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Justice Department charges Russian who eyed NRA as a foreign agent

A new federal criminal indictment tells quite a tale about a Russian intelligence operation that sought to use the NRA to influence Republican politics.
A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty)
A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

Late last week, the Justice Department filed criminal charges against 12 Russian intelligence officials for their role in allegedly attacking the U.S. elections in 2016. Yesterday, federal prosecutors charged another Russian, but this story is a little different. NBC News reported yesterday:

The gun-loving former aide to a top Russian official has been arrested and charged with being a foreign agent who conspired with her ex-boss to infiltrate politically powerful U.S. organizations and push Moscow's agenda.Mariia Butina, 29, who came to the U.S. in August 2016 on a student visa, previously served as a special assistant to a Kremlin crony whose description in court papers matches that of Alexander Torshin.

If Torshin's name sounds familiar, there's a reason for that: McClatchy News reported earlier this year that the FBI is exploring whether "a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money" to the National Rifle Association to help Donald Trump win the presidency. The specific focus was reportedly the activities of Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia's central bank, a close Putin ally, and someone who's faced allegations of money laundering and connections to organized crime.

Mariia Butina, by all accounts, is a Torshin protégé, who worked to establish connections to the NRA and prominent figures in American conservative politics.

And now Butina is facing federal criminal charges, with the Justice Department accusing her of working as a Russian foreign agent -- at the direction of Torshin -- and trying to establish "backchannel" lines of communication with American politicians in order to advance Putin's agenda in the United States.

More to the point, the new indictment appears to describe an effort, backed by the Russian government, to use Butina and Torshin to influence Republican politics -- using the NRA in particular as a point of leverage.

According to the charges, Butina put together a blueprint on how she intended to move forward with her influence operation: in 2015, she said she expected Republicans to control the U.S. government after the 2016 elections. Her plan went on to say that while the Republican Party has traditionally been hostile toward Russia, Butina believed there was an opportunity to cultivate relations because of a "right to negotiate."

Why did she think Russians had a "right to negotiate" on future Republican policies? What made Butina so confident of a GOP takeover following the 2016 elections? Who were the Americans Butina was in contact with during her intelligence operation?

We don't know, but as the legal proceedings unfold, it's likely we'll find out.

Rachel added on the show last night that, at its core, these new charges are a "collusion indictment," filed by the FBI and the national security division of the Justice Department, which alleges that "an agent of the Russian government was working in Republican and conservative politics in this country to, among other things, set up secret contacts and secret lines of communication with the Kremlin -- with support from, and approval from, Vladimir Putin."

And at the heart of the plan was Russia's intention to use the NRA as a vehicle.

Watch this space.