WASHINGTON (CN) – Mariia Butina, whom prosecutors have accused of acting as an illegal foreign agent for Russia, said in 2014 she was twice denied visas to enter the United States before finally being allowed to attend a National Rifle Association conference that year.
Butina, 29, pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to operating as an unregistered foreign agent and conspiracy to act as a foreign agent for an alleged scheme to cozy-up to influential American politicians and organizations while participating in a covert influence operation to advance Russia’s long-term strategic interests here.
Butina, a gun enthusiast who fostered a gun rights group in Russia – The Right to Bear Arms – indicated in a LiveJournal blog post on April 25, 2014 that it took three tries for her to get a visa to come to the United States, after which she cozied up to the National Rifle Association.
In the post, which was written in her native Russian, Butina says she missed the prior two NRA conferences. She indicated the winds shifted after NRA leadership came to Russia, which she said allowed her to later prove she was traveling to the United States on business, not to stay.
Among the NRA officials who made the trip to Moscow in 2013 were the association’s then-president, David Keene, and Republican operative Paul Erickson, whom Butina had a romantic relationship with, in large part because he arranged meetings for her with influential Americans.
Keene can be seen speaking at the 2013 Right to Bear Arms event on a video Butina linked to from her April 2015 blog post. Erickson meanwhile is not named in the indictment against Butina, but is believed to be someone identified in court documents as U.S. Person 1.
CNN was the first to report Friday on Butina’s failed efforts to obtain U.S. visas prior to 2014, while Politico later reported after reviewing her social media posts that she used her ties with the NRA to make inroads to the United States.
Since 2014, Butina worked on securing a longer-term visa and entered the country as a student in 2016, after having visited several times.
But prosecutors say her role was a student of international relations at American University in Washington, D.C., merely served as cover for her work as a foreign agent under the direction of a top Russian official close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, which was funded by a Russian oligarch.
The Russian official is not named in the indictment but is believed to be Aleksandr Torshin, a sanctioned member of the ruling United Russia party with ties to the NRA. When David Keene visited in Moscow in 2013, he noted that the NRA had hosted Torshin for three years prior at the annual NRA meetings in Washington, D.C.
Prosecutors say Butina also has ties to Russian intelligence operatives, an allegation her attorney Robert Driscoll adamantly denies.
“She’s not an agent of the Russian government, the Russian Federation. She’s innocent of the charges brought against her,” Driscoll said outside the courthouse Wednesday after Butina was arraigned. “Most importantly, she’s a young student seeking to make her way in America.”
Other video footage shows that Butina was able to get close to other influential Americans, including then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. In 2015 Butina turned up at a Trump campaign event to ask him a question.
“Do you want to continue the politics of sanctions that are damaging to both economies,” Butina asked Trump.
“I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin, okay,” Trump said in response. “And I mean, where we have the strength,” he added, pointing his hand at himself.
“I don’t think you’d need the sanctions. I think that we’d get along very, very well,” Trump added.
Butina was arrested on Sunday after FBI surveillance determined she had access to money and intended to move funds outside of the United States, perhaps in preparation for fleeing the country.
A magistrate judge denied Butina bail on Wednesday, finding that she was likely a flight risk. Butina will make her next court appearance on July 25 before U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan.