President Trump’s former campaign national security adviser is decrying a “Trump-Russia smear campaign in miniature” that has erupted in the media over Republican contacts with accused Moscow agent Maria Butina.
“This has nothing to do with the Trump campaign and is again an effort to disparage any Republicans or any National Rifle Association member,” said J.D. Gordon, a former Pentagon spokesman.
He said he has observed the media hunt for any contact or photo of Ms. Butina alongside a conservative.
Mr. Gordon told The Washington Times that, after he had left the Trump campaign, he had limited social contact with Ms. Butina, typical of Washington networking. The 29-year-old Russian national, who is in jail, ingratiated herself to conservative circles, including the NRA.
“From everything I’ve read since her arrest last month, it seems the Maria Butina saga is basically a sensationalized clickbait story meant to smear a steady stream of Republicans and NRA members she reportedly encountered over the past few years,” Mr. Gordon told The Times. “Since she networked so extensively among both groups at conferences and social events, I wonder which prominent Republican political figures she hasn’t come across?”
Mr. Gordon, a retired Navy officer, first met Ms. Butina at a Swiss Embassy reception in September 2016. She was introduced by Paul Erickson, an NRA member who had befriended Ms. Butina.
She was in the company of notable conservatives, such as former ambassador to Switzerland, Faith Whittlesey, a Ronald Reagan loyalist who died in May at 79. She had invited Mr. Gordon to the event.
Mr. Gordon accepted a Butina invite for drinks and they attended a Styx concert for which he had an extra ticket. Ms. Butina, along with Mrs. Whittelesey, came to his widely attended birthday party in October. That was their last meeting. He declined two invitations to Russian-American friendship events.
Mr. Gordon acknowledged in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee that he had met Ms. Butina.
The Swiss reception was a testament to Ms. Butina’s schmoozing skills as she sought to encourage better relations with President Vladimir Putin and report what she heard back to Moscow.
She also maneuvered into the sphere of George O’Neill Jr., a Rockefeller heir and GOP fundraiser who promotes Russia as a U.S. partner. He is listed as “U.S. person No. 2” in Butina court documents, according to the Washington Post. Mr. Erickson is noted as “U.S. Person No. 1.”
She has been photographed with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; former U.S. senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum and Rep. Mark Sanford — among a number of Republicans.
An FBI affidavit said Ms. Butina and Mr. O’Neill worked together to hold a series of dinners in 2016-17 on improving Russia relations.
Said Mr. Gordon, “While I believe the Butina case is overblown like the Trump-Russia witch hunt in general, based on all the evidence that’s come to light, it seems she should have registered with the government for her pro-Russia outreach efforts. Had she done that, there would be no issue with her activities. Even though the charges against her amount to a foreign lobbying violation and have nothing to do with the Trump campaign, she’s unfortunately been swept up in the same legal and information war that’s targeted Trump and Associates for over two years already.”
Her Moscow handler was Alexander Torshin, a chief Kremlin central banker close to Mr. Putin who, like Ms. Butina, joined the NRA.
Mr. Torshin was one of 17 Russian government officials sanctioned by the Trump administration last April for a “range of malign activity,” the Treasury Department said.
None of the Americans with whom she socialized were accused of wronging in the criminal complaint, which does not mention the Trump campaign.
The charges were brought last month by the U.S. attorney for D.C., not special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating any Trump-Russia election collusion. The charges say she failed to register with the attorney general as required by law as she attempted to influence U.S. policy in 2015-17, during both the Obama and Trump administrations.
Mr. Mueller has yet to charge any Trump official for colluding with Russia in its hacking of Democratic Party computers. President Trump has called the probe a “witch hunt” by “13 angry Democrats,” a reference to how many Mueller lawyers have donated to Democrats.
Said Mr. Gordon, “Maria Butina’s lawyer says she was arrested on a technicality for failing to register her activities with the Justice Department. Based on what I know, that seems entirely accurate. She presented herself to likely thousands of people as a graduate student at American University and founder of a Russian version of the NRA called, ‘Right to Bear Arms.’ It appears she sought out countless influential Americans in her steadfast efforts to strengthen relations with Russia. Recognizing that every single president since the Cold War tried to improve relations with Russia, including President Obama, her Russian-American friendship efforts seemed in sync with a decades-old U.S. foreign policy goal.”
The Justice Department’s July press statement said:
“The court filings detail the Russian official’s and Butina’s efforts for Butina to act as an agent of Russia inside the United States by developing relationships with U.S. persons and infiltrating organizations having influence in American politics, for the purpose of advancing the interests of the Russian Federation. The filings also describe certain actions taken by Butina to further this effort during multiple visits from Russia and, later, when she entered and resided in the United States on a student visa. The filings allege that she undertook her activities without officially disclosing the fact that she was acting as an agent of Russian government, as required by law.”
Ms. Butina hosted several leading NRA executives and pro-gun conservatives at her group’s annual meeting in 2015, according to press reports. Among those who attended were former NRA President David Keene, who at the time was opinion editor of The Washington Times, Mr. Erickson and former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, later a strong Trump supporter.
• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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