Butina.

The NRA did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

Butina’s Russian-sanctioned effort to influence U.S. politics started in 2013, when she met with an unidentified American political operative in Moscow to “arrange introductions” to people with influence in U.S. politics.

Butina tried to arrange a series of meetings between Russian nationals and American political operatives in 2016 and 2017. She worked on behalf of a Russian government official, reportedly Alexander Torshin, who was sanctioned by the United States over Russia’s occupation of Crimea and other “malign activities,” according to the affidavit.

She met with several U.S. politicians and political candidates and attended events hosted by special interest groups, all the while reporting back to Moscow regularly about her progress, the indictment said.

The indictment cites two such meetings, including with an unidentified political candidate on the night of a campaign announcement in 2015. Butina also attended the National Prayer Breakfast twice. She was in contact with an organizer of the 2017 event, who met with her and the Russian official in Moscow, according to communications cited in the affidavit.

Butina even considered becoming a volunteer election observer, but she and the unnamed Russian official she reported to concluded the effort would be too risky.

Describing the effort in an email to an acquaintance, the unnamed American operative said it was intended to secure a “VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [Republican] leaders through, of all conduits” the NRA, according to the affidavit.

The Justice Department does not name the NRA, but the affidavit describes the guns rights organization as a top contributor to congressional candidates and a major sponsor of the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Butina’s lawyer denied she had acted as a Russian agent in a statement, saying her efforts to arrange meetings with influential political figures were merely an effort to establish normal personal, professional and networking relationships. Authorities arrested Butina on Sunday.

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