Woman who sought 'back channel' meeting for Trump and Putin is charged as Russian agent

An editor looks at the Twitter feed of the Embassy of the Russian Federation to the US with a post about the arrest of Russian woman Mariia Butina, in Hollywood, California, on July 16, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - A Russian woman who tried to broker a secret meeting between Donald Trump and Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, during the 2016 presidential campaign was charged Monday and accused of working with Americans to carry out a secret Russian effort to influence US politics.

At the behest of a senior Russian government official, the woman, Maria Butina, made connections through the National Rifle Association (NRA), religious organisations and the National Prayer Breakfast to try to steer the Republican Party toward more pro-Russia policies, court records show. Privately comparing herself to a Soviet Cold War propagandist, she worked to infiltrate US organisations and establish "back channel" lines of communication with American politicians.

"These lines could be used by the Russian Federation to penetrate the US national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation," an FBI agent wrote in court documents.

The charges were filed under seal Saturday, the day after 12 Russian intelligence officers were indicted on a charge of hacking Democratic computers during the 2016 campaign. The records were unsealed hours after Trump stood beside Putin in Helsinki and said that he saw no reason the Russian leader would try to influence the presidential election.

Trump's own intelligence chiefs have concluded otherwise. As Trump disparaged the investigation, the Justice Department painted a picture of a multifaceted Russian effort to sway the election through computer espionage, personal overtures and the assistance of American intermediaries.

While Putin denied any involvement Monday in such activities, court documents showed that Butina told associates that her covert efforts were approved by Putin's administration.

Butina, whose first name is more commonly spelled Maria, was involved in two failed efforts to set up meetings between Trump and Putin in 2016. The charges announced Monday do not name Trump, but they make clear Butina's overtures were part of a carefully crafted Russian intelligence operation.

The charges were filed by Justice Department national security prosecutors, not the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

The Justice Department said that Butina worked at the behest of an unidentified high-level Russian government official. He has been previously identified as Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of the Russian central bank.

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