Feds charge Russian national accused of acting as covert Kremlin agent

Putin denies meddling, but hackers left clues

The Department of Justice announced Monday that federal authorities have arrested 29-year-old Russian national Maria Butina on charges that she covertly worked to infiltrate U.S. political organizations on behalf of a high-ranking Russian official over the course of several years. Butina is charged with "conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian Federation within the United Stated without prior notification to the Attorney General," the department said.

Butina -- a resident of Washington, D.C. -- was arrested on Sunday. According to the Justice Department, Butina worked "at the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government" from "as early as 2015 ... through at least February 2017." She allegedly tried to advance Russian interests "by developing relationships with U.S. persons and infiltrating organizations having influence in U.S. politics." 

An affidavit filed in federal court in Washington details the accusations. On Nov. 30, 2016, Butina emailed someone identified as "U.S. Person 1" about the Russian delegation to the National Prayer Breakfast, the affidavit says. Butina wrote that members of the delegation had been "handpicked" by a senior Russian official and were "VERY influential in Russia." She said that the delegation was coming to "establish a back channel of communication" and asked if another person, identified as "U.S. Person 2," would want to meet with them. 

The affidavit also alleges that on Oct. 4, 2016, U.S. Person 1 emailed an acquaintance and claimed to be involved in "securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin" and an unnamed political party. U.S. Person 1 claimed that the conduit for this back channel was an "unnamed gun rights organization." 

A statement from Butina's attorney, Robert Driscoll, denied any wrongdoing and described her actions as "open and public networking." The statement also says that Butina has cooperated with the government, testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and was the subject of a search warrant in April. 

"Maria Butina is not an agent of the Russian Federation. She is a Russian national in the United States on a student visa who recently graduated from American University in Washington, D.C. with a Masters Degree in International Relations and 4.0 Grade Point Average," the statement says. 

Butina worked closely with Alexander Torshin, CBS News reported last fall. Both had close ties to the National Rifle Association. Torshin, who is not mentioned by name in the affidavit, is a high-ranking Russian official who became deputy governor of the Russian central bank. In April, the U.S. sanctioned Torshin and a number of other officials close to Russian leader Vladimir Putin. 

House Intelligence Committee sources said Monday they assume that the unnamed "high-level official in the Russian government" is indeed Torshin. According to these sources, the fact that Torshin wasn't charged along with Butina is a sign that special counsel Robert Mueller is trying to secure her cooperation and get her to turn on Torshin or other Russian officials. 

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee sought to interview Butina during their investigation into Russian meddling during the 2016 campaign, but were not able to convince their Republican counterparts to seek interviews with her and several people connected to her. 

In a statement released after Butina's arrest, Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said she had "been charged with acting as a surreptitious Russian agent and establishing a secret back channel with the GOP through the NRA. More likely to come on this; no wonder GOP members of [the House Intelligence Committee] refused our request to bring her and others in."

Torshin and Butina unsuccessfully tried to secure a meeting with President Trump before the 2016 election, a source familiar with the matter told CBS News last November. The pair did, however, have a brief meeting with Donald Trump Jr. at a NRA event in May 2016. 

In a November 2017 statement, Alan Futerfas, an attorney representing Trump Jr., downplayed the significance of the encounter. He said Trump Jr. "was attending an NRA convention and having dinner when an acquaintance asked him to say hello to Torshin and made an introduction. They made small talk for a few minutes and went back to their separate meals."

A source said last year that Torshin and Butina were eager for Mr. Trump to travel to Russia to meet with Putin. The NRA did not immediately return a request for comment. 

Nancy Cordes and Jeff Pegues contributed reporting.