The boyfriend of confessed Russian agent Maria Butina wrote that she “manipulated” a Russian spy agency when arranging NRA bigwigs’ trip to Moscow, The Daily Beast has learned.
Paul Erickson, Butina’s boyfriend, made this claim on Nov. 25, 2015 in an email to a trip participant. The light-hearted, chummy tone of the email, which was subsequently read to The Daily Beast, contrasts significantly with how Erickson characterized Butina’s relationship with the FSB to The New Republic: tense, bordering on hostile.
It also shows that at least one trip attendee was led to believe that Russia’s FSB—whose predecessor was the KGB—helped lay the groundwork for the trip.
Erickson began the email, sent to then-incoming NRA President Pete Brownell, with florid language.
“Dear International Man of Mystery or should we just start calling you “Austin Powers” to your face??” he wrote, with a smiley face.
“Miss Butina has (apparently) moved heaven and earth and manipulated the Russian FSB (the current incarnation of the old KGB) and gotten you cleared for a tour of one (1) Russian arms factory the day before the NRA delegation arrives in Moscow,” he continued. “She found a way to shrink a normally 3-week process into about 3-days (probably because most of the FSB agents ‘assigned’ to her want to marry her).”
John Sipher, a former chief of Russia operations for the CIA, called the email alarming.
“The right thing to do would have been to inform the FBI and cancel the trip,” Sipher said. “Cavorting with those who claim to be at war with you is unpatriotic at best. Mr. Erickson’s actions are especially abhorrent.”
A spokesperson for Brownell, who runs a guns-and-ammo retail business, said he checked with the State Department before traveling to Russia.
“Pete accepted the invitation to join this trip with the understanding that it was an NRA-related event organized with the support of the organization,” the spokesperson said. “He welcomed the opportunity to meet with folks who share his passion for hunting, and to further understand how Brownells can continue to be successful in overseas markets. He had his company’s compliance team review the itinerary with the State Department ahead of time and carefully followed their guidance before, during and after the trip. He has made clear that he stands ready to assist with any bipartisan inquiries.”
Erickson’s email, which included logistics for Brownell’s Russia travels, maintained a cheerful tone throughout. It differs sharply from how Erickson and Butina—who started a Russian gun rights group and courted American conservatives—described her interactions with the FSB to journalist James Bamford for the New Republic piece. Those interviews are their only extensive on-record comments about the case since last summer, when Butina was arrested and charged with acting as a covert agent for the Russian government. In December, she pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges stemming from what federal prosecutors described as an effort to “establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics.” Butina is currently in jail awaiting sentencing.
But on the way to securing that guilty plea, the prosecutors targeting Butina have made at least one serious misstep: They had to retract an ugly accusation that she traded sex for access.
Erickson and Butina say the Russian authorities also scrutinized her.
“She was under constant FSB surveillance in Russia,” Erickson told Bamford. “They would go to all the public meetings of her group, and they would go to all the rallies. Sometimes just show up in her offices once a week.”
Butina also described a fraught relationship with the FSB.
“We were watched,” she said, “but unless you crossed the line, no one’s going to go to prison. The question becomes: Do you cross this line? Do you become dangerous to the regime at a certain point? I had a bag packed in my hallway at home in case I’m imprisoned, somebody can bring it to me. That’s my reality.”
It would not be unusual for the FSB to scrutinize Butina’s gun rights group. Putin’s government generally opposes efforts to expand gun rights in Russia, in part due to fear of armed resistance. And it has long telegraphed hostility to civil society organizations. Despite that, the Kremlin green-lit outreach efforts by Butina’s group to the NRA, according to a report by a U.S. intelligence agency which The Daily Beast reviewed.
A source close to Erickson said his email and his statements to Bamford are consistent.
“To say that FSB agents were ‘assigned’ to Maria Butina is a polite way of saying that she was under constant government surveillance in Russia because of her gun rights activities,” that person said. “Never mistake polite interactions with potential jailers as anything other than a survival technique.”
The email came a few weeks before a host of NRA bigwigs and board members, including Brownell, ventured to Moscow. On the trip, they hobnobbed with Kremlin officials and enjoyed tourist attractions. A copy of the schedule reviewed by The Daily Beast shows they even had a meeting arranged with the Kremlin’s then-national security adviser, who just a few months prior had announced an arms sale to Iran. David Keene, a former president of the NRA, helped arrange the trip. According to another Erickson email, he wanted participants to impress their Russian hosts so he could score an interview for his newspaper with Vladimir Putin.
Erickson, an accused fraudster, is not necessarily a reliable narrator. Over his decades in the conservative movement, he developed a reputation for exaggerating his connections to political power-brokers and deceiving acquaintances about his business practices. Last week, a South Dakota grand jury charged him with wire fraud and money laundering. He pleaded not guilty. And last September, the U.S. Attorney for the district of Washington D.C. told Erickson’s lawyer he may face charges for covertly working for a foreign government.
The relationship between the NRA and Russians close to the Kremlin is a subject of intense interest on Capitol Hill as well. The Senate intelligence committee is investigating the December 2015 NRA trip, as is the Senate Finance Committee. In December, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, who sits on both committees, sent letters to three key NRA figures seeking their interviews ahead of a still-forthcoming report: Keene, Brownell, and former NRA president Allan Cors.
The investigations, alongside the prosecutions of Butina and Erickson, target a question of Russian influence over American politics beyond those concerning President Trump. The portrait prosecutors painted of Butina, Erickson, and Butina patron Alexander Torshin, a former deputy governor of the Russian Central Bank, alleges that the Kremlin cultivated the NRA as a lever with which to move the conservative movement and the Republican Party in directions convivial to Russian interests.
A lawyer for Butina declined to comment. The NRA did not provide comment for this story. In a statement provided to The Daily Beast for a previous story, a lawyer for the NRA noted that organization staff did not attend and said its CEO, Wayne LaPierre, privately expressed concerns about the trip.
Sipher, the former CIA officer, said there was “no excuse” for the NRA leadership to take the Moscow trip after Brownell was told one of his interlocutors was in close contact with the FSB.
“The NRA decision to travel to Moscow despite clear indications that Russian intelligence was involved suggests a twisted view of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys,” Sipher said. “Either the NRA leadership were engaged in willful ignorance or, worse, they had such an antagonistic attitude toward the U.S. administration [of Barack Obama] that they chose to engage with our enemies. At the end of the day, however, there is no excuse. There was no shortage of information suggesting that Vladimir Putin saw the U.S. as an enemy and that Russian intelligence was engaged in aggressive espionage and information warfare against the U.S.”