Week 61: The News Was All Russian and Mueller Made None of It

 In Politics

From every news tributary and watercourse flowed one story this week that drowned out all others: Its name was Russia.

The big gusher remains Russian’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of it, which will put former Trump campaign director Paul Manafort on trial next week. But a new feeder stream opened up as President Donald Trump completed his trip to Helsinki where he genuflected to Russia President Vladimir Putin, made a series of secret deals and promises with the strongman, pronounced Putin’s proposal that Russian investigators interrogate American citizens—former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul specifically—an “incredible offer”, and flipflopped yet again on the question of Russian culpability in the monkeywrenching of the election. This flash flood culminated an invitation by Trump for Putin to visit the White House in the fall—a knockdown surprise to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats!—presumably for continued salaaming and selling out of American interests. Or maybe the notoriously optics-obsessed president just wants a do-over before the midterms to prove that he’s not a treasonous Russian stooge, as more than one appalled observer alleged.

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But the deluge didn’t stop there as the Department of Justice—and not the special counsel—expanded the Russia storyline by charging Russian Maria Butina for failing to register as an agent of a foreign government. Butina, who swam in Republican Party circles under the guise of being an international gun rights advocate and U.S. graduate student, worked at the direction of sanctioned Russian official Alexander Torshin, according to the criminal complaint, to infiltrate and influence U.S. organizations “for the purpose of advancing the agenda of the Russian Federation.”

Acting out a script that was more Get Smart than The Americans (the FBI was following her for years), Butina used the sourdough of her affiliation with the National Rifle Association to bake relationships with others in the conservative movement. She befriended David Keene, past chair of the American Conservative Union and one-time NRA president. She buttonholed Gov. Scott Walker. She arranged for Torshin to meet Russophile Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) during his visit to St. Petersburg. (Rohrabacher has been warned by the FBI that Russian spies were trying to recruit him.) She asked questions of candidate Donald Trump at a Las Vegas forum. Her subject of interest? Economic sanctions against Russians, the same topic broached by the Russians who called on Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower. She helped to set up back channels between the Kremlin and U.S. politicians. She proposed to bring Putin to the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast. And she reported on her actions back to Moscow through Torshin. On the night of Trump’s victory, she messaged her handler: “I’m going to sleep. It’s 3 a.m. here. I am ready for further orders.”

Assisting Butina in her international intrigues was “U.S. Person 1,” identified by multiple news organizations as Paul Erickson, a longtime, minor Republican figure. Erickson, who lobbied on behalf of Zaire dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in the mid-1990s, had a romantic relationship with Butina and cohabitated with her (and was business partners with her), tried and failed to introduce candidate Trump to Torshin at the 2016 NRA convention.

According to the Washington Post, security clearance problems foiled Erickson ambitions for a job in the Trump transition. By a single measure, he did have some influence in the forming of the new administration. “One person recalled his lobbying to get K.T. McFarland named as an adviser to Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser,” the Post reported. After Flynn was caught back-channeling with the Russian ambassador on the subject of sanctions, the White House reluctantly ejected him from his position and McFarland was eventually sent packing, too.

The Butina indictment doesn’t expose a saucy spy scandal as some headlines would appear to suggest. She did offer sex to an unnamed person “in exchange for a position within a special interest organization,” according to a court filing, but the criminal complaint offers no evidence of the sleuthing and secret-stealing performed undercover that we associate with real spying. If anything, Butina was an overcover agent, not a sleeper agent like Anna Vasilyevna Chapman who was busted in 2010 for espionage. She spoke with a Russian accent, traveled back and forth between the U.S. and her home, and provided go-between services for Russians seeking politically connected Americans. Unless the prosecution has something more up its sleeve, the charges against Butina—failure to file as a foreign agent, visa fraud—are as common in Washington as jaywalking.

But the known details of the Butina operation reveal Russia’s persistent pursuit of influence, connections, and introductions that are consistent with the patterns of manipulation through hacking and social media interference, which have already earned indictments from Mueller. The Butina operation is also consistent with the path-paving done by Russia influencers in their meetings with Trump figures like Manafort, George Papadopoulos, Carter Page, Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr. and others. Russian efforts to influence and meddle continue, according to FBI Director Chris Wray. The Russians remain “the most aggressive actor” against the United States as they “sow divisiveness,” he continued.

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