US charges Russian national with being a foreign agent

The US government charged a Russian national with being a spy for the Russian government. (File Photo)

The US government charged a Russian national with being a spy for the Russian government in the US and developing relationships “with US persons and infiltrating organizations having influence in American politics.”

Mariia Butina, also known as Maria, who was involved with a Russian gun group that the National Rifle Association was supportive of, was arrested on Sunday and appeared in court in Washington, DC to Monday, according to the Justice Department.

The arrest is the latest dizzying development related to Russia in recent days and revealed only about three hours after President Donald Trump’s press conference in Helsinki in which he shocked the world by siding with Vladimir Putin rather than his own intelligence agencies regarding election meddling by Russia’s spy agencies in the 2016.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s office Friday indicted 12 members of Russia’s military intelligence service the GRU over a hacking and influence operation.

Butina, 29, has been cooperating with various government authorities “for months regarding public allegations related to her contacts with various American and Russian individuals” and “months ago” voluntarily testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee for eight hours, her attorney, Robert N. Driscoll, said in a statement Monday.

Driscoll denied that Butina was “an agent of the Russian Federation,” calling her instead a recent graduate of American University in Washington “with a Masters Degree in International Relations and a 4.0 grade point average.”

Butina has previously said her outreach to American political operatives was purely out of a shared passion for firearms. She told The Washington Post in April 2017 that “no government official has ever approached me about ‘fostering ties’ with any Americans.”

American University officials confirmed to CNN earlier this year that in fall 2016, Butina enrolled in the school’s graduate program for international affairs. Her LinkedIn page says she graduated this spring with a near-perfect GPA.

Driscoll said Butina had produced thousands of documents to the Senate panel and has offered through counsel to interview with Mueller’s office, “which has not expressed interest.”

Mueller’s office declined to comment on whether it office was involved in the investigation of Butina or made the referral on Butina to the National Security Division and Washington US Attorney’s Office.

Over a dozen FBI agents executed a search warrant at Butina’s Washington apartment in April, her lawyer said.

Driscoll called the substance of the charge levied against her in the complaint unsealed Monday “overblown.” He protested her Sunday arrest as made “without prior notice to counsel” and after multiple offers to assist the Justice Department, who did not “avail itself of that opportunity.”

“There is simply no indication of Butina seeking to influence of undermine any specific policy or law [of] the United States — only at most to promote a better relationship between the two nations,” Driscoll said.

Worked for high-level Russian official

The Justice Department says Butina worked at the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government. The official was not formally named in the indictment but appears to be Alexander Torshin, who was previously a member of the Russian legislature and was later a top official at the Central Bank of Russia. The Treasury Department sanctioned Torshin in April 2018 as part of an effort to punish the Russian government for “malign activity” around the world.

Torshin also fostered extensive ties with gun-rights groups in the United States and tried to use his contacts to arrange a meeting with candidate Donald Trump during the campaign. There is no evidence that Torshin ever met Trump, but he crossed paths with Donald Trump Jr. during the 2016 NRA convention in Louisville, Kentucky.

Trump Jr. testified to lawmakers last year that he briefly met Torshin at a dinner with a few dozen officials from the NRA. Trump Jr. said they spoke for only “a few minutes” and did not talk about colluding with the Russian government.