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DC gun rights activist charged with being a Russian spy

A vehicle exits the Embassy of the Russian Federation March 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. A Russian woman living in Washington D.C. has been arrested and a criminal complaint has been filed accusing her of being a Russian spy. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A 29-year-old woman active in Washington, D.C., politics has been arrested and charged with being a Russian agent. She was reportedly very involved with gun rights groups in D.C., including the NRA, and conspired to use one of these groups as a conduit to facilitate communication between a U.S. political party and the Kremlin.

Here's what you need to know

Maria Butina was arrested on Sunday and appeared before a U.S. District Court judge on Monday. According to the unsealed criminal complaint, Butina was charged “with conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian Federation within the United States without prior notification to the Attorney General.”

A press release from the Department of Justice stated that "from as early as 2015 and continuing through at least February 2017, Butina worked at the direction of 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.  This Russian official was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control in April 2018.

The Washington Post reported that her attorney had said that the FBI had searched Butina's residence. The complaint lists (with redacted names) messages between Butina, a Russian official, and at least two U.S. citizens.

According to a LinkedIn page for a Maria Butina with a profile picture that resembles pictures of her from news stories, Butina has been a research assistant at American University's Kogod School of Business in Washington, D.C., since October 2017.  It also claims that she “founded a gun rights organization in Russia [The Right to Bear Arms] that grew to over 10,000 members.” Her lawyer confirmed to the Post that she had recently earned a master's degree from American University.

Butina was apparently very involved in U.S. politics, attending a Trump town hall meeting in Las Vegas (where she managed to ask Trump a question about U.S./Russia relations) as well as multiple NRA conventions and the National Prayer Breakfast in D.C. She was also reportedly a member of the NRA.

Butina's lawyer, Robert Neil Driscoll, accused the Justice Department of trying to make mundane actions seem like “nefarious acts.”

In 2015, Butina wrote a piece for the National Interest that began with the words:

It may take the election of a Republican to the White House in 2016 to improve relations between the Russian Federation and the United States. As improbable as it may sound, the Russian bear shares more interests with the Republican elephant than the Democratic donkey.

According to the criminal complaint, Butina had sent this article to an unnamed Russian official (from context likely Russian banker and alleged mobster Alexander Torshin, a close associate of Butina). The Russian official “said it was very good."

On Valentine's Day 2016, Torshin tweeted in Russian from his verified account about Butina talking to him about “D. Trump.” An automated translation reads:

Maria Butina is now in the United States. Writes to me that D. Trump (member of NRA) is really for cooperation with Russia.

In May 2016, GOP operative Paul Erickson allegedly tried to get Butina and Torshin a meeting with then-candidate Donald Trump. However, this meeting never happened. Torshin was among several Russian oligarchs hit by U.S. sanctions in April.

On Oct. 4, 2016, an unnamed U.S. person sent an email to Butina that stated, “[U]nrelated to specific presidential campaigns, I've been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key POLITICAL PARTY 1 leaders through, of all conduits, the [GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION].”

Neither the political party, nor the gun rights organization are specifically named in this complaint, although analysts have speculated that, judging from context from the entire document (and Butina's known history), the gun rights organization is the NRA.

At a party in November 2016, Butina claimed that she was involved with the Trump campaign's communications with Russia. She reportedly repeated this claim on other occasions. However, this is not mentioned in the criminal complaint and has not yet been verified.

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