This Week in Maria Butina: The Russian spy story that connects the Trump campaign to the NRA

Saga of alleged female spy who charmed Republicans keeps getting longer — here are the latest developments

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published August 6, 2018 5:30PM (EDT)

Maria Butina (AP)
Maria Butina (AP)

Is there an alleged spy in recent years who has made the news with as much of an impact — and spanning as many different areas of America's political life — as Maria Butina? Indeed, the former American University student -- and accused Russian intelligence agent -- has shown up in so many news stories that it has become difficult to capture all of the twists and turns of her odyssey within a single article.

So we turn to the journalist's best friend in a case like this: the listicle, which can gather disparate threads of narrative and weave them into something that at least appears coherent? So what has happened within the last week or so in the Butina spy scandal? (Correction: alleged spy scandal, of course.)

Butina is accused of developing close social ties with J.D. Gordon, who was director of national security on Donald Trump's 2016 campaign.

It is important to remember that the charge against Butina is that she worked as an unregistered agent of the Russian while presenting herself as a graduate student at American University and a Russian gun-rights activist. This matters because it ties into the alleged friendship she developed in September and October 2016 with Gordon, according to the Washington Post:

Butina sought out interactions with J.D. Gordon, who served for six months as the Trump campaign’s director of national security before leaving in August 2016 and being offered a role in the nascent Trump transition effort, according to documents and testimony provided to the Senate Intelligence Committee and described to The Washington Post.

The two exchanged several emails in September and October 2016, culminating in an invitation from Gordon to attend a concert by the rock band Styx in Washington. Gordon also invited Butina to attend his birthday party in late October of that year.

In a statement to the Post, Gordon explained that "from everything I’ve read since her arrest last month, it seems the Maria Butina saga is basically a sensationalized click bait story meant to smear a steady stream of Republicans and NRA members she reportedly encountered over the past few years. I wonder which prominent Republican political figures she hasn’t come across?" Gordon is a former naval officer who worked for President George W. Bush as a Pentagon spokesman, as well as for a handful of Republican political campaigns.

An unknown "third party" tried to get the indictment against Butina dismissed -- and failed to do so.

A filing was submitted to a federal court in Washington that asked for the indictment against Butina to be dismissed, according to Bloomberg. A clerk rejected the filing on a technical flaw, although the fact that the filing was submitted in the first place is  telling. Ever since Butina was arrested on July 15, she has been trying to get out of prison, with a magistrate judge deciding against a request for a bail bond on July 18 on the grounds that "no conditions or combination of conditions" existed that would guarantee Butina appearing before the court for a trial. Prosecutors claim that she had ties to Russian intelligence services and oligarchs and worked to infiltrate various American conservative groups, from the Republican Party to the National Rifle Association, in order to advance the interests of the Russian government.

Needless to say, if the unknown "third party" had succeeded in getting the indictment against Butina dismissed, prosecutors would have at the very least been concerned about her possibly trying to head back to Russia soon thereafter.

More potential ties between Butina and the Vladimir Putin's government have emerged.

Konstantin Nikolaev, the Russian billionaire who Butina has reportedly testified helped fund her various activities in the United States, is believed to have received funding from banks that are tied to the Russian government, according to the Guardian. In addition, Nikolaev is accused of having ties to close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin himself. The Russian billionaire's wife, Svetlana Nikolaeva, reportedly met with senior members of the NRA, along with Butina, during the 2016 presidential election.

This section from the Guardian's article deserves to be quoted in full:

Hundreds of pages of corporate records obtained from authorities in Russia and Cyprus, an offshore tax haven favoured by wealthy Russians, shed further light on the Nikolaevs’ business activity. Questions sent to a spokeswoman for Nikolaev were not answered. Nikolaev and his wife are not under US sanctions, and have not been accused of wrongdoing.

The records show Nikolaev’s holding company in Cyprus received $250m in loans from VTB Bank, a state-owned bank that has long been associated with Russia’s FSB intelligence agency, though it denies any link. VTB placed holds on company assets in return for the funding. The holds were later released, indicating the loans were repaid, but this was not specified in the filings.

The Russian government is not pleased with Butina's treatment.

Not surprisingly, the Russian government has been outspoken in its criticism of the fact that Butina has been arrested and jailed. It's reasonable to observe that Moscow's complaints about Butina's treatment should be taken with several giant tablespoons of salt.

READ MORE: Right-wing talk show host Joe Walsh tells Salon: Donald Trump "betrayed his country"

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters in Moscow last week that Butina is not receiving proper meals, has been deprived of fresh air, lives in a cold cell in solitary confinement and has her sleep regularly interrupted, according to the Associated Press. She also called for the international human rights community to intervene in order to stop what she described as "complete lawlessness."

Just to be clear: Russia is of course the nation that has targeted British investor Bill Browder and former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul for criticizing the Vladimir Putin regime, accusing them of numerous seemingly invented crimes in an apparent effort to punish them for speaking out. It is difficult to believe Russian claims about Butina's treatment without evidence from a more reputable source.

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By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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