Alleged Russian Spy Was Working to Infiltrate Religious Right As Well As Gun Groups

Russian “gun rights activist” Maria Butina, who has been indicted as an unregistered Russian agent, tried to become friends with the Christian right even as she allegedly peddled sex. Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images

The more we learn about freshly indicted Russian spy suspect Maria Butina, the stranger the 29-year-old Siberian woman’s story becomes. As Eric Levitz explained earlier this week, Butina has had some extracurricular activities that are unusual for a grad student, which is supposedly why she was in the United States to begin with:

Previous reporting has suggested that this woman, 29-year-old American University graduate student Maria Butina, tried to broker two separate secret meetings between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin during the 2016 campaign. The court documents unveiled Monday allege that Butina simultaneously worked to infiltrate American political organizations and establish “back channel” lines of communication with American politicians.

Her apparent associate (or perhaps dupe) in her intelligence operations was U.S. “political operative” Paul Erickson, who was 30 years older than Butina but reportedly lived with her. He’s had his own colorful pre-espionage career, which included Pat Buchanan’s 1992 presidential campaign and a stint as “media advisor” to John Wayne Bobbitt, the man whose wife Lorena famously dis-membered him. The New York Daily News helpfully reports that Erickson was the genius behind Bobbitt’s “international ‘Love Hurts’ tour during which they sold t-shirts and autographed steak knives.”

In any event, Erickson had lots of useful contacts among U.S. gun activists that Butina, who led a gun-rights group back in Russia, was able to exploit very successfully. Her apparent boss, Russian pol (and Putin ally) Alexander Torshin, attended multiple NRA conventions, and Erickson reportedly hooked him up with Donald Trump Jr. at the 2016 event. He also sought to set up a meeting for Torshin with the mogul himself around that same time.

Butina also took advantage of Erickson’s links with the Christian right, as Slate’s Ruth Graham reports, though Torshin had his own relationships in that universe, having attended multiple National Prayer Breakfasts.

In 2016, according to a timeline compiled by the Washington Post, Butina emailed a Prayer Breakfast organizer to suggest that Putin might attend the following year. That didn’t happen, but she and Torshin attended. “A new relationship between two countries always begins better when it begins in faith,” Butina emailed an organizer afterward, thanking him for a gift and for the “very private meeting” after the breakfast. Butina was also part of a group that attempted to secure a meeting with the Trump campaign in May 2016 to talk about the persecution of Christians around the world, a topic of great interest to many American evangelicals.

Earlier, in 2015, Butina and Erickson also appeared on the radio show of conservative evangelical superstar (and big-time Trump promoter) Eric Metaxas to discuss gun rights and religious freedom — topics that are strangely congruent in the conservative Christian circles in which all these birds flew.

The affection with which many Christian right figures hold Russia and specifically the gay-bashing Putin is hardly a secret, as I noted in 2016:

[Putin’s evangelical fan club] includes some pretty big names, like conservative Evangelical leader Franklin Graham, National Organization for Marriage leader Brian Brown, and American Family Association spokesperson Bryan Fischer. In almost every case it has been his distinctive combination of homophobia and Islamophobia that has made Putin one of the Christian right’s favorite international figures. The cultural conservative preference for authoritarian Christian Slavs who are fighting Muslims has … carried over from the Serbs to their traditional sponsors in Moscow, and most especially to the former KGB officer who has revived Russia’s pre-communist tradition of militantly traditionalist Christianity.

So there is a U.S. religious constituency that very self-consciously supports Trump’s apparent interest in forming a new world order based on a Washington-Moscow axis, outflanking the decadent, secular, tolerant globalists of Western Europe.

One of the latest tidbits about the rather unusual relationship of Butina and Erickson emerged today in a memorandum from prosecutors asking that she be held without bail, as NBC News reports:

In arguing that Butina is a flight risk, prosecutors said her only tie to the U.S. is a “personal relationship” with an unidentified man — which is branded “duplicitous,” suggesting she was using him for her own means. According to The Washington Post, the man’s description matches that of Republican operative Paul Erickson.

“Butina appears to treat it as simply a necessary aspect of her activities,” the memo says. “For example, on at least one occasion, Butina offered an individual other than U.S. Person 1 sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization. Further, in papers seized by the FBI, Butina complained about living with U.S. Person 1 and expressed disdain for continuing to cohabitate with U.S. Person 1.”

Yikes. Erickson’s continued freedom may depend on him playing the role of a deceived and spurned lover rather than a collaborator of a foreign spy.

But in a story that now includes espionage, guns, sex, and conservative politics, there’s no telling what else is on tap.

Russian Spy Suspect Tied to Christian Right and Gun Groups