‘Putin’s Favorite Congressman’ Now Engulfed in NRA Spy Case
Maria Butina allegedly helped her Russian handler meet with a congressional delegation in August 2015. That’s when these lawmakers—one Democrat, one Republican—were in Russia.
Pro-Kremlin GOP Congressman Dana Rohrabacher met with a Putin ally in Russia in August 2015, The Daily Beast has confirmed, matching an account in Monday’s blockbuster FBI affidavit against accused Russian spy Maria Butina.
Butina was part of “discussions about the RUSSIAN OFFICIAL’s plans to meet with a U.S. Congressman during a Congressional Delegation trip to Moscow in August 2015,” FBI Agent Kevin Helson’s affidavit swears. “In that conversation, BUTINA noted she has the RUSSIAN OFFICIAL’s diplomatic passport and can purchase a plane ticket for him from St. Petersburg to Moscow.”
The official is widely believed to be Alexander Torshin, an influential former Russian politician from Vladimir Putin’s party who established trans-continental ties to the National Rifle Association.
The lawmakers on that congressional delegation were Rohrabacher and Democrat Gregory Meeks of New York, the leadership of the House foreign-affairs subcommittee on Europe. They were in Russia from from Aug. 4 to 6, 2015, the Congressional Record shows and their offices confirmed.
An aide to Rohrabacher, Ken Grubbs, told The Daily Beast that Rohrabacher met with Torshin.
“All he could recall about Ms. Butina is that she was an aide to Torshin who arranged a [breakfast] meeting and was of no consequence other than that. His CODEL [congressional delegation] as well as his meeting with Torshin all came under the normal, fact-finding auspices of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats,” Grubbs told The Daily Beast.
Both Grubbs and Meeks subsequently stated that their meetings in Russia were in St. Petersburg, not Moscow.
Meeks told The Daily Beast that Rohrabacher set up the August 2015 trip and that he went along as a Democratic “counterbalance” to Rohrabacher’s pro-Russian politics.
The affidavit indicates the Russian official believed to be Torshin had planned to meet with a single legislator. Meeks said he was unfamiliar with Torshin and did not meet one-on-one with any Russian while on the trip.
“If Rohrabacher met with anybody individually or not, I can’t tell you,” Meeks said.
It was an unusual time for prominent American legislators to visit Russia. Bilateral relations had turned acrimonious after Russia invaded Ukraine, annexed the Crimean Peninsula, and shot down the civilian passenger plane Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. While Rohrabacher and Meeks were in Russia, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and other colleagues met with pro-American political figures in Ukraine discussing “the challenges Ukraine faces and their impact on regional and global stability” with President Petro Poroshenko.
Rohrabacher is perhaps the most pro-Russia member of Congress, and a rare Republican to embrace Moscow before Donald Trump’s presidency. “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy remarked in 2016, according to The Washington Post. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington named Meeks, a Queens Democrat, “one of the most ethically challenged members of Congress.” He had been under an Ethics Committee investigation in 2012 after Meeks received a $40,000 loan from someone who pleaded guilty to unrelated mortgage fraud; the committee cleared Meeks of wrongdoing.
The main message of the Russians to the legislators, Meeks said, was to decry Barack Obama, denounce the U.S. and NATO as aggressors, and attack a piece of human-rights sanctions legislation known as the Magnitsky Act that Rohrabacher has subsequently been accused of violating.
“There was somebody from the Russia Duma that was there, and I can recall getting into a shouting match with this member of the Duma who was putting down America and putting down President Obama and I went back at him,” Meeks said, describing the Russian legislator as a male in his late forties or early fifties; Torshin, who was a legislator in 2015, is in his sixties.
Meeks said he was unfamiliar with Torshin. Asked if he was familiar with Butina and if she was involved in the Russian meetings on the trip, Meeks said, “Not that I know of, no.”
Meeks added, “My dialogue was 180 degrees different than the dialogue of Mr. Rohrabacher.”
Just yesterday, Rohrabacher defended Trump’s near-universally panned press conference with Vladimir Putin, arguing on Bloomberg Television that the U.S. meddles in Russian elections “at a much higher rate” than the other way around. Meeks, however, issued a statement blasting Trump for “parrot[ing] Russian propaganda” and saying Trump “is clearly colluding with Russia now to advance Putin’s interests. To every one of my colleagues across the aisle who has spoken critically of Russia prior to Trump’s election, your silence now is deafening.”
Accompanying the congressmen, the Congressional Record states, were two key staffers. One was Paul Behrends, then a Rohrabacher aide, a critical congressional contact for Kremlin-aligned figures Natalia Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin before their now-infamous June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower. Donald Trump Jr. took that meeting on the belief that he would receive damaging information against Hillary Clinton.
Behrends and Rohrabacher, The Daily Beast reported last year, unsuccessfully attempted to hold a congressional hearing calling the Magnitsky Act a fraud after both men received a document from Russia’s prosecutor-general’s office during an April 2016 visit to Moscow.
Meeks was accompanied to Russia in August 2015 by his foreign-affairs aide Philip Bednarczyk, a Democratic staffer for the House foreign-affairs Europe subcommittee on which Meeks serves. Meeks’ office said Bednarczyk ceased working for the congressman last month.
“All I can tell you is, we did the official meetings, and when the official meetings were over, Phil and I were together, and Paul and Rohrabacher were together,” Meeks said.
Butina’s arrest and indictment this week has added a new layer of depth and urgency to the allegations of Russian influence surrounding the Trump administration and its allies. The FBI alleges that Butina, on Torshin’s behalf, infiltrated the NRA as a lever to move GOP politics in a pro-Russia direction.
On Oct. 4, 2016, the affidavit alleges, an unnamed “U.S. person” in close contact with Butina emailed an acquaintance to boast of involvement in “securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [Republican Party] leaders through, of all conduits, the [NRA].” The FBI’s Helson said he understood that communication to represent “U.S. Person 1’s involvement in BUTINA’s efforts to establish a ‘back channel’ communication for representatives of the Government of Russia.”