Russian national Maria Butina went to court today and pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an agent of the Kremlin and to specifically infiltrate conservative organizations to make inroads with powerful Republicans. It worked, too, with the assistance of Paul Erickson.
The entire document can be read here. It tells a tale that's a little hard to parse with all of the oblique references to persons and officials but not by name, so I went through my copy of the document and red-lined it, inserting the identities1 in place of the references. What emerges is a story of high-profile Republican power players intersecting with the NRA, the evangelical right and Republican candidates for president, likely including Donald Trump. I've quoted some parts in this post with the names inserted in place of references.
The Diplomacy Project
Butina sent a proposal to Russian banker Alexander Torshin and other Russians in early 2015, entitled Description of the Diplomacy Project. It was a request for $125,000 from Russians to fund her activities in the United States. She sent it to Republican apparatchik Paul Erickson for review and refinement.
From the signed plea agreement: "Butina downplayed the possibility of influencing U.S. foreign policy toward Russia through official channels, criticizing government unwillingness to compromise. As an alternative, Butina suggested that Russia could use unofficial channels of communication to the same end...Butina opined that the circumstances were favorable for building relations with [the Republican Party]. Butina predicted that the candidate nominated by [Republicans] would likely win the upcoming U.S. presidential election."
Huh. How did she possibly know that? Just a lucky guess or some special voodoo? It wasn't just Butina, either. Her boyfriend, Paul Erickson, was identified as one of the earliest Clinton Victory Deniers. Ralph Benko, writing for Forbes, wrote Erickson was saying Clinton wouldn't win before anyone else. "The outcome, a Trump nomination and victory, became clear to him by January 2016," Benko wrote. "He summed up his reasoning: 'The election result will be determined by the tides, not the winds.'" How...conveeenient. Why Trump and not one of the others? What was specifically known about Trump to assume he would win both the nomination and the election?
Also identified in her proposal: "A series of upcoming conferences associated with [Republicans] that she could attend to further the goal." And to remind everyone once again, the goal was simply to infiltrate conservative organizations in order to build backchannel inroads into Republican politics and ultimately straight into the White House in order to further Russian goals.
Maybe conferences like this one, where she got Trump on the record in Las Vegas in July, 2015.
She got approval and some funding from Alexander Torshin, banker and Russian government official, and she was off.
First stop: NRA
In April, 2015, Butina left Russia and headed to the NRA convention where she made contacts with influential Republicans. According to the plea, one of those Republicans "announced his campaign to run for the presidency of the United States shortly thereafter." According to reports at the time, speakers included "Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Dr. Ben Carson, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and billionaire businessman Donald Trump, among others."
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the reason to mention any meeting with a Republican presidential candidate in April 2015 relates to a connection to Donald Trump. Your mileage may vary on that, but let's just call it a theory, given the enthusiastic NRA backing for Trump.
The next step was inviting a delegation from the NRA to Moscow, where Milwaukee Sheriff-at-the-time David Clarke, Pete Brownell, NRA donor Joe Gregory, and NRA president David Keene were in attendance, as reported by The Daily Beast. During the visit, NRA members met with high-level Russian politicians as part of the political aspect of their trip. According to the plea, Butina emailed Torshin afterwards, referring to various members of the delegation and saying, "We should let them express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later."
Oh, okay. So now there's a solid NRA-Russia connection. Put a pin there.
'Friendship Dinners' With Powerful Republicans
In early 2016, Butina helped George O'Neill, Jr, heir to the Rockefeller fortune, host "friendship dinners," where the rich and influential met to discuss U.S.-Russia relations. As reported in the plea, "Butina was able to meet individuals with political capital, learn their thoughts and inclinations toward Russia, gauge their responses to her, and adjust her pitch accordingly." Paul Erickson supplied her with a list of people who should be invited.
At some point, she emailed O'Neill with a copy to Erickson, telling him Torshin was impressed with him and "expresses his great appreciation for what you are doing to restore the relations between the two countries."
Not contained in the plea, but reported separately, is the Torshin-Butina connection with wealthy conservative investor Hank Greenberg.
"The story starts in June 2008, with legendary American businessman Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the one-time CEO of insurance and financial services giant AIG," writes Daily Beast reporter Betsy Woodruff. "Greenberg’s Starr Russia Investments III bought 20 percent of Investtorgbank, a Russian bank. Banki.ru reported that the fund Greenberg headed paid about $100 million for its share of the bank. In August 2009, Starr invested an additional $8 million in the bank, according to court filings in the state of New York."
Butina urged Greenberg to pour even more money into that Russian bank to keep it from collapsing.
Powerful Republican-Russia connections abound. Pin #2 goes there. Also, there are surely oil connections we don't even know about yet.
Praise God and Pass the Evangelicals
Finally, Butina assisted Torshin in organizing a Russian delegation to attend the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast. The people in the delegation were "hand-picked by [Torshin] and [Butina]" according to Butina. They were specifically "coming to establish a back channel of communication," and Erickson emailed someone connected with the Prayer Breakfast to let them know that "Reaction to the delegation's presence in America will be related DIRECTLY (his emphasis) to the Russian President and Foreign Minister."
Well, now. Here we have the fundamentalist Christian connection, the other group instrumental in Trump's surprise election.
Pin #3, tying evangelicals, high-level Republicans, and the Russian government together goes here.
Meanwhile, Trump Tower Moscow?
The glue holding all these pins in place: Maria Butina, Alexander Torshin, and Paul Erickson.
Even though this case is not being handled by Robert Mueller's office, the document raises questions. Why was Butina so confident that a Republican would win in 2016, as early as April of 2015 when the Republican field had not really yet come into clear focus? What fueled that confidence going forward? Did Alexander Torshin and the Russian government use the NRA as a conduit to fund Trump's election bid?
Lest we forget, there were parallel contacts going on here. At the very same time Maria Butina was engaged in looping in the NRA, evangelicals, and wealthy, connected Republicans, Donald Trump was trying to get the Russian government to approve Trump Tower in Moscow. While campaigning for president.
The more this hairball unravels, the easier it is to see Donald Trump right in the center of it, isn't it?
1 Here's a key for you to use for your own red-lining: U.S. Person 1 is Paul Erickson; Russian Government Official is Alexander Torshin; Political Party #1 is the Republican Party; Gun Rights Organization is the NRA; "wealthy and well-connected person" is George O'Neill, Jr.