My lunch with alleged Russian spy Maria Butina
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When a 29-year-old Russian was arrested on Monday for conspiring to act as an agent of the Russian government, I thought back to my encounter with Maria Butina. Did I really have lunch with a Russian spy, and did she predict Trump’s election?
I was never going to turn down lunch with Maria Butina. As sources go, she was among the most promising – a young pro-gun, pro-Trump Russian based in Washington, with high-level contacts in the NRA, the United States’ powerful gun lobby. We met on October 27, 2016, exactly two weeks before the election of Donald Trump. I was particularly interested in Republicans’ newfound admiration for Russia’s strongman leader Vladimir Putin. Maybe Maria Butina could explain.
Butina is now under arrest, charged with being a spy for the Russian government.
On the day we met she seemed awfully confident that Trump would win the presidency, against all odds.Her message to me the day after our lunch was this: “Some people say that Russians have this sixth sense and sometimes can predict great things ahead – this is what I feel after our meeting. I feel that we will be having some interesting and important deals together.”
I don’t know what kind of deals she might have been alluding to, as we never met again. But I think I know what she meant by “great things ahead”.
In fact, her optimism about Trump winning the election, and about the improved relationship between the United States and Russia, had manifested itself much earlier. According to court papers, Butina emailed an American political operative in March 2015 about her belief that the Republican Party would likely win the White House in 2016.
This communication was revealed on July 16 in a statement from the US Justice Department. Butina was charged in Washington with conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian Federation "by developing relationships with US persons and infiltrating organizations having influence in American politics".
Two years prior, in July 2016, the FBI had opened a counterintelligence investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. The same month, during a press conference, Trump had said of his Democratic opponent’s emails: "Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you can find the 33,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press."
We were not alone at lunch. We were with John Gizzi, a fellow White House correspondent, who writes for the conservative news outlet Newsmax. Its influence has increased significantly since Trump’s election and its CEO, Chris Ruddy, is one of Trump’s closest confidants.
At lunch we discussed the presidential election, Butina's work for the Russian equivalent of the NRA and her studies at American University. We also talked about Trump’s chances of winning. Like almost all journalists and pundits, Gizzi and I were wrong. She was right. Trump would win.
Both Gizzi and I tried to get her to speak to us on the record since our lunch, but to no avail. She was concentrating on her studies, she told us. Indeed, Butina recently received a graduate degree in international studies from American University. She told us she taught classes in Russian history.
Butina’s arrest was announced as Trump flew back from Helsinki to Washington following an inaugural summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin at which he was accused of failing to stand up to the Russian leader over electoral meddling.
The Justice Department said Butina had broken US law by not disclosing to authorities that she was working and spying for the Russian government.
Butina allegedly has close ties to a "Russian official" who was not identified in the court documents but who has been widely reported by US media to be a Russian politician named Alexander Torshin.
Her Facebook posts reveal that Butina and Torshin were both in attendance at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on February 2, 2017. It was the first such event attended by Trump as US president.
In her post from February 4, 2017, titled “3 reasons why Russians went to pray along with Donald Trump”, Butina confirms that the Russian delegation at the National Prayer Breakfast was “under the leadership of the Vice-Chairman of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation Toršina”.
An ally of Putin's, Torshin is a former top Russian lawmaker and currently a senior official with Russia's central bank.
He is one of a number of senior Russian officials subject to US sanctions.
The Justice Department said Butina carried out her activities in the United States at the direction of the "Russian official".
'Congratulations to all!'
On election night November 8, 2016, Butina was among the few not to be surprised by Trump’s election victory. In a Facebook post, she writes:
“Well that's it. America gets a Republican Donald Trump for the next presidential term. Supporter of gun rights and restoration of relations with Russia. Congratulations to all!”
Indeed, since Trump’s inauguration his support for the NRA has only increased, as has his intent to have a better relationship with Russia, despite the US intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the presidential election and tried to help Trump get elected.
Two weeks after Trump’s inauguration came a first reason to celebrate for Butina.
“The US has lifted the sanctions with the FSB the ice is broken, gentlemen of the jury!” is her Facebook post from February 2, 2017.
The US Treasury Department had adjusted its sanctions on the Russian intelligence agency FSB, making some exceptions to the measures that had been imposed by former president Barack Obama over accusations Moscow tried to influence the presidential election.
During his press conference with Putin in Helsinki, Trump again denied any collusion between his campaign and the Kremlin, and appeared to accept Russian denials of any meddling in US elections following his summit with Putin.
Putin also rejected claims by US intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered in the presidential vote. The charges against Butina were brought by the US Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia and not by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
A US judge ordered her jailed on Wednesday pending trial after prosecutors argued she was a flight risk.