This may be shaping up as a major breakthrough in the Trump-Russia investigation. It is validating reporting from about six months ago that focused on connections between the NRA and Alexander Torshin, deputy head of the Central Bank of Russia who has been linked to the Russian mafia and money laundering operations. Maria Butina, the subject of today’s charges, is Torshin’s assistant. It’s just IMHO, but I suspect that prosecutors will be leaning on Butina in hopes she will flip on her boss and help them follow the money trail from the Central Bank of Russia to the NRA.
For those who are interested in digging into Torshin’s and Butina’s relationship with the NRA, here are some excellent investigative reports. I’ve extracted a few highlights.
This article by Michael Isikoff goes way back to April, 2017. Isikoff was one of the first to draw attention to the Torshin-NRA links – he took some flak for it at the time, but, in light of today’s charges, it turns out he was on to something (more power to investigative journalism!).
The White House abruptly canceled a scheduled meeting in February between President Trump and a high-level Russian central banker after a national security aide discovered the official had been named by Spanish police as a suspected “godfather” of an organized crime and money-laundering ring, according to an administration official and four other sources familiar with the event.
The event had been planned as a meet and greet with President Trump and Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of the Bank of Russia and a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, in a waiting room at the Washington Hilton before the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 2.
The charges do not refer specifically to the brokering of this meeting, but I imagine it’s one that prosecutors are looking at. Here is Butina’s comment to Isikoff about the canceled meeting:
“Late the night before, we were told that all meet and greets were off,” said Maria Butina, a special assistant to Torshin, in an email to Yahoo News, confirming that Torshin had expected to meet Trump at the event. “There were no specific questions or statements that Mr. Torshin had in mind during what we assumed to be a five-second handshake. We all hope for better relations between our two countries. I’m sure there will be other opportunities to express this hope.”
The next article, published by McClatchy in January of this year, took a closer look at the Russia-NRA connections:
The FBI is investigating 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, two sources familiar with the matter have told McClatchy.
FBI counterintelligence investigators have focused on the activities of Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank who is known for his close relationships with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and the NRA, the sources said.
It is illegal to use foreign money to influence federal elections.
More attempts at brokering meetings with Trump and his inner-circle are described:
Torshin was a senior member of the Russian Senate and in recent years helped set up a Moscow gun rights group called Right to Bear Arms. He not only spoke with Trump Jr. at the NRA convention, but he also tried unsuccessfully to broker a meeting between Putin and the presidential candidate in 2016, according to the Times. He further sought to meet privately with the candidate himself near the 2016 NRA convention.
As Torshin’s assistant, Butina most likely worked on setting up these meetings and this is probably the reason the Senate Judiciary Committee sought more information about her in November of last year:
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent letters in November to two senior Trump foreign policy aides, J.D. Gordon and Sam Clovis, seeking copies of any communications they had with or related to Torshin; the NRA; veteran conservative operative Paul Erickson; Maria Butina, a Torshin protege who ran the Russian pro-gun group he helped launch, and others linked to Torshin.
Erickson has raised funds for the NRA and is a friend of Butina’s. Shortly before the NRA’s May 2016 convention, he emailed Trump campaign aide Rick Dearborn about the possibility of setting up a meeting between Putin and Trump during the campaign, according to the Times.
Erickson’s email to Dearborn bore the subject line “Kremlin Connection.” In it, Erickson solicited advice from Dearborn and his boss, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a top foreign policy adviser to Trump’s campaign, about the best way to connect Putin and Trump.
If I were Gordon, Clovis, Erickson, or Dearborn I’d be sweating it right now. Today’s charges against Butina show that federal prosecutors are hot on their tail. Erickson may have particular cause for concern, since he set up an LLC with Butina:
Bridges LLC, a company that Erickson and Butina established in February 2016 in Erickson’s home state of South Dakota, also is expected to draw scrutiny. Public records don’t reveal any financial transactions involving Bridges. In a phone interview last year, Erickson said the firm was established in case Butina needed any monetary assistance for her graduate studies — an unusual way to use an LLC.
An LLC to fund a student’s graduate school studies? Now that’s original.
Although this article from ProPublica does not mention Butina, it makes a fascinating read as it delves deep into Torshin’s ties with money laundering and the Russian mob known as the Taganskaya.
As the Spanish police investigated the presence of a notorious Russian organized crime group on the resort island of Mallorca in 2012, they realized that a key figure described by some of the suspects as their “godfather” was a powerful Moscow politician: Alexander Torshin. . . .
As Torshin began building his political profile in the U.S., he also became the focus of a Spanish law enforcement crackdown on a wave of Russian mobsters who came to Spain in the 1990s and 2000s to escape violence at home, launder money in real estate and tourism enterprises, and extend their reach in international business.