Maria Butina, the alleged Russian agent who stands accused of developing a covert influence operation in the United States, boasted of connections to high-ranking Kremlin officials and was even paid to pursue access to Russian President Vladimir Putin for a television show, ABC News has learned.
Dozens of pages of email correspondence between August 2015 and November 2016, obtained exclusively by ABC News, reveal Butina’s hand in a pair of potentially explosive projects: appearing to arrange a meeting for a delegation of high-ranking members of the National Rifle Association with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and working with the Outdoor Channel to develop a television show highlighting Putin’s “love of the outdoors” that would feature the Russian President himself.
In one exchange, a pair of NRA insiders discuss their upcoming trip to Russia and appear to copy and paste a previous note from the trip’s organizer Butina — describing the note as “In Maria’s own words” — that makes explicit reference to Lavrov, one of Putin’s closest advisers.
“Almost all your schedule is done,” Butina wrote. “We are waiting [sic] a response from The Ministry Of Foreign Affairs — Mr. Lavrov wants to meet you and we are working to make it real.”
And in another exchange between Butina and a senior executive at the Outdoor Channel, Butina claimed her “contacts directly within the President’s office” were “VERY happy (and excited)” about the proposed program and its political potential.
“I have also just arranged for an official delegation of Russian Kremlin cabinet ministers to travel the U.S. to observe your presidential election in the fall,” Butina wrote in June 2016. “This matters to your project because THEY have already lobbied President Putin to do this show as an example of the kind of relationship Russia could have with America … and with President Trump.”
It is unclear whether that “official delegation” of Kremlin-connected election observers was actually dispatched. But while Butina appears to have succeeded in arranging the meeting with Lavrov, raising the prospect of a discussion between conservative political operatives and a powerful member of Putin’s inner circle in the midst of a presidential campaign, her amateur effort to engineer a television show starring Putin never gained significant traction, raising questions about the extent and authenticity of her Kremlin connections.
Butina, a 29-year-old Russian gun-rights activist, is scheduled to appear in court on Monday as she awaits trial on charges of conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent. Federal prosecutors have alleged that under the direction of a unnamed “Russian official,” Butina gained access to powerful conservative political institutions and even ensnared an American political operative in a “duplicitous relationship,” using him for cover and connections as she sought to “advance the agenda of the Russian Federation.”
Her defense attorney, Robert Driscoll, has called the accusations against her “overblown” and sought to recast his client as nothing more than an ambitious graduate student in a “legitimate” relationship with a likeminded political operative.
In a brief interview on Friday, Driscoll confirmed the authenticity of the emails, telling ABC News they show Butina merely “taking her opportunities where she finds them.”
An NRA spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment from ABC News.
In response to questions from ABC News, the Outdoor Channel provided a statement saying that following their president and CEO Jim Liberatore’s trip to Moscow, Butina was “retained later based on personal representations she made that she could be helpful as an in-country consultant” and received $20,000 over four months.
“In 2015, at the time of the NRA trip, one country of interest for both potential foreign content and audience market was Russia, as President Putin was outspoken on wildlife conservation and outdoor pursuits, and Russia has a sizable outdoor lifestyle culture,” the statement reads. “To explore the feasibility of expanding [its mobile streaming app] into the Russian market and developing Russia-origin content that included Mr. Putin, Mr. Liberatore joined the NRA trip to Russia. His involvement was purely commercial.”
The emails obtained by ABC News detail Butina’s efforts to organize the summit that brought high-ranking NRA members and powerful Russian nationals together in Moscow in December 2015, a trip seemingly sponsored by Butina’s gun-rights group “Right to Bear Arms.”
The delegation included NRA board member Pete Brownell, Trump campaign surrogate Sheriff David Clarke, major NRA benefactor Dr. Arnold Goldschlager and his daughter Hilary, NRA fundraiser Joe Gregory, former NRA president David Keene and Outdoor Channel CEO Jim Liberatore. They reportedly met with Butina, her alleged handler Alexander Torshin, the Deputy Governor of the Russian Central Bank who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2018, and Dmitry Rogozin, then-Russian Deputy Prime Minister who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2014.
Emails suggest Butina was eager to add Lavrov, the powerful Russian foreign minister, to their schedule, and according to one of the members of the delegation, the meeting took place.
On Dec. 10, former Milwaukee County Sheriff Clarke tweeted a photo of him standing next to a Russian soldier with the description: “Red Square near the Kremlin with a Russian officer. Met earlier with Russian Foreign Minister who spoke on Mid East.”
Butina’s defense attorney Driscoll acknowledged that the delegation met with “some hitters” in Moscow, including Lavrov, but told ABC News it was Torshin, not Butina, who had the political connections that made it possible.
But it was in her work on behalf of the Outdoor Channel that Butina appears to have fully advertised her own political prowess.
Jim Liberatore, the president and chief executive officer of the Outdoor Channel, was seeking to develop a show about President Putin’s outdoorsmanship as early as August 2015, when former NRA president Keene wrote an email to Butina introducing Liberatore as a potential addition to their Moscow trip.
“[Liberatore] wants to do a non-political short series of shows,” Keene wrote, “that he would tentatively call “Putin’s Russia” featuring the Russian outdoors, hunting, fishing and conservation efforts such as the effort to save the Siberian Tiger.”
Butina replied to Keene’s wife Donna the following month.
“We think it is a good idea,” Butina wrote. “Let’s plan it.”
According to the Outdoor Channel, Liberatore “does not recall being at any meeting with Mr. Lavrov,” but days after their return from Moscow, Liberatore followed up with Butina. He expressed his eagerness to “keep the momentum from our trip going” and sent her a full pitch letter, a copy of which can be read below, for a show that would “document Mr. Putin’s personal efforts of conservation by producing several one hour programs that would be told through his eyes.”
“There is a strong tie between the people of Russia and those of the United States that is not often seen or discussed in the public eye,” Liberatore wrote. “It is a love of the natural resources both countries have and strive to protect. Conservation is a bedrock for both of these nations, and there is no bigger champion for this in Eastern Europe than Vladimir Putin.”
In January, Butina sent another senior Outdoor Channel executive a proposed consulting agreement — drafted for her by Paul Erickson, the political operative with whom she was romantically involved — that would pay her $5,000 per month to help the network “secure the cooperation of President Putin and his staff in seeing him featured on one or more episodes of the tentatively titled ‘Unknown Russia’ outdoor adventure series.”
Emails suggest the network began paying her in February with Butina “eager to use the political channels available to [her]” on the network’s behalf. But rather than reach out to some high-ranking Kremlin powerbroker, Butina appears to have merely contacted the low-level press officer who handles media requests, from whom she received polite responses showing little interest in the project.
By May, Outdoor Channel appears to have lost its faith in Butina. The senior executive suggested cancelling their agreement and halting payments due to budget constraints, but Butina pushed back and urged them to continue paying her through August.
“No western media company (or even news organization) has EVER had this much access to President Putin,” she boasted in a June 8, 2016 email. “That my contacts are seriously considering this is groundbreaking.”
Perhaps the most notable detail in this exchange is buried in the email signature — Butina suddenly lists herself as the “President” of Bridges LLC, the mysterious South Dakota shell company she established with Erickson, who told McClatchy DC it was used to defray her educational expenses.
Butina’s continued entreaties to the Kremlin press office over the ensuing months appear to have borne little fruit, with perhaps the most hopeful reply coming shortly after Trump’s election.
“We will keep your request in mind in the event of a visit by the Russian head of state to the U.S.,” wrote a Kremlin press officer to Butina.
According to the Outdoor Channel, however, Butina’s arrangement with the network had already ended.
“The company terminated Ms. Butina’s contract after four months because she failed to make progress,” the company said in a statement. “The network has not pursued Russia-origin content since June 2016 and has instead focused on other countries and regions.”
For Driscoll, her failure to deliver Putin is another indication that Butina is not the person that the government has accused her of being.
“It demonstrates that she’s not particularly connected and not working for an intelligence agency,” Driscoll told ABC News. “One would think if she were, there would be a lot better contacts she could call on.”
ABC News’ Patrick Reevell contributed to this report.
This story was featured in the Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018, episode of ABC News' daily news podcast "Start Here."
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