For nearly five years, the young Russian political-science student was an unusual fixture at the most important events of the U.S. conservative movement.
Maria Butina, who was indicted this week on charges of being a covert Russian agent, struck up friendships with the influential leaders of the National Rifle Association and the Conservative Political Action Conference, touting her interest in U.S. affairs and efforts to promote gun rights in Vladimir Putin’s restrictive Russia. She sidled up to GOP presidential candidates, seeking first an encounter with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and then, after his rising candidacy stumbled, with Donald Trump.
But by August 2016, when she moved to the U.S. on a student visa, the FBI was watching, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter.
Rather than question or confront her, they said, officials decided to track her movements to determine whom she was meeting and what she was doing in the U.S. – the kind of monitoring that is not uncommon when foreign nationals are suspected of working on behalf of a foreign government.
By then, Butina had already publicly quizzed Trump about his views on Russia and briefly met his eldest son at an NRA convention. After the FBI began monitoring her, Butina attended a ball at Trump’s inauguration and tried to arrange a meeting between him and a senior Russian government official at last year’s annual National Prayer Breakfast.
By 2017, after she had enrolled as a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., Butina began probing groups on the leftas well, trying unsuccessfully to interview a D.C.-based civil rights group about its cyber-vulnerabilities for what she said was a school project, according to a person familiar with her outreach.
On Sunday, alerted that she was preparing to leave Washington for South Dakota, where monitoring her would be more difficult, federal authorities arrested Butina.
The 29-year-old was indicted by a grand jury on Tuesday, accused of conspiracy and failing to register as a foreign agent. The indictment alleges that she worked with her contact in the Russian government to infiltrate American political groups as part of a scheme “to advance the interests of the Russian Federation.”
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SOURCE: Rosalind S. Helderman, Tom Hamburger, Shane Harris, Carol D. Leonnig
The Washington Post