In all the hoopla over President Trump weakly kowtowing to Russian President Vladimir Putin (and then comically trying to call “backsies”) it’s easy to miss another major development in the ongoing Russian collusion scandal.
An alleged Russian spy named Maria Butina (who also goes by “Mariia Butina”) was recently indicted on charges of being a covert Russian agent in Washington, D.C. following an FBI investigation of her activities.
Butina, now 29 years old, was somewhat of a fixture in right-wing American political circles, forging a close relationship with the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), thanks to her pro-gun rights activism. Striking up friendships with leaders in both GOP-aligned interest groups allowed Butina to meet a variety of other high-level leaders in Republican politics, including then-presidential hopeful Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and, later, Donald Trump Jr.
The indictment alleges Butina was attempting to use her relationship with the NRA to establish a back channel between Putin’s Kremlin and a “key political party” (the Republican Party).
— Ryan McCarthy (@mccarthyryanj) July 16, 2018
In 2015, Butina even got the chance to ask Trump a question about whether he would lift Obama’s sanctions against Russia:
Here’s Trump in 2015, suggesting to Maria Butina (Russian crime boss Alexander Torshin’s special assistant) that he would lift sanctions on Russia.
“I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin… I don’t think you’d need the sanctions.”
— Caroline O. (@RVAwonk) January 18, 2018
“I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin,” Trump said. “I don’t think you’d need the sanctions.”
Relatedly, the National Rifle Association is currently under federal investigation for using foreign donations to sway an American election, which is a violation of U.S. federal campaign finance law.
In 2016, the NRA spent $30 million to help elect Trump, three times what it spent in 2012 to elect Mitt Romney. While the NRA admits they accept foreign donations, they claim they don’t use those donations for the political arm of its interest group. The pro-gun lobby has also “shifted” their story about these donations, copping to only one Russian contribution at first and later admitting to 23 others later.
Right-wing media defenders, who continue to take the NRA’s ever-changing narrative about their relationship with Russia at face value, have faced fierce criticisms in the wake of the Butina indictment:
A “conspiracy theory” that happens to be shared by the Justice Department. The same day @MZHemingway tweeted this, Maria Butina was indicted on precisely these grounds. She is currently being held without bond. Indictment and story: https://t.co/L1jO6JXAa6 https://t.co/szHoHXt4V7 https://t.co/GoO982xXAO
— Christopher Orr (@OrrChris) July 16, 2018
And a now-viral Twitter thread from gun control activist Shannon Watts chronicles just how tight Butina was with some of the GOP’s heavy hitters. Here she is with Scott Walker, who was viewed as a favorite for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, before Trump walked away with it:
Butina also had close ties with luminaries in the Republican guns rights movement:
Here she is with Rick Santorum, who ran for president in both 2012 and 2016:
And right-wing talking head Sheriff David Clarke:
Paul Erickson is thought to be the unnamed person from the Butina indictment who was instrumental in introducing the alleged spy to others in GOP circles:
Here’s another photo of Butina asking Trump a question about lifting sanctions as early as 2015:
Here’s Butina ringing the Liberty Bell, of all things:
Another photo with Scott Walker, as he launches his presidential bid:
Butina was a common sight at NRA meetings:
She even managed to get an invite to the National Prayer Breakfast, where Trump spoke early in his presidency:
Here’s Butina with former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, another Republican who ran for president in 2016:
She’s even cozy with members of the right-wing media:
And got to question Trump’s National Security Advisor:
Finally, Butina was one of many Russians who attended Trump’s inauguration. Mueller is reportedly looking into donations from Putin-tied oligarchs to the inauguration fund: