Russian NRA member charged with spying to infiltrate US politics

On Monday, federal prosecutors charged Russian national Maria Butina, a lifetime member of the NRA, with being an unregistered agent of the Russian government and accused her spying for Moscow while she studied in the United States.

The move comes as questions continue to escalate about the NRA’s Russian connections during the 2016 campaign.

The indictment was also unsealed just hours after Trump stunned world observers during his joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin. There, Trump accepted Putin’s word over the U.S. intelligence community and seemed to agree that Russia had nothing to do with attacking U.S. elections in 2016.

According to the new spying charges, one goal of the conspiracy that Butina allegedly took part in was to “exploit personal connections with U.S. persons having influence in American politics in an effort to advance the interests of the Russian Federation.”

She allegedly used these connections to “infiltrate organizations active in U.S. politics,” the criminal complaint states.

One of the contacts she had was with an “organization promoting gun rights,” which was identified as the NRA.

“I believe that Butina and the Russian official took these steps in order to infiltrate those groups and advance the interests of the Russian Federation,” FBI Special Agent Kevin Helson wrote in an affidavit accompanying the criminal complaint.

Butina is “known as a protege of Alexander Torshin, a Russian former state banker, who met Donald Trump Jr. for dinner at the NRA’s 2016 convention,” The Guardian reports. “Torshin was placed under sanction by the US in April this year.”

In a Tweet from November 2016, Torshin noted that Butina, “a Russian national who claimed she had been part of the Trump campaign’s communications with Russia, was, like himself, also a life member of the NRA,” NPR reported.

Butina arrived in the U.S. in August, 2016, just as Trump’s presidential campaign was entering the general election. She attended American University in Washington, D.C., as a graduate student.

The NRA has been under a growing cloud of suspicion regarding its potential role in helping Russian operatives bolster Trump’s campaign. Specifically, there are questions about whether the group was used to funnel Russian funds to the Trump campaign, which would be against the law.

By some estimates, the NRA contributed $70 million to help Trump get elected, a staggering sum for a group that has just a couple million members.

Back in April, the right-wing gun group had to admit that it had accepted money from at least 23 Russian sources, after initially reporting just one Russian donor.

In May, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee issued a damning report, suggesting the Kremlin used the NRA “as a means of accessing and assisting Mr. Trump and his campaign.”

Meanwhile, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have criticized their Republican colleagues for failing to investigate evidence that the NRA served as conduit between Russia and the Trump campaign.

The Democratic intelligence report found that “Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia, with the assistance of his deputy, Maria Butina, have used their affiliation with the NRA to cultivate relationships” with U.S. politicians.

Meanwhile, the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) is reportedly looking at whether Russian entities gave illegal contributions to the NRA that were designed to benefit the Trump campaign.

The NRA today represents one of the GOP’s most loyal political allies. And it’s drowning in allegations of having illegal ties to Russia.

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