WASHINGTON (Circa) -- Most foreign agents prefer to keep a low profile, but for Maria Butina, a very public persona was the key to her success working on behalf of the Russian government.
Before her arrest on Sunday, Butina was known as a Russian gun rights activist. She reportedly attended several political conferences and mingled with high-level political operatives in D.C., all under the guise of a shared desire to promote the right to bear arms. But according to court documents, Butina's true intention was much more nefarious.
"The FBI's investigation has further revealed that Butina and the Russian Official took steps to develop relationships with American politicians in order to establish private, or as she called them, 'back channel' lines of communication," said a court affidavit submitted by FBI Special Agent Kevin Helson. "These lines could be used by the Russian Federation to penetrate the U.S. national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation."
Butina saw an unnamed "gun rights organization" as her segway into the U.S. political scene, according to the affidavit. While attending FreedomFest 2015 in Las Vegas, Butina had a chance encounter with the man who would eventually be president.
"If you will be elected as a president what will be your foreign politics, especially in relationships to my country?" Butina asked Trump during a speech. "And do you want to continue the [policy] of sanctions that the original policy that are damaging of both country, or you have any other ideas?"
Trump responded noting "Obama gets along with nobody and that 'the whole world hates us.'"
"I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin, okay?" Trump said.
The operation was years in the making, according to the Department of Justice. Court documents show Butina first made contact with an unnamed political operative referred to in court documents as "U.S. Person 1" in March 2015. She proposed a "project," in which she suggested should a certain unnamed political party win the 2016 election, there may be an opportunity to "build constructive relations." Butina specifically noted that her relationship with the unnamed gun rights organization and her relationship with an unnamed, high-ranking Russian official, for whom she once worked for as a special assistant, could be used to great effect in this cause. Butina requested a budget of $125,000 in order to participate in major political conferences.
"[T]here is NO limit to how many American companies that you can meet -- at the highest levels -- if you are able to represent that you are a potential line of communication into future Russian Federation governments," wrote the U.S. person in late March 2015.
Note: both U.S. Person 1, the gun rights organization, and the Russian Official remain anonymous in the court filings, however, other publications have speculated on who they may be. Circa could not independently confirm their identities.
Butina eventually made her way to Washington, D.C. via American University on an F-1 student visa in August 2016, according to the criminal complaint. She appeared to hit the ground running as soon as she entered the country.
"Butina's efforts in the United States to promote the political interests of the Russian Federation were diverse and multifaceted," said the affidavit. This included so-called "friendship and dialogue" dinners and attendance at two National Prayer Breakfasts. Throughout this time period, the Russian official continued to direct Buvina's operation.
"By your recommendation, I am setting up the groundwork here but I am really in need of mentoring," said Buvina in a Twitter direct message to the Russian Official. "Or the energy might... [go] towards the wrong direction."
This "groundwork" eventually led to meetings with several high-profile political figures, and continued until February 2017, according to court documents. Butina is being charged with conspiracy, and could face up to five years in prison if convicted, according to the Department of Justice.