In July 2015, a young Russian gun rights activist now alleged to be a Kremlin covert agent was trying to meet Donald Trump, nearly a year earlier than prosecutors have publicly claimed.
The suspected spy, Mariia Butina, routed the previously undisclosed request through her friend and longtime Republican political operative, Paul Erickson, who reached out to Trump campaign official Sam Nunberg, Nunberg told POLITICO. Erickson described Butina as a Russian involved with the National Rifle Association, according to Nunberg, who was one of a handful of people tapped by Trump to stand up his campaign at the time. When Butina wasn’t able to meet with Trump, she showed up at a campaign event several days later to ask Trump a question about Russian sanctions during the Q&A session.
To date, government court filings in Butina’s case have mostly detailed broader attempts by the young Russian to infiltrate and sway prominent Republican political organizations, including the NRA, and focused less on specific attempts to target the 2016 presidential campaign, especially in its initial stages. However, this early outreach illustrates the extent to which Butina — who officials say was being directed by the Kremlin and is now being held on charges of failing to register as a foreign agent — was intent on cultivating Trump and his campaign team months before most others were taking him seriously as a presidential contender.
Previously, prosecutors and congressional investigators had only publicly revealed that Butina made overtures to Trump’s camp in May of 2016, as opposed to July of the previous year.
“It’s obvious that the Russians’ ultimate target wasn’t the NRA or the Republican Party,” said one person who was interviewed about Butina by both Justice Department and congressional investigators.
“The ultimate target was the Trump campaign,” the person added. “It just hasn’t been spelled out” publicly.
Indeed, federal investigators are now scrutinizing the early Trump outreach as part of their probe into Erickson’s relationship with Butina and whether their effort to cultivate Trump associates began at the very outset of the 2016 campaign and continued well past his inauguration.
While Butina’s case is not officially part of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into potential links between Trump associates and Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, the newly disclosed details help flesh out potential attempts by Moscow to cultivate, influence — and possibly assist — the Trump campaign.
Mueller’s team “asked me about any contact I had with Erickson on the campaign” during an interview in April, one former Trump campaign official told POLITICO.
According to Nunberg, Erickson reached out just three weeks after Trump launched his insurgent campaign to ask if he would introduce Butina to the candidate two days later at one of Trump’s first major campaign stops. Trump had tweeted that he would be in Las Vegas on July 11 to speak at the massive gathering of Libertarians known as FreedomFest.
“We spoke very briefly and he asked if I could arrange some kind of meet-and-greet meeting and a photo,” said Nunberg, a trusted Trump adviser before being fired from the campaign that August for racially charged Facebook posts.
“He definitely described [Butina] in some capacity as Russian, and being involved with the NRA,” Nunberg said of Erickson, a prominent NRA booster with whom Nunberg had worked on prior presidential campaigns.
“I explained to him that I don’t have the schedule but that I don’t think he has time for that,” he added. Trump “is in and out, and not staying in Vegas,” Nunberg said he relayed to Erickson.
So instead, Butina went to the event where Trump was speaking. And in a twist of fate, she was able to pose a question to Trump during a Q&A session, asking whether he would continue the sanctions the U.S. had imposed on Russia in 2014, following Moscow’s decision to annex the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine.
Butina’s attorneys have argued that their 29-year-old client was merely an eager graduate student trying to ingratiate herself in American political circles. She has pleaded not guilty to acting as an unregistered agent for Moscow and faces more than five years of prison time if convicted. Erickson, who has not been charged, did not respond to numerous requests for comment by POLITICO.
Last Friday, prosecutors filed a court motion that revealed other efforts by Butina, Erickson and her longtime mentor, Russian Central Bank deputy governor Alexander Torshin, to target the 2016 field of Republican presidential candidates.
By spring 2015, prosecutors alleged, the three were doggedly researching the crowded field of GOP candidates to determine who the ultimate nominee would be, so they could concentrate their efforts to gain early access and influence. However, prosecutors only said that Butina, Erickson and Torshin locked on to the Trump campaign in spring 2016, long after the real estate developer emerged as a Republican front-runner.
More broadly, the filing alleged, Butina would take “tasking” orders from Torshin in Moscow and hit the campaign trail — often with Erickson — to try and cultivate Republicans vying for the White House. Torshin also ordered up after-action reports, sending at least one of them to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, prosecutors said.
At one point, Butina told Torshin that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was the candidate “whom she believed to have the best chance of becoming [the Republican Party’s] nominee for President.”
On July 14, the day after attending Walker’s presidential launch in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Butina boasted that, “Judging from American polls – our bet on [Walker] is correct. What do they think in the RF about this?”
Among his Russian Federation colleagues closely tracking the U.S. election, Torshin replied, “no one is even looking in that direction. You will be the creator of something sensational, God willing!”
In one report requested by Torshin — who did not respond to several requests for comment from POLITICO — Butina noted that she made “short personal contact” with Walker, whom she had met previously at an NRA event, and also one of his foreign policy advisers.
Butina’s lawyers have excoriated the latest court filing and the government’s case, saying the arguments are overblown, highly inflammatory and based on false claims. They noted, for instance, that prosecutors used their most recent document to walk back their accusation that Butina once offered to trade sex for a position at an influential non-governmental organization, as part of a Russian effort to “penetrate the U.S. national decision-making apparatus” and advance Moscow’s agenda.
On Monday, the judge overseeing the case issued a complete gag order, admonishing the prosecutors over the mistaken sex-for-access claim and forbidding Butina’s attorneys from speaking further with the media so as not to taint the jury pool for her upcoming trial.
Prosecutors aren’t the only ones looking into Butina’s circle. A report published earlier this year by Democrats on the House intelligence committee noted that Erickson emailed senior Trump campaign official Rick Dearborn in May 2016 to say Torshin wanted to meet with “someone of high rank in the Trump Campaign” at the NRA convention in Kentucky later that month “to discuss an offer he claims to be carrying from President Putin to meet with DJT.”
“Putin is deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” Erickson told Dearborn, the report said. After the Trump campaign rejected the request, Torshin had a brief conversation with Donald Trump Jr. at a related NRA event, which his lawyer characterized as inconsequential.
The report dovetails with government court documents, which have posited that by early 2016, as Trump rose in the polls, Butina and Torshin shifted their attention to his campaign, including an upcoming speech at the NRA convention in May.
“Important in these circumstances are those contacts with the candidate and his entourage that will help form [Trump’s] correct view of Russian-American relations,” Butina wrote in one report to Torshin before he briefed Kremlin leaders on the convention.
“I hope your female boss” at the Central Bank “will understand” its importance, Butina wrote in a follow-up. “This is an important moment for the future of our country.”
Their interest in Trump deepened by June, prosecutors alleged.
Less than a month after she was granted a U.S. student visa to study at American University in Washington, Torshin told Butina to create a report on “your perspective on the situation regarding” Trump. Her July 3 reply was far more optimistic than the polls and media reports at the time, which suggested Trump might not even sew up his party’s nomination at the GOP convention, no less beat prohibitive favorite Hillary Clinton in the general election.
But as of that date, Butina predicted, it was more likely than not that Trump “would win the presidency.” Torshin promptly sent the report to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Nunberg, the senior Trump campaign official, said Erickson didn’t contact him again after his initial request but that he knew the veteran campaign operative had other Trump connections, including Dearborn.
After Trump’s victory on Election Day, the two Russians and Erickson continued their efforts “in furtherance of the conspiracy,” prosecutors said, including pushing Butina’s proposal for the Kremlin to use the annual National Prayer Breakfast “to expand its network of influence in the United States.”
Butina and Torshin handpicked only “VERY influential” Russians to attend, including personal advisers to Putin, she told Erickson in one email.
The Russian president was so supportive, in fact, that he increased the size of the Russian delegation at the last minute. That prompted Erickson to write to an unidentified well-connected friend on January 26, 2017, asking for another favor — additional prayer breakfast tickets.
“If we can accommodate them,” he wrote, “we can empower rational insiders that have been cultivated for three years.”