As details of Russian national Maria Butina's interactions with key U.S. political figures have continued to surface since she was charged as a Russian agent on Monday for trying to use political groups including the NRA to influence American politics, some Democrats in Congress are demanding that Republicans hold accountable the gun group and President Donald Trump—whose Monday press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin has heightened concerns about Russia's influence over U.S. elections and his administration.
Although Butina's charges are unrelated to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's ongoing probe into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election, for months lawmakers and others have raised concerns about how Russia may be exploiting "dark money" groups such as the NRA. In May, Democratic Reps. Ted Lieu (Calif) and Kathleen Rice (N.Y.) sent a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray demanding an investigation into whether the Kremlin was illegally using the notorious gun group to interfere with U.S. campaigns.
In May, @RepTedLieu & I sent a letter to the FBI calling for an investigation into Russian ties to the NRA. Yesterday, Russian national Mariia Butina was charged w/ acting as a foreign agent after attempting to infiltrate the NRA to influence our election. https://t.co/5zGxOzrk0F https://t.co/36MCrtvqya
— Kathleen Rice (@RepKathleenRice) July 17, 2018
"This indictment is significant but not shocking given all we know about Russia's efforts to influence our elections. It alleges that Russian actors attempted to infiltrate the NRA and make contact with the Trump campaign," Lieu and Rice said in a joint statement after Butina was charged. "A foreign entity that gains access to a powerful political organization to sway the outcomes of elections threatens the very underpinnings of our democracy. That's exactly why we called on FBI Director Wray to investigate Kremlin ties to the NRA in May."
Citing Trump's press conference performance on Monday, in which he sided with Putin over the findings of his own intelligence agencies about Russian interference in U.S. elections, Lieu and Rice added: "As former prosecutors, we're keenly aware that this doesn't represent some simple coincidence. Something bad happened in 2016 and every day that we in Congress fail to hold Russia and this administration accountable is another day they can chip away at our country's institutions."
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)—who, in March, demanded that the NRA disclose details about donations from foreigners—turned to Twitter on Monday to encourage "the Republican leadership" to join him in forcing the gun lobbyist group, in light of the charges against Butina, to answer questions about foreign donors:
Today’s indictment of a Russian national means Republicans can no longer ignore the facts: Russia used @NRA to infiltrate & influence US politics. The Republican leadership should join my investigation & force the @NRA to answer questions about the 2016 election. #FollowTheMoney https://t.co/mfeBjVGlHb
— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) July 16, 2018
The Democratic lawmakers' remarks came alongside a flood of reports, photos, and videos detailing Butina's alleged efforts to infiltrate right-wing groups and "establish a back channel of communication with American politicians," bolstering claims made in the FBI's 17-page affidavit (pdf).
McClatchy tweeted out a report published last month about the Justice Department's probe into allegations about prominent Russians with ties to Putin—including Alexander Torshin, a politician, banker, and lifetime NRA member—and their contact with the NRA. The report described Butina—also a lifetime member of the NRA—as Torshin's "protégé," and noted that the "Putin ally" helped Butina found a gun group called Right to Bear Arms.
While, according to McClatchy, NRA officials established a relationship with the pair way back in 2011, "in December 2015, Torshin and Butina's gun rights group hosted an NRA delegation led by NRA board member and former President David Keene for a week of lavish wining and dining in Moscow," which included meeting with "a web of elite Russians."
ThinkProgress, meanwhile, compiled photos of Butina with various Republican politicians and right-wing activists, including NRA head Wayne LaPierre, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Penn.). Others highlighted a 2015 video of Butina asking then-candidate Trump about lifting sanctions on Russia: