Just a few years ago, Maria Butina owned a furniture store in Siberia. Now she’s wheeling and dealing with D.C. think-tankers, Republican strategists, and a Russian bank chief with alleged mob connections.
Depending on the audience, Butina has presented herself as a Russian central bank staffer, a leading gun rights advocate, a “representative of the Russian Federation,” a Washington, D.C., graduate student, a journalist, and a connection between Team Trump and Russia. She used each role to help her gain more high-level contacts in the nation’s capital.
It’s another chapter in what’s becoming a familiar story in Washington: Kremlin-connected operators building bridges to the GOP.
Ever since U.S. intelligence services concluded that Russia was meddling in the American presidential elections, Team Trump’s ties to Russia have been highly scrutinized. The president’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned because he misled his bosses about his contacts with the Russian government; and his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, also resigned due to questions about his relationship with Russia.
Butina’s relationships, formed with Washington’s conservative society through her fierce advocacy for firearms—one conference described her as the “public face of gun rights in the Russian Federation”—provide a previously unreported link between the Russian government and the Republican Party.
Two of Butina’s friendships in particular have raised eyebrows. She started a business with Paul Erickson, a decades-long Republican Party activist. And she served as a special assistant to the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank, Alexander Torshin, a former Russian senator belonging to Vladimir Putin’s political party with alleged ties to the Russian mob world.
On Nov. 12, 2016, shortly after the election of President Donald Trump, Butina held a birthday party at Cafe Deluxe near American University, where she attends graduate school classes.
The event was a costume party attended by Trump campaign aides and Erickson, who told guests that he was on the Trump presidential transition team. She dressed as Russian Empress Alexandra while Erickson was dressed as Rasputin.
As chilled vodka flowed through an ice sculpture—a bottle imprinted with the Soviet hammer and sickle—she took some time to brag. She brazenly claimed that she had been part of the Trump campaign’s communications with Russia, two individuals who were present said. On other occasions, in one of her graduate classes, she repeated this claim.
“She said so in my class. And she said so several times in the last semester,” Svetlana Savranskaya, Butina’s former American University professor and a staffer at the National Security Archive, told The Daily Beast. “She is a former journalist, so she keeps up her connections in Russia. And she also works and [claims to] keep connections with a member of the Russian Duma.”
Erickson and Butina have been seen in public frequently, at the invitation-only Freedom Ball after Trump’s inauguration; and holding court at Russia House, a Russian-themed bar in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle. At one such gathering in the fall of 2016 Erickson bragged that he was advising the Trump transition team, according to two sources who were present; he is also said to have told a story about introducing Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the AK-47, to former NRA president David Keene. (Kalashnikov allegedly inspired the creation of “The Right to Bear Arms,” Butina’s gun rights group.)
The two appear to have gotten close: Erickson formed a limited liability corporation with Butina in February 2016, according to the South Dakota secretary of state. It is unclear what this organization, Bridges, LLC, actually does. (Despite living in Washington, D.C., Butina has a cellphone number with a South Dakota area code.)
As a former board member of the American Conservative Union—an influential conservative group that puts on the annual Conservative Political Action Conference—Erickson has a formidable network of contacts on the right. For example, he served on the American Conservative Union board with Becky Norton Dunlop, a senior Trump transition team official.
The White House did not comment on whether Erickson served on or advised the Trump transition team.
Erickson has been active within Republican and conservatives circles for decades, first appearing on the national stage as treasurer of the College Republicans in 1984. A 1992 Los Angeles Times report identifies him as the national political director for Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign, while a more recent report gives him a more senior title.
“Erickson had participated in every GOP presidential primary campaign since 1980 and was Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign manager in 1992,” an article in Forbes in December 2016 reads. “He is a sort of ‘secret master of the political universe’ known almost exclusively to the cognoscenti.”
Erickson was an adviser to the Mitt Romney campaign, a former board member of the ACU, a 2012 Mitt Romney delegate, and an attendee at the Trump inaugural address. He’s also identified in a USA Today obituary as a “friend and ally” of the late Breitbart News founder Andrew Breitbart.
“We protect gun rights in Russia, and people who are gun owners and in a situation of self-defense,” Butina told Townhall, a conservative news site, in May 2014, after she attended the annual NRA Women’s Leadership Luncheon in Indianapolis.
But Erickson isn’t Butina’s only well-connected friend. She is also close with Torshin, a former Russian lawmaker. Torshin was the deputy speaker of Russia’s parliament for more than a decade, and spent time on Russia’s powerful National Anti-Terrorism Committee, a state body that includes the director of the FSB and the ministers of defense, interior, and foreign affairs.
When Torshin was a deputy governor of Russia’s central bank, Butina served as his aide, according to an archived version of her personal website, which went offline around the time she moved to Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2016. The former Russian senator has tweeted about her frequently, posting photos of her on the social media network.
Torshin and Butina are both passionate defenders of gun owners’ rights. Both are lifetime members of the NRA (the only two Russians he knew to be lifetime members, Torshin once tweeted). The two attended the NRA’s annual meeting in 2014 as a special guests of then-NRA president David Keene.
“We are a young organization. We are three years old. And we invited David Keene. He made a speech at our annual meeting. And so it’s like an answer from one side,” Butina told Townhall. “The next side is the life member of our organization. He is our Russian senator. His name is Senator Alexander Torshin. He is a life member of NRA too, and he’s usually a participant of such events, and every annual meeting of NRA. But now the situation between (our) two countries is very difficult. And we have to go here together with Senator Torshin. He is a great gun lover, he supports our organization and he’s a friend of the NRA.”
As Butina mentioned, 2014 was a difficult time for U.S.-Russian relations. After the takeover of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine, the Obama administration slapped sanctions on Russian banks and Putin’s inner circle.
It was also a period of recovery for Torshin. The year before, in 2013, Spanish authorities completed a three-year probe into Russian mob activity in their country. In their confidential report they alleged that Torshin helped a Russian mob syndicate in Moscow launder money through banks and properties in Spain. This accusation is based in part on recordings of phone conversations Torshin had with an alleged Russian mobster in 2012 and 2013. Bloomberg News broke news of this confidential report in 2016, although Torshin denied the allegations. Torshin did not respond to a list of questions from The Daily Beast.
Torshin’s assets have skyrocketed over the last few years, according to Transparency International, a watchdog organization that tracks the net worth of Russian officials.
“One of Torshin’s superiors at the bank between 1995 and 1998, former First Deputy Governor Sergey Aleksashenko, said Torshin may have returned to his old post at the behest of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, with which he appears to have longstanding ties,” Bloomberg reported. “Aleksashenko, a former head of Merrill Lynch in Moscow, is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.”
Despite his ties to Russia, Torshin is still welcome in conservative circles. In May 2016, he returned to the NRA’s annual convention and shared a dinner table with Donald Trump Jr., according to the same Bloomberg report.
Neither Erickson nor Butina responded to multiple Daily Beast requests for comment through emails, texts, and phone calls. Neither responded to a list of detailed questions regarding this article.
But ultimately, the Torshin-Butina-Erickson link serves as another set of relationships between influential Russian figures and Washington power players—just as the FBI and several Senate committees examine Moscow’s impact on the American political scene. Just this week, The New York Times reported on a back-channel proposal that described a way to lift sanctions against Russia while ending the conflict in Ukraine, delivered to the White House through Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen.
One thing that’s clear: Trump himself is beginning to back away, at least in public, from any perceived connections to Russia.
On July 11, 2015—more than a year before she began her studies at American University—Butina was in Las Vegas at an early rally for Trump’s embryonic presidential campaign. During a question-and-answer session, she asked Trump about Russian sanctions.
“I’m from Russia. My question will be about foreign politics,” Butina said, glancing at prepared notes. “If you will be elected as president, what will be your foreign politics especially in the relationships with my country? Do you want to continue the policy of sanctions that are damaging [to] both economies? Or [do you] have any other ideas?”
“I know Putin, and I’ll tell you what, we’ll get along with Putin,” Trump said in his response to Butina. “I would get along very nicely with Putin, I mean, where we have the strength. I don’t think you’d need the sanctions. I think we would get along very, very well.”
These days, with revelations about Russia’s interference in the American presidential elections mounting, Trump gives a very different answer. “I don’t know Putin,” he tweeted earlier this month.
“I have nothing to do with Russia,” Trump added in a Feb. 16 press conference. “Haven’t made a phone call to Russia in years. Don’t speak to people from Russia. Not that I wouldn’t. I just have nobody to speak to.”