Maria Butina – What are her charges?
In what has already been a pretty incredible news week between the United States and Russia, hours after the joint news conference between President Trump and Vladimir Putin, more news hit the cycle. Maria Butin, a Russian graduate student, was charged with conspiring to act as an agent of Russia without registering under U.S. law.
According to court records, she is accused of having entered the U.`s. on a student visa for graduate work at American University but actually doing secret work on behalf of the Kremlin. One FBI agent claims that her goal was to exploit the personal connections with politically influential Americans in order to advance Russian interests. The charges claim that Ms. Butina made contact with an American political operative in Moscow back in 2013. He worked to arrange meetings with these influential Americans, including the National Rifle Association (NRA). Her lawyer denies all the charges.
The complaint alleges that she is in violation of the Foreign Agent Registration Act. This law requires that anyone who represents the interests of foreign powers in a ‘political or quasi-political capacity’ must disclose this relationship as well as information about their related activities and finances. Essentially, the law covers lobbyists who meet with Congress and other branches of the government. The law covers political agents, public relations counsel, political consultants, and even fundraisers. It does not include journalists or press services if they are not owned by the foreign government. It also excludes organizations involved in religious, scholastic, academic or scientific pursuits, or in fine arts and anyone who is not serving a predominantly foreign interest.
Ms. Butina is charged with conspiring with an official (or multiple officials) of the Russian Federation in failing to register as a foreign agent. Specifically, she conspired to act as an agent of the Russian Federation without notifying the Attorney General, exploit personal connections with influential Americans to advance Russian interests and to infiltrate active political organizations without prior notification to the A.G. She is accused of attempting to create ‘back channel’ or private lines of communication with American politicians. According to the affidavit, she met regularly with leaders of the Republican party as ‘a representative of informal diplomacy’ for Russia. She is the former assistant of Alexander Torshin, who was sanctioned by the US earlier this year. He is the Russian deputy central bank governor, and he was involved in trying to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin back in 2016.
These records were recently unsealed, and indicate that the investigation leading to Ms. Butina’s arrest could actually yield even more arrests. And she is not the first – Paul Manafort, Trump’s foreign campaign manager, was already arrested and charged for failing to register as a foreign agent. But, the statute has in large part been under-enforced or unenforced for most of its existence. Very few cases have been brought against individuals or organizations for violations, and they were always distinctly foreign (such as agents of the IRA). Usually, the case results in either a plea deal or a sentence that involves only a significant fine (several hundred thousand dollars, as in the United States v. Samir A Vincent case), and no jail time. Perhaps her arrest will lead to more intelligence – but more likely than not, she will be slapped with a fine, given probation and potentially asked to leave the country.