WASHINGTON (AP) – Federal prosecutors in Washington revealed Monday that they have arrested a 29-year-old woman and accused her of working as a covert Russian agent, gathering intelligence on American officials and political organizations through her gun-rights contacts.
The announcement of the arrest of Maria Butina came just hours after President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and just days after special counsel Robert Mueller charged 12 Russian intelligence officials with directing a sprawling hacking effort aimed at swaying the 2016 election.
Mueller didn't file the charge against Butina, but court papers show that her activities revolved around American politics during the 2016 campaign and included efforts to use contacts with the National Rifle Association and American politicians to gather intelligence for Russia.
Court papers also reveal that an unnamed American who worked with Butina 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 an American political party through the NRA.
The court papers do not name the political party mentioned in the October 2016 message, but they contain details that appear to refer to the Republican Party.
Butina, a Russian national who has been living the U.S., was charged with conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian government. A federal judge in Washington ordered her detained until a hearing set for Wednesday, according to a statement from the Justice Department and Jessie Liu, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia.
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 U.S. 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 in a statement. "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."
He said Butina's Washington apartment was raided by the FBI in April, and said she had offered to answer questions from the Justice Department and Mueller's team but the special counsel's office "has not expressed interest."
The NRA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Court papers filed in support of Butina's arrest accuse her of participating in a conspiracy that began in 2015 in which an unnamed senior Russian official "tasked" her with working to infiltrate American political organizations with the goal of "reporting back to Moscow" what she had learned.
Authorities did not name the Kremlin official, who is described as a member of the Russian legislature who later became a top official in the country's central bank. The official has since been sanctioned by the U.S.
Prosecutors say Butina, at the official's direction, met with U.S. politicians and candidates, attended events sponsored by special interest groups – including two National Prayer Breakfast events – and organized Russian-American "friendship and dialogue" dinners in Washington as part of her work.
Court papers also show that after the 2016 election, Butina worked to set up a Russian delegation's visit to the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast in what she described in an email as an effort to "establish a back channel of communication." After the visit, Butina emailed the organizer of the breakfast thanking him for a gift and "for the very private meeting" that followed the breakfast.
"A new relationship between two countries always begins better when it begins in faith," Butina wrote, saying she had "important information" that would further the new relationship.
Two days later, she emailed another American who had been involved in some of the email communication surrounding the prayer breakfast and her efforts to arrange several dinners between Russians and people involved in U.S. politics.
"Our delegation cannot stop chatting about your wonderful dinner," Butina wrote. "My dearest President has received 'the message' about your group initiatives and your constructive and kind attention to the Russians."
Butina has previously surfaced in U.S. media reports related to her gun-rights advocacy.
In 2011, she founded a pro-gun organization in Russia, the Right to Bear Arms, and she has been involved in coordinating between American gun rights activists and their Russian counterparts, according to reports in The New York Times, Time and the Daily Beast.
Butina hosted several leading NRA executives and pro-gun conservatives at her group's annual meeting in 2015, according to those reports. Among those who attended were former NRA President David Keene, conservative political operative Paul Erickson and former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, later a strong Trump supporter.
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker, Stephen Braun and Desmond Butler contributed to this report.